WASHINGTON (RNS)—Shirley Hill is used to needles. A diabetic, she pricks herself twice a day with an insulin pen. Still, she was a little nervous when she rolled up her sleeve for the Moderna vaccine in mid-February.
Seconds later, the 75-year-old pronounced herself relieved.
“It wasn’t as bad as me sticking my arm,” she said.
Hill, her sister and a friend were among the first in line in the dining hall of Temple of Praise Church of Deliverance, a predominantly Black church, on a bright but chilly day in rural Kenly, N.C.
Health care systems partner with faith community
Across the state, nearly every major health care system has partnered with Black and Hispanic houses of worship to expand vaccine access, setting up mobile clinics in their parking lots and fellowship halls.
“Local church leaders are a trusted and important source of health information for Black and Latinx folks,” said Eleanor Wertman, community health program manager for UNC Health Alliance. “That prompted us to reach out to the churches.”
The same premise is driving cooperation between houses of worship and medical officials across the country at the local, regional and national levels.
In Houston, Deacon Michael Smith of Holman Street Baptist Church said his congregation is providing masks and gloves each weekend from its church parking lot in the Third Ward, a predominantly Black area that is also home to a new university medical school.
The church, whose longtime pastor died of COVID-19 in May, is gearing up for its 42,000-square-foot building to be a vaccination site.
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“We want to be the preferred faith-based entity to provide that because we have the facilities to accommodate that,” Smith said of the church.
Working with varied faith traditions
ADAMS Compassionate Healthcare Network, a clinic run by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, working with Fairfax County, Va., and Virginia Commonwealth University’s pharmacy school, recently vaccinated 118 seniors from the nearby community.
“The plan is to vaccinate individuals every Saturday,” said Hurunnessa Fariad, head of outreach for the ADAMS Center, about the mosque’s health clinic. “Although now only those Fairfax county residents over the age of 65 can get the vaccine at the clinic, in time, we are hoping to expand to other groups as well.”
A week before, dozens of faith and medical leaders gathered online for the first meeting of the Interreligious Collaboration for COVID-19 Response and Recovery, which is aiming to boost acceptance and equitable distribution of vaccines.
The effort began when Mohamed Elsanousi, executive director of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and former director of interfaith relations for the Islamic Society of North America, reached out to Sojourners founder Jim Wallis and other faith leaders who had organized a COVID-19-related National Day of Mourning and Lament on June 1.
The faith leaders’ call focused on the nitty-gritty of how houses of worship can service as vaccination sites—including what to do about parking and bathrooms.
Collaborating to fight COVID
In an interview with RNS, leaders of the newly reestablished White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships said they will seek to enhance existing collaborations between government and faith and community organizations to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A really wonderful facet of this work is the multifaith cooperation that we’re seeing already,” said Melissa Rogers, the office’s executive director. “We’re seeing houses of worship of all kinds—churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, temples—coming together in many cases to say to state and local authorities: ‘We would like to serve as vaccinations centers if we can be helpful there. We would like to partner with you more closely to make sure that we get shots in arms.’”
“We know they’re key partners when it comes to things like mobilizing to address the collateral impact of COVID-19 on the economic, housing, education fronts and so many other pieces at the community level,” said Josh Dickson, deputy director of the office.
In Chicago, a new partnership called the Alliance of Faith Based Schools has developed among Catholic, Jewish and Lutheran leaders and public health officials to provide vaccinations to more than 6,300 employees of their schools.
“We created this alliance from our common commitment to the health and safety of our educators and their students,” said Justin Lombardo, chief human resources officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago, in a Tuesday announcement. “We were able to come together to protect the health of our teachers and school staffs who have been coming into the schools and working hard during this pandemic.”
Other congregations stand ready to become vaccination sites when opportunities open up in their communities.
In late January, North Carolina’s Council of Churches sent out a survey to its member churches asking if they would be willing to get involved in some way on vaccine information and/or distribution. Two hundred churches across the state enthusiastically responded, the majority saying yes.
Back at the Temple of Praise in Kenly, where Shirley Hill got her shot, Pastor James Neal said he immediately agreed to open his church to a three-day clinic.
“This is the only way we’re going to get a grip on this pandemic—everybody doing their part,” he said. “We can fight together a lot better than separate.”
UNC Health will return to the church for another three-day clinic to give people their second dose.