WASHINGTON (RNS) — As a volunteer rolled the Rev. Mary Lewis Wilson across the life center in the basement of Union Temple Baptist Church, a buzz of excitement filled the room.
Even with her face partially obscured by a mask, Wilson radiated delight as she sat in her wheelchair. She shouted effusive greetings to people she recognized, and revealed it was her first in-person visit to the church in a year — or since the pandemic began.
“I’m not going to cry,” she insisted, sparking laughter among the small, masked and socially distanced crowd.
She was also emotional for another reason: Wilson — the mother of the Rev. Anika Wilson Brown, the church’s pastor — had traveled to the church to get her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
When medical staff finished administering the shot a few moments later, Wilson, who made clear she was smiling beneath her mask, pumped her fist in triumph.
She shouted: “I got it!”
The room erupted in muffled cheers.
It was a joyous scene organizers said would repeat throughout the day on Thursday (March 18) at Union Temple, where Wilson was one of roughly 100 people scheduled to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. The effort is part of Washington’s “Faith in the Vaccine” initiative, which partners with Black churches and other faith communities to vaccinate residents who have yet to receive inoculation against the virus that has claimed more than 530,000 American lives.
The Rev. Charles W. McNeill Jr., president of the Missionary Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Washington, D.C. & Vicinity, said churches that serve as vaccination or testing sites are crucial in Black communities.
“If we bring those efforts to the church, then the people within our community and the people that we pastor will have more confidence and more assurance of taking the vaccine as well as getting tested,” said McNeill, whose Unity Baptist Church in the district started as a testing site on Tuesday.
According to a D.C. Department of Health spokesperson, the “Faith in the Vaccine” initiative has operated since February as a collaboration between the city, the Leadership Council for Healthy Communities and local churches. It is separate from Washington’s existing vaccine sign-up system: Partner churches in targeted wards work with LCHC to contact churchgoers and members of the surrounding community, announcing upcoming vaccination days during Sunday service broadcasts and calling member rolls to help set up appointments.
The spokesperson said the effort often targets people over 65: While some are tech-savvy, others are less comfortable with computer-heavy registration systems.
“By doing that outreach, you’re able to help sign people up and register them for the appointment,” the spokesperson said. “You have that reassurance because you’re getting a call from somebody you know at a church that you attend. … They still have that one-on-one connection.”
Participating churches are also encouraged to designate 10 “credible messengers” — usually pastors and other local leaders such as Wilson — who can be vaccinated in public. The number isn’t arbitrary: Moderna vials contain 10 doses each. If an extra 11th dose is extracted from the vial, as is sometimes the case when using particular equipment, it’s given to someone else waiting for a vaccine.
Setup varies depending on the church. At Union Temple, only credible messengers were vaccinated in the life center. Otherwise, the space serves as an observation room for people who had already been vaccinated outside, where a line of cars appeared earlier that morning. Once people finished their observation period in the room, where dozens of chairs sat spaced 6 feet apart, volunteers helped them schedule an appointment for a second shot.
Over the D.C. line in Prince George’s County, First Baptist Church of Glenarden opened its family life center as a vaccination site on Tuesday, launching by giving shots to local pastors along with volunteers who will serve at the clinic.
“We want to help get the vaccinations done in the African American community because COVID has impacted our community significantly,” said Pastor John K. Jenkins Sr. of the predominantly Black megachurch whose center in Upper Marlboro has 63,000 square feet of space that has lain dormant during the pandemic. “We’re seeking a way to help to change that trend and to try to help our community be safe and healthy.”
African Americans have been hospitalized for COVID-19 at 2.9 times and died at 1.9 times the rates of white Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The Kaiser Family Foundation found, as of March 15, that Black people had received 31% of D.C.’s COVID-19 vaccinations though they comprise 46% of the population. In Maryland, African Americans had received 21% of the state’s vaccinations while making up 30% of its population.
Initially the Maryland location will be open two days a week but the goal is to eventually be open more frequently and to vaccinate 1,000 people a day with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, said Jenkins. The church is partnering with the University of Maryland Capital Region Health, of which he is a board member.
The offering of vaccines at First Baptist Glenarden solely to residents of the predominantly Black county addresses what Jenkins called “a very serious problem.” A state-run facility at the Six Flags America amusement park — a short drive from the church — has primarily provided vaccines to people who live outside the county.
McNeill, who also is the faith community liaison for Prince George’s County, Maryland, said the county has begun working with churches such as Jenkins’ to serve residents of the county, whose executive joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at the launch in Upper Marlboro.
The D.C. health department spokesperson said between the five city churches that have participated in its program thus far, more than 1,400 Washington residents have been vaccinated.
“We’ve seen several people come out and sign up for this initiative because of it being located at the church — an institution they know, trust and for a lot of people one they can easily get to because of the locality,” the spokesperson said.
The city is looking at other potential religious partners, but they’re not exactly short on options. Officials have been overwhelmed by faith communities that have reached out to the city or the mayor’s religious affairs office to offer their services.
Jenkins and McNeill said that as they work to increase access to the vaccines, they continue to counter some who are hesitant about taking them. They have asked medical experts to join conference calls or online Bible study gatherings to continue to answer their members’ questions.
Jenkins said he sees a “small percentage” of people who are hesitant and hopes those experts can help reduce anxiety.
“I have in our church 200-plus employees and not all of them are thrilled to take it,” he said. “So we’re trying to combat that mentality.”
McNeill said he’s witnessed a greater acceptance of COVID-19 vaccination as the vaccine sites expand and education and testing continue.
“As people become more comfortable with it, people are beginning to request the vaccine,” McNeill said, noticing a change from a couple of months ago. “Even my members are saying, ‘Pastor, where can I get a shot?’”