Black ministers are working to bridge worship and service to address COVID-19 disparities in their communities

Church covid vaccines
Bible-Based Fellowship Church partnered with the Pasco County Health Department, and Army National Guard to assist residents who are 65 and older to administer the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine on February 13, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images
  • Black clergy are working to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their communities.
  • Some are hosting vaccination clinics at their churches to help expand access.
  • So far, only 7% of those who have been vaccinated are Black, compared to 65% who are white.
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Black clergy members across the US are filling in the gap of COVID-19 care by hosting testing and vaccination clinics.

Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with adults more than twice as likely to die from the virus. However, clergy members have said there are still limited resources in the communities that need them most.

In an effort to address the disparity, the Revs. Al Sharpton and Calvin Butts have been working with the United Way of New York City on the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan, which was launched in New York City, Newark, New Jersey, Detroit, Michigan, Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington DC.

The initiative is aimed at working with churches and religious leaders to help address the COVID-19 disparity as well as other health inequalities, with many churches acting as COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites.

Black clergy members told Insider what it means for the Black church to play a role in the effort.

“The Black church has always been the most prominent institution in the African-American community, where a large assembly of people have gathered. For years and years and years it has been the primary institution that is located directly in the community that represents an asset that is owned by people of color,” Rev. Dr. David Jefferson, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, said.

Sheena Wright, CEO of United Way of New York City, explained that for many in the Black community, the church is more than just a place of worship. “During COVID and certainly beyond COVID, the Black church is the place that people go to get help,” Wright said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, clergy like the Rev. Horace Sheffield of Detroit’s New Destiny Christian Fellowship fought for more accessible testing in their communities.

After contracting the coronavirus himself and finding it difficult to access a test last March, Sheffield started the first
community testing site. He said the site offered free testing for people who normally might not have a primary care doctor to write them a prescription, or even transportation to get to testing sites further away.

Now, many churches are working to obtain vaccines to administer in their communities.

As of March 1, only about 7% of those who received at least one dose of the vaccine were Black, compared to the more than 65% who were white, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rev. Dr. David Jefferson, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark told Insider at the end of February he expects a shipment of vaccines so they can start inoculating residents there. Jefferson said there’s been a lot of communication and work to get people in the Black community confident about getting a vaccine, especially since they are significantly impacted by the virus.

Jefferson said there were already 1,000 people registered to get the vaccine before they had supplies and they anticipate vaccinating between 200 to 250 people a day. Vaccinations will take place three days a week, on the same days the church also hosts testing.

Both Jefferson and Sheffield cited a lack of adequate access to the healthcare system, but also years of mistrust, due in part to the medical malpractice that was the infamous Tuskegee experiment of 1932 to 1972. It’s for those reasons that they’ve taken up the mantle of vaccine advocacy for the Black community.

The Tuskegee experiment recruited over 600 Black men under the guise of providing free medical care, but was instead used to study the long-term effects of syphilis, a debilitating and potentially deadly disease which, at that point, had no cure. The people conducting that study were not forthcoming about the true purpose of the experiment.

Wright said many in the Black community were distrustful of the speed with which the vaccine was developed, and also generally wary of President Donald Trump’s administration. She emphasized how important it was for those in the community to see Black leaders getting vaccinated.

Jefferson said the examples that church leaders set has helped those in the community develop trust, but he said they must also understand the science behind the vaccine.

“This is not just saying: ‘Hey, blind faith, trust us’, but it’s scientific. And I think that’s helping a lot,” he said.

He said the program has navigators whose main role is to “create, develop, and provide information into the broader community that will educate people so that they know the research.”

“I mean, everybody’s not going to do the research,” Jefferson said.

Sheffield said more work is needed to address the inequities that allowed Black people to initially be so disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

He said he’s not convinced the issues and disparities widely discussed as a result of COVID-19 will be entirely addressed once the pandemic is over, but he’s hopeful Black people could start to make changes that are within their personal capacity.

“I believe that when we embrace choosing life and make a decision that we’re going to make the best of the life we’ve been given, become better stewards, we’re in a much better position to fight those systematic, structural things that contribute or exacerbate the bad choices,” Sheffield said.