In the hospital with covid-19 in December, Lavina Wafer tired of the tubes in her nose and wondered impatiently why she couldn’t be discharged. A phone call with her pastor helped her understand that the tube was piping in lifesaving oxygen, which had to be slowly tapered to protect her.
Now that Wafer, 70, is well and back home in Richmond, California, she’s looking to her pastor for advice about the covid vaccines. Though she doubts they’re as wonderful as the government claims, she plans to get vaccinated anyway — because of his example.
“He said he’s not going to push us to take it. It’s our choice,” Wafer said, referring to a recent online sermon that praised the vaccines as God-given science with the power to save. “But he wanted us to know he’s going to take it as soon as he can.”
Helping people accept the covid vaccines is a public health goal, but it’s also a spiritual one, said Henry Washington, the 53-year-old pastor of The Garden of Peace Ministries, which Wafer attends.
Clergy must ensure that people “understand they have an active part in their own salvation, and the salvation of others,” said Washington. “I have tried to suggest that taking the vaccine, social distancing and protecting themselves in their household is something that God requires us to do as good stewards.”
Many Black Americans look to their religious leaders for guidance on a wide range of issues — not just spiritual ones. Their credibility is especially crucial on matters of health, as the medical establishment works to overcome a legacy of experimentation and bias that makes some Black people distrustful of public health messages.
Now that the vaccines are being distributed, public health advocates say churches are key to reaching Black citizens, especially older generations more vulnerable to severe covid disease. They have been hospitalized for covid and died at a disproportionate rate throughout the pandemic, and initial data on who is getting covid shots shows that Black people lag far behind other racial groups.
Black churches have also suffered during the pandemic. African American pastors were most likely to say they had had to delete positions or cut staff pay or benefits to survive, and 60% said their congregations hadn’t gathered in person the previous month, as opposed to 9% of white pastors, according to a survey published in October by Lifeway Research, which specializes in data on Christian groups.
Washington’s 75-member church is in Richmond, which has the highest number of covid deaths in Contra Costa County, outside of deaths in long-term care facilities. The very diverse city, across the bay from San Francisco, also has one of the lowest rates of vaccination.
Offerings to Washington’s church plunged 50% in 2020 due to job loss among congregants, but he’s weathered the pandemic with a small-business loan and a second job as a general contractor remodeling bathrooms and kitchens.
To combat misinformation, he’s been meeting virtually with about 30 other Black pastors once a month in calls organized by the One Accord Project, a nonprofit that organizes Black churches in the San Francisco Bay Area around nonpartisan issues like voter registration and low-income housing. Throughout the pandemic, the calls have focused on connecting pastors with public health officials and epidemiologists to make sure they have the most up-to-date information to pass on to their members, said founder Sabrina Saunders.
The African American church is an anchor for the community, Saunders said. “People get a lot of emotional support, people get resources, and their pastor isn’t just looked upon as a spiritual leader, but something more.”