These church leaders say they believe it’s their calling to help spread the word about the importance of getting vaccinated and working together in communities to beat COVID-19.

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While some evangelical leaders have grabbed headlines spreading messages discouraging people from getting vaccinated, pastors like Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson (above) have been working hard to educate their followers about the need to get the vaccine and protect their community from the coronavirus. Photography courtesy of Grace Baptist Church

On May 22, parishioners and members of the greater All Saints Episcopal Church community in Lakewood, New Jersey, arrived at nearby La Casa De La Tia Restaurant for one of the 14 “Grateful for the Shot” COVID-19 vaccination drives held throughout the Garden State.

The goal of these events — an official initiative out of Gov. Phil Murphy’s office — was to get more people vaccinated, dispelling myths, and promoting the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines.

Rev. Juan Angel Monge-Santiago, who has served as the church’s priest for the past 6 years, told Healthline it was important that All Saints Episcopal Church was front and center sponsoring the vaccination drive.

For Monge-Santiago, promoting the vaccines is not only about keeping the church’s community safe, but also about adhering to some core tenants of his religion.

“When it came time for vaccines, we started to let people know that we’ve been involved with local and state health authorities who are providing all the information. We wanted to explain to our community that we were up to par with all the information being provided. We determined it was important we be part of this vaccine push,” he said. “Our bishop said this is our way of showing our love for our neighbor: taking care of ourselves and taking care of others.”

From the beginning of the pandemic, Monge-Santiago said the greater Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey took the health threats of COVID-19 seriously.

They stopped in-person services and instead embraced Zoom-based services like many other churches and places of worship have done around the world during the pandemic.

Once the United States started to turn the corner of the pandemic and gradually reopen, Monge-Santiago said the church started a “reentering, reopening, reimagining task force” for its community, consisting of priests and laypeople alike.

This task force even included a parishioner who happens to also be an epidemiologist, who volunteered to answer questions and offer his expertise about the health crisis.

Monge-Santiago said All Saints’ community is “a big, bilingual, multicultural community.” He offers services in both English and Spanish, and said it was crucial his church sponsor events like the recent vaccine drive given how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected People of Color, especially members of the greater Latino and Hispanic communities.

“I noticed a lot of members of our Hispanic community were being provided information not based on any scientific data, hearing things like, ‘If I get vaccinated, I will die’ or ‘So-and-so died because they got vaccinated,’” he recounted.

Monge-Santiago said he regularly works to dispel such misinformation, and to encourage people in his community to get vaccinated.

“If we want to be here, we have to protect those around us, especially those who can’t be vaccinated because they have a certain medical condition that doesn’t allow them to be vaccinated. We will never get this under control otherwise,” he said.

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Rev. Juan Angel Monge-Santiago (left), posing with his mother (right) in 2019. Photography courtesy of Rev. Juan Angel Monge-Santiago

Monge-Santiago and the All Saints Episcopal Church is a positive example of a community of faith and its leader rallying behind the COVID-19 vaccines.

There certainly have been negative examples as the fight against COVID-19 continues in the United States and around the world.

In recent months, there have been several high-profile headlines of religious leaders — particularly in white evangelical communities in the United States — who leaned into dangerous misinformation that dissuaded their communities from embracing the vaccine.

In some instances, religious leaders who preached this anti-vaccine rhetoric have faced negative ramifications for their actions. In one case, a bishop asked a Wisconsin Catholic priest to step down from his post due to his public anti-vaccine stances.

Monge-Santiago said that faith leaders like himself can be crucial in fighting COVID-19 and protecting their communities. The trust their communities give them and the intimate connection forged between priest and parishioner can in many ways be more effective than the words of a politician, celebrity, or talking head on TV.

“I think, first of all, if we [religious leaders] have to come from a place of love, of showing the community how much we love them by caring for them, it cannot be an act of selfishness, it cannot be about being a political individual or trying to accomplish something for myself,” Monge-Santiago explained. “My place of love has to be beyond me, it has to be centered on my love of my community.”

Amy Nunn, ScD, a professor of behavioral and social sciences as well as medicine at the Brown School of Public Health, told Healthline that religious leaders hold immense sway.

They can severely swing the pendulum one way or the other for how a community responds to public health messaging around something like COVID-19 vaccinations.

“I think they [religious leaders] can have very positive or negative influences because they are the key thought leaders in a lot of communities,” Nunn said.

As a researcher and public health expert, Nunn has a unique perspective in the role of religious-leader-as-public-health-influencer. She’s worked extensively with Black churches in the South, particularly in Mississippi, devising public health and wellness initiatives tied to fighting a different epidemic: HIV.

Nunn said from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was encouraged by how involved Black pastors were in spreading accurate, scientifically vetted information to their communities.

She stressed that this was incredibly important for fighting the pandemic, especially given how starkly Black communities nationwide were affected by COVID-19.

“Black pastors wanted to get involved. They were overwhelmingly positive about getting the word out about COVID testing, and now about COVID vaccinations,” Nunn added.

Nunn explained that one of the big reasons for this high level of engagement was practical: They wanted to get their communities back to church.

Beyond that, these pastors were frontline witnesses to the horrors of the pandemic. They were seeing just how many members of their congregations were dying at disproportionately high rates, how hard their local businesses were suffering.

They were also seeing the cumulative toll the pandemic was taking on their communities in conjunction with the deep-seated racial inequities of this country.

“They were officiating the funerals, the bottom lines of their churches were affected. Black pastors overwhelmingly wanted to get involved in this issue,” Nunn said. “A lot of them have held vaccination events and have normalized testing and those kinds of things. I think it’s been a positive.”

Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York, and chairman of the board of the National Action Network, said it’s important to know that, going into COVID-19, “the African American community was set up for failure.”

“The healthcare system has not been effective in addressing the needs of the African American community. Therefore, African Americans had greater viability of catching the virus more than other populations in the United States,” Richardson told Healthline. “We met that challenge right away, but unfortunately, we were disadvantaged going in and disadvantaged going out.”

Richardson said he can approach this health threat from the local, granular level of being a pastor presiding over a historic, Black church, and the larger perspective of serving as head of the Conference of National Black Churches, which serves 30,000 congregations nationwide.

He said the coronavirus’s threat to Black communities was monumental, and it was important to pinpoint what needed to be done early on, given the systemic economic, political, and cultural disadvantages the Black community faces nationwide.

Richardson said Grace Baptist Church, true to its mission, aimed to serve and protect its community right away.

The implications of the pandemic, from food and housing insecurity to the psychological toll a community experiences (such as seeing “multiple funerals a day”), forced the church to become something of a grief counseling space, vaccination center, and food distribution center — a community’s safe haven and all-around frontline defense against the virus.

“That was just the granular, local level. As a pastor, I’m deeply engaged and understand the hesitancy some members of the community might have with the vaccine, because I understand the history of the medical field as it pertains to African Americans — the lack of trust in the system, which is a lot to overcome,” Richardson said.

“Churches have the capacity, unlike any other institution in the community, to reach people,” he added. “First of all, it’s your trusted voices, the pastors talk to members of their communities for years. They marry them, they bless their children, they’re the trusted voices.”

Richardson said how crucial churches can be in reaching people who live in so-called “pharmacy deserts”: rural areas where many Black and low-income households don’t have the luxury of a pharmacy on every block, like in resource-rich urban areas.

In many ways, the Black church can fill a lot of the gaps made by the institutional failings of our country’s health and political systems.

Keeping that in mind, Richardson was instrumental in setting up a training program with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so that these trusted religious leaders in Black churches could be equipped with the tools needed to encourage their parishioners to get vaccinated and to feel comfortable with the science behind the vaccines.

“We discussed the historical mistakes and neglect by the CDC and many of the other health agencies as it pertains to African Americans,” Richardson said. “We have trusted voices and are providing those voices with trusted content, so pastors have the data they can trust so they can debunk conspiracy theories.”

Richardson explained that if you don’t address why there is hesitancy among communities of color to get vaccinated, if you don’t tackle the racist history of “Black people being used as guinea pigs,” then no progress will be made.

The history of how Black and Latino people have been treated by the medical establishment has been incredibly bleak.

One of the main examples often pointed to is the Tuskegee experiments, which ran for 40 years from 1932 to 1972. The goal was to track the natural progression of syphilis.

Researchers initially recruited 600 Black men (399 who had the disease, 201 who did not). They conducted the study without the participants’ informed consent.

According to the CDC, researchers justified the study by telling these men they were being treated for “bad blood,” which referred to conditions like anemia and fatigue as well as syphilis.

“The problem of the pandemic unearthed the sins of the past, unearthed neglect. One of the places where African Americans have been neglected — and the CDC owns this — is not enough attention or training has gone to addressing vaccinations in African American communities. So, not only do we have a lack of vaccinations as it relates to the pandemic, but African Americans have a deficit in vaccinations for other diseases,” Richardson said.

Richardson added it’s been disorienting to witness the current mainstream discussions about the state of the pandemic in the United States, such as messages that everyone can go enjoy the summer now that their vaccinated, while Black people nationwide are still reckoning with a pandemic that continues to sweep through their communities.

He reiterated the fact that Black people “were in a bad place going in and a bad place coming out” of COVID-19.

“I get statistics twice a week from my team that tells me the state of the pandemic for African Americans. We have focused our program on 18 states and 70 counties, and what we see, well, we see very alarming statistics that do not align with the national statistics of where we are with the pandemic,” he stressed.

For example, Richardson pointed out that in Florida, only 7 percent of vaccinated people (at the time of the interview) are Black.

With those statistics in mind, Richardson said this is an important moment — a calling, if you will — for Black pastors to lead.

“I don’t think there is anything more impactful that pertains to the African American community. There is nobody who has access in the African American community at the granular level as does the Black church. No question about it. It’s the only institution that meets its constituency every week,” Richardson explained.

He added, “It’s not like we meet for a convention once a year or twice a year. The pastor talks to these people every week. He or she builds cumulative trust. So, if you give that pastor capacity and information for education about vaccinations, then he can or she can be very effective in helping fight the hesitancy rate and get people to enroll in vaccinations.”

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“Churches have the capacity, unlike any other institution in the community, to reach people… the pastors talk to members of their communities for years. They marry them, they bless their children, they’re the trusted voices,” said Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson (pictured above). Photography courtesy of Grace Baptist Church

When it comes to the tools religious figures have in spreading the word about COVID-19 vaccines, Nunn said they can play a great role in “normalizing conversations around all the evolving CDC guidelines” for their communities.

“A lot of people have been through a lot this year, and I think the church can have a really important role to play in the fabric of healing, of mental healing, of social healing, of spiritual healing, of physical healing,” Nunn said. “I’ve seen it firsthand in my work with Black pastors.”

Nunn said that what has been especially troubling to her is the role white evangelical churches have played in dissuading their communities from getting vaccinated.

“Honestly, I don’t know any Black churches that have done this. In some churches in the evangelical community, they have been actively discouraging vaccinations,” Nunn said.

“I know in Mississippi, initially they were most concerned about getting Black clergy involved, and now they actually are trying hard to get white evangelical pastors involved,” she said. “The most vaccine hesitancy has not been among People of Color, it’s been among white evangelicals, and so obviously that is a huge problem in this country.”

Nunn wanted to be clear not to paint with a broad brush. There have been examples of evangelical leaders pushing against this vaccine-resistant wave.

“I think most people, on the extreme ends, have very strong opinions, and on those ends it’s very hard to convince people who are skeptical about science to believe in science. That’s my personal opinion,” Nunn said.

She added she doesn’t know the clear answer of how to combat that anti-science messaging.

“We might not be able to do it. I think the only way to do it would be to flood the airwaves we want to work with, with key opinion leaders and convince them, but I think mass media has an important role to play, and there have been some conservative media outlets that have spread some misinformation about science, and I think that is a real, real challenge,” Nunn said.

In short, it’s hard for the most well-meaning public health experts and even religious leaders alike to combat the force of misinformation that gets politicized, weaponized, and disseminated by the likes of Fox News.

An April 2021 study revealed that self-identified Republicans actually became more vaccine hesitant as the pandemic unfolded.

The quandary Nunn is citing is not just a public health problem, but a political issue.

Both Monge-Santiago and Richardson have hope for a brighter tomorrow, but said they and their communities still feel the weight of the pandemic.

“As long as this is a possibility that it is a risk for someone, we need to keep at it. We need to keep asking people to take care of themselves, to take care of others, to be informed, and to take the action that their conscience is telling you,” Monge-Santiago said.

He said that the Episcopal Church is based on three main pillars: the scriptures, what one learns from one’s experiences, and reasoning.

He said that final one is key to combatting COVID-19.

“Without reasoning, I would use the Bible literally and do a lot of things that would hurt a lot of people,” Monge-Santiago said, citing some of the violence of the Old Testament that would make no ethical sense in the modern world.

Instead, he explained that key religious leaders should look at their faith as ever evolving, organic, and shifting. More importantly, one has to “lead with love” and compassion, and do what is necessary to lead one’s community through this current dark time, Monge-Santiago added.

For Richardson, if we were to revisit this conversation 6 months down the road, he said he would like to see the Black community “at least equal to the rest of the population” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.

“That would be my least expectation. Beyond that, we’ve shared this with the CDC, we’ve got to make up for 50 years of neglect of not educating minority communities when it comes to vaccinations,” Richardson said.

Essentially, he said the fight against COVID-19 can’t be the stopping point.

It has to be the beginning of addressing these inequities in public health.