On a Saturday afternoon in April, The Rev. Kerri Parker learned of a pharmacy with a batch of extra COVID-19 vaccines. The doses needed to be used quickly or they would go to waste.
Parker, the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, contacted a colleague, the Rev. Breanna Illéné. Illéné is pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison.
Illéné spoke with other leaders in her parish, and they agreed to host a pop-up vaccine clinic at the church the next morning — the first Sunday after Easter.
“We have actually been empty for the last year,” Illéné says. She and the worship team hold services each Sunday morning, but the pews are empty as they record while broadcasting on Facebook Live and YouTube.
They got an announcement out to the public late Saturday afternoon, and the next morning, hundreds of people lined up to get a vaccine.
“So, I was upstairs with my worship team, live streaming,” she says. “And then, downstairs, they were putting shots in arms.” In her welcoming remarks that morning, she ad-libbed to her online congregation something like, “if you need a shot, I need you to close your computer right now. Your act of worship is coming down to church and getting a COVID vaccine.”
Although it was an impromptu event, the clinic landed squarely in the middle of a new mission that Parker and the Wisconsin Council of Churches (WCC) has taken on: working through a network of faith communities to ensure more people in Wisconsin are able to get vaccinated for the coronavirus.
The council’s COVID Vaccine Community Outreach, says Parker, is an extension of the COVID-related ministry through which the council has supported Wisconsin churches, including the 21 member denominations, primarily mainline Protestant traditions, since the start of the pandemic.
A large part of that ministry has focused on encouraging churches to worship virtually in order to keep churchgoers safe, as well as advocating for strong public health protections to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Trusted vaccine messengers
The WCC is one of 100 community-based organizations that the state Department of Health Services (DHS) has enlisted to help ensure broader awareness of and access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly for communities that have historically been on the short end when it comes to getting the health care they need. The DHS project has awarded $6.2 million in grants to secular as well as faith-based groups. The WCC project’s grant is for $99,975.
“Getting trusted messengers from across Wisconsin is very important” to helping more people be receptive to vaccination, said DHS Deputy Director Julie Willems Van Dijk in a Milwaukee Press Club question-and-answer session with reporters in March. Pastors and faith leaders are among those trusted messengers.
In joining the effort to promote the COVID vaccine, “we have two core goals,” Parker says. “One of them is [to ensure] that faith communities will maintain COVID-safe practices. Another is that we remove barriers to vaccination, resulting in vaccination appointments and people become fully vaccinated.”
Much of the council’s work involves networking with local pastors and congregations as well as regional or statewide church bodies. It has also joined with several other organizations, particularly those that serve marginalized communities. Just Dane, a member of the WCC, is one such organization, made up of formerly incarcerated people and working on their behalf. Another is the African American Council of Churches of Madison. A third is a network of Hispanic Methodist pastors.
Parker says much of what the council’s program does is provide information and education.
For a congregation with a busy food pantry, for instance, the council might provide informational flyers that will go into the bags of groceries that they distribute, explaining why and how to get a vaccine.
If a church has a well-organized telephone tree that mobilizes members who throw together meals for a funeral, Parker adds, the council’s project might help the organizers “leverage that phone chain to contact the members of their congregation to find out — does auntie or uncle or grandma have a vaccination appointment? What’s stopping them? Can we help them?”
And for some churches, it might mean hosting a vaccine clinic.
Trinity United Methodist’s pop-up clinic was a moving, spiritual moment for Illéné.
“It was really powerful to have that many people walking through the basement and filling this building that should be used for ministry,” the pastor says, especially since regular worship in person still isn’t safe in the pandemic. “So to be able to open it up in a way that can actually help the community was super amazing.”
The pandemic has been woven into the fabric of her church, literally. While the building isn’t in use, Trinity’s congregation has been creating a ribbon memorial for Wisconsin residents who have died from COVID-19. And hosting the vaccine clinic went right along with that.
“That’s what Jesus calls us to,” Illéné says, “this idea of, how can we help people who are hurting, who are hungry, help build community — and in this case, help end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
‘Building block of organizing’
In Milwaukee, Eyon Biddle, a long-time community activist, is leading the WCC’s vaccine outreach efforts, especially in the Black community and other marginalized communities who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“The church has always been a building block of organizing for the Black community,” Biddle says. “So when you talk about mutual aid, when you talk about economic empowerment, you talk about food pantries, and clothing drives and prayer lines when people get sick — the church has always been an organizing conduit for people, whether it’s the people of that congregation, or the community around it.”
The Rev. Dan Schultz, a United Church of Christ pastor, is the vaccine outreach program director. In addition to working with other pastors, churches and denominational leaders, he takes part in a group, made up primarily of public health practitioners, that seeks to address rural vaccine accessibility. DHS officials have included rural parts of the state among the underserved areas that they want to ensure that the vaccine reaches.
Fewer places to get a shot, longer distances to travel — a particular challenge for someone who is elderly and less mobile — and a lack of trust in the local health care system all can pose obstacles to vaccination in such parts of the state, says Schultz.
“I’m hearing there’s really two kinds of roles that churches out in those areas can play,” he says. “One would be to host the site themselves. And the other, perhaps even more important, would be to provide transportation to people to a vaccination site.”
Some churches have embraced vaccination, and their members have followed through in getting shots. For them, the focus of the WCC project becomes helping them spread the good news of the vaccine to the broader community where they are based, says Schultz.
Others may report vaccine hesitancy among some in their congregations for any number of reasons. Those pastors, says Parker, “want to be equipped to be effective in assisting people with their struggles. Because that’s what a good pastor does.”
Communication and empathy
To help local church leaders and volunteers, part of the WCC’s project work focuses on teaching effective communication.
“We’re in the process of creating a training for empathetic listening,” says Schultz. “Hearing people’s concerns or fears, anxieties, the kinds of things that make them reluctant to get vaccinated — can we move people past that, without strong-arming them?”
If people are apprehensive about immunization, “you can talk until you’re blue in the face about medical necessity and this is good for the community, and it just kind of goes in one ear and out the other,” he says. It’s more effective “to provide them with positive emotions to overcome the negative emotions that they have around vaccination.”
Someone who speaks with personal comfort about the vaccine while also showing understanding for the reluctant recipient’s concerns will probably be more successful in helping the individual than trying to “pull out a sheet of statistics and [say] ‘See, it’s perfectly safe, according to the medical community,’” Schultz adds. “A relational approach seems to work better than a factual, rational approach.”
The least effective strategy? Trying to guilt the reluctant person into getting the vaccine. “Shaming does not work,” Schulz says. “It just makes people dig in their heels.”
Reluctant people might include some African Americans who are familiar with historical racism and abuses by the medical community, including the experiment that left Black people with syphilis untreated in the infamous Tuskegee study.
“Black communities have a healthy and well deserved mistrust of society in this country, in terms of equity, in terms of racism, in terms of white supremacy, in terms of oppression,” says Biddle. “So there are people who are skeptical, and rightfully so — and they’re waiting to see. They’re trying to make informed decisions.”
The reluctant include immigrants made wary after hearing of a drugstore vaccine clinic where employees demanded identification — even though state officials have assured the public that no ID is required for a free COVID-19 vaccine. “If you are an undocumented migrant, that’s a legitimate concern,” Schultz observes.
In those contexts, Schultz says, churches can, and do, play an important role in helping circulate more accurate information and messages in the communities they serve.
When virus and vaccine are politicized
While churches and other faith groups are helping to encourage the COVID-19 vaccine along with health and safety measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, their role has sometimes been overshadowed by some church leaders who have campaigned against vaccination or even denied the impact of the virus itself.
Schultz says those accounts may get outsized attention because they are unusual or sensational. Where they arise, he says, they reflect a politicization of the virus, the vaccine and, in some communities, the church and its leaders.
“For them, being encouraged to get vaccinated … is sort of against their politics,” says Schultz. “It also comes across to them as saying that they’re wrong, so it’s sort of a threat to their way of life.”
Still, those are the exceptions, Parker says.
“There are pastors and priests and ministers in Wisconsin, who have theological and ethical objection to vaccination,” she says. But, she adds, “Most pastors we are in contact with encourage their parishioners to seek a vaccination if it is not something that is medically inadvisable to them — encouraging them to do so prayerfully and with gratitude for the science and skill that have brought this gift to us.”
Schultz hopes to see religious people who support vaccination become as outspoken as any critic.
“I think it’s important for people of faith to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I got vaccinated, here’s why. And this is how this connects to my faith,’” he says. “That kind of personal example is really powerful.”
For some, the message that vaccination is akin to loving one’s neighbor and community helps connect the act with their faith. But others, the pastor notes, are most moved by the idea that the shot is a form of Divine providence.
Schultz alludes to a classic sermon joke to explain.
“If they are hesitant and they’re saying, ‘Well, you know, God will take care of me, God will give me good health,’ it’s really important to say, ‘Well you know how God sends the helicopter to get you out of the floodwaters? This is the same kind of thing.’”