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Faith and the COVID-19 vaccine: ‘Using the Black church to get the word out’

The Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem talks about how Black communities are overcoming distrust of the medical community.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and the Rev. Jacques DeGraff. Courtesy photos

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, left, and the Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff. Courtesy photos

(RNS) — Millions have already received the COVID-19 vaccination, and President Joe Biden has promised 100 million vaccinations in his administration’s first 100 days. Already, however, fears that some Americans would resist taking the shot, lowering its effectiveness, are coming true. In early January, some 50% of front-line workers in Los Angeles were refusing the vaccine. In Ohio, 60% of nursing home staffers declined when offered a dose.

It’s well known that faith leaders can change minds about public health measures. “Congregants are more likely to trust not only their leaders but also those who share their faith, particularly people from their own tradition,” wrote Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Baylor University researcher, in a Religion News Service op-ed last year.

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the former CEO of the Conservative Jewish movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and now a master’s candidate at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health, is interviewing a series of faith leaders about their tradition’s views on public health and vaccination, and this vaccination effort.

Last week we interviewed Imam Mohamed Magid, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America. 

We continue our series with the Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff, associate pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, a predominantly African American congregation in New York City, and chair of the Friends of Harlem Hospital. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. View the entire interview here.

You’ve been a leader already on health matters. A recent national initiative you’ve launched is Choose Healthy Life.

It’s a partnership between Quest Diagnostics and the United Way, governed by the Choose Healthy Life organization. It’s being rolled out in five cities — Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, Washington and New York — each with a local clergy chair. In Atlanta, our chair just got elected to the U.S. Senate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, and we’re delighted. Each city will have 10 churches, each with a full-time professional health navigator to lead us in testing and tracing and empowering our communities.

It’s my privilege to serve as the chair In New York, where we are using the Black church as a platform to get the word out and to motivate, and advocate on behalf of, our community.

The Black church has been a champion on behalf of our community going back to the struggle for civil rights, the fights against drug addiction and the crack epidemic, teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. The pandemic is occurring, too, when there’s racial justice unrest and issues dominating the headlines, economic uncertainty, food deprivation, so the church has to take its rightful place to preach our gospel. 

You’re the social justice pastor at Canaan Baptist, and you’re perhaps more aware of the issues of why the Black community may be reluctant to take the vaccine.

Well, some people point to the Tuskegee experiment, where Black men were intentionally injected with syphilis and then monitored over years. But our predicament in America today speaks to health disparities in diabetes, hypertension, cardiac issues. Black women have a higher maternal mortality rate than any other group in the country. At hospitals, the doctors don’t treat us the way they treat other people. And so our relationship to the health care industry, the health care system is different than other communities.

When this crisis hit, that history was prevalent in our thinking. We needed bridge builders to get our folk. We met recently with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who mentioned Kizzmekia Corbett, an NIH researcher whose work is instrumental in the development of the vaccine. That’s important because Black folk need to know that there’s some folk who were in the room who look like us. There are now many in the scientific and medical community who are saying, “It’s going to be all right.”

What is the advice that you would give clergy?

One of the unspoken dimensions of this crisis is that we haven’t been able to have the rituals of bereavement that help us get through these moments. It expands the grief because we haven’t had that release. People didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

So we as clergy have to be comforters in this hour in an age when people are cynical about a lot of their institutions. There’s an epidemic of mental health, and other issues that are now beginning to manifest. We see it in gun violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, and all of these things are tearing at the fabric of our faith. And so we have to double down as clergy.

We also have to ask who comforts the healers. So many clergy are not really good at self-care. We need to be mindful of how we take care of ourselves so that we can serve others.

Another group that is struggling are health care workers. What spiritual counsel do you offer them? 

Being the child of a nurse, I know what it’s like when people do a double shift, or when somebody at home doesn’t have their mother at Christmas dinner. At Harlem Hospital, we supported the creation of an Oasis Center in the hospital, where staff could go just to get a break, a room of quiet and serenity where they can listen to the sound of a babbling brook and breathe eucalyptus or hear soothing music. Two weeks ago I got word that a member of the church had COVID. I’ve been in hospitals many, many times, but I had to put on a mask, put on a hairnet, gloves, the whole PPE. 

Then I went into the room and as soon as I saw our church member, I realized it would probably be the last time I’d see him. As I was offering my prayer and my humanity, holding his hand, I realized that health care professionals are in this all the time, risking everything so that we might be well.

It made me redouble our efforts to practice and preach on social distancing. The whole notion that we’re in this together has to be coming from the pulpits. We need to say that it doesn’t matter what public policy or the law says, it’s the right thing because otherwise we make their sacrifice meaningless. We wear a seat belt, buckle up seat belts. Motorcyclists put on a helmet. Everyone, put on that mask, protect yourself, protect your brothers and sisters.

That is the message: We all share health. What else can we all be doing that you want to make sure we know?

Stay connected. Somebody just needs you to call and say, I was thinking about you. Somebody needs you to say, I’d like to do shopping for you. We need to go the extra mile for each other. And pray.

The late Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, my mentor at Canaan Baptist Church who had been Martin Luther King’s chief of staff, talked about “anyhow faith” — entering into situations where you don’t know what the outcome is going to be and giving each your best anyhow. Even when we don’t know when or how the win will come, we have to remain convicted that the best is yet to come.

View the entire interview here.