(RNS) — About 77 million Americans have had at least one shot of the vaccines against COVID-19, including Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose version. But nearly a quarter of Americans still say they have no intention of receiving the vaccine or are unsure.
It’s well-known 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 traditions’ views on public health and vaccination, and this vaccination effort. You can find the entire series here.
Schonfeld talked recently with Pastor Clarence C. Moore, senior pastor of the New Era Church in Indianapolis. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me a little bit about how COVID-19 is affecting the people in your life.
The crisis is still very large here in Indianapolis. Our biggest task right now is trying to get all of our citizens to take advantage of the vaccine. So we’ve been on a journey with my church, trying to convince our members to, in the words of the very popular Broadway play (“Hamilton”), “don’t throw away your shot.” My medical personnel at my church are spending a lot of time on the phone with our members, trying to get them to first understand they have some trepidation even as medical professionals and they overcame that trepidation by doing their research.
I’ve had many members let me know as a result of our conversations they are now wanting to take advantage of the vaccine, but too many are still hesitant.
“Don’t throw away your shot” is a brilliant way of putting it. “Hamilton” is a play about people organizing themselves in tumultuous times. Do any stories over the past year stay with you?
COVID-19 pandemic not only shut us down, so we weren’t able to gather in fellowship together for the last 12 months, but during this time we lost precious members. We lost my prayer minister, 38 years old, a wonderful husband, an incredible father. He and his wife had adopted three children and they had adopted children who were in a very difficult environment. That has been so heartbreaking to me and to our congregation. Two weeks after that, my mentor, 95 years old, healthy mind, who had caught it from a nursing aide, was gone. So within a 30-day period, I lost two wonderful, godly men.
What is your church doing to help the people who lost a loved one?
We have teams that are in touch with these members, especially the young widow with three children. Because of the virus, her own parents couldn’t come to the rescue. We are trying to minister to her through Zoom. She’s always getting stuff on the doorstep from members of our church, which is such a blessing. We’re now trying to connect her and other families with FEMA assistance, and help them access the funds, to help offset the costs of burying their loved ones.
This is one of the great untold stories of the pandemic — how crucial houses of worship are during this time. What can you share about how to get started educating people about what’s available in terms of aid and vaccines, and what do you find is working the best?
One of the missions of the church at this point is to be in prayer, purposefully supporting those on the front lines of this virus. And especially the men and nurses and doctors we come in contact with, The emotional toll really adds up and it comes to the place of mental anxiety. So we’re trying to make sure they have some accessibility to mental health.
The second thing we’re doing is to make sure to get all the resources available for single mothers who are trying to hold down jobs. We’re putting funds out to assist these families in some of the financial difficulties they’re having, which helps a whole lot. We have mental health professionals in our church doing mental health sessions online with those that are tuning in.
What more can you say about getting people their shot?
I’m very personally involved. The mayor’s office called, wanting to take a shot with me, but the mayor was too slow. I had to get my shot as soon as I could. When he called I had already gotten my shot! But that just tells you the influence New Era Church has in the community, as it relates to COVID-19.
I am concerned about the availability, the accessibility and then the acceptability of this vaccine. The availability may not quite be there yet, but I’m concerned about how people get to it when it is. The third topic is the acceptability — that people will accept and get in line for the vaccine. So those are the three things we are watching here. I’m making sure all three of those steps are moving in the right direction.
If you were constructing the plan for accessibility, what would be your plan?
I would set up stations east, west, north and south in the African American community and the Latinx communities, in churches and in those medical centers that are closer to the people. I believe people will walk around the corner to a local church to take a shot. I would move the volume closer to the people.
The other thing I would do is I would push in most of the African American communities, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because it’s one shot, and the efficacy of that shot still keeps people out of the hospital, keeps them from severe illness. Because of all the other barriers and inequities our community faces, trying to get them back for a second shot might be a challenge. But if I can get one shot, that’s going to be efficacious.
Going forward, how do we deal with what we’ve lost, what the families of more than 500,000 Americans have lost? Why did it happen like this?
I’m hoping this pandemic has awakened people to the fragility of human life. We do need to spend our time loving one another, because our time is short and life is so uncertain. For those trying to grapple with “If we could have just gotten that shot in the arm earlier” — that is a real struggle for them.
As people of faith we try to look ahead, to a sense of purpose. Sometimes we only know God’s purpose by kind of stepping out, stepping forward and making that purpose. Making what we do purposeful. How can we work together to give meaning to what we’ve been through?
I hope we realize leadership matters. Whether it’s church leadership, whether it’s where you work, whether it’s in government, leadership matters. I pray and hope we pick leaders in the future who are selfless. When I look at the culture as a whole, we are becoming so selfish. I’m hoping we can find ways to get in proximity with people who are not like us, who may not look like us, who may not believe like us, but find ways to find some common humanity. I think proximity is one of the reasons we’re so polarized is that we just don’t spend time getting in other people’s shoes.
As you think about this pandemic and how it has disproportionately affected the African American community and the Latinx community. I’m hoping we can find ways to come together across religious lines, gender lines, political lines, and find ways to make this the beloved community Dr. Martin Luther King talked about.
Watch the entire interview with Moore here.