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The role of Black churches in building COVID-19 vaccine trust in the community

black churches help with vaccine trust
Posted at 1:14 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 13:14:35-05

In the 200-year history of Providence, Rhode Island's Congdon Street Baptist Church, Reverend Justin Lester understands how important the chapter being written right now.

“I want to be able to tell my church that in five years they can still trust me because I didn’t mess up this moment by giving them the wrong information for my own benefit," Rev. Lester said.

Rev. Lester is the youngest pastor in the church's storied history. He's been preaching online in the pandemic, helping his mostly Black congregation navigate both scripture and uncertainty.

“It was important for me, months ago, to watch my language when it came to COVID, when it came to protests, when it came to everything, so when it comes down to ‘Should I take this?’ the people I lead can trust what comes out of my mouth," he said.

His messages include providing information on the COVID-19 vaccine and those behind it.

“We can trust the people that God has ordained to be in the medical profession," he said.

Dr. Katrina Byrd is an infectious disease specialist working with Lifespan, a healthcare provider based in Rhode Island. She's also a member of Congdon Street Baptist Church. She's joined Reverend Lester in online videos, providing information about the vaccine and has been active on her social media channels setting the record straight about how the medicine works.

Dr. Byrd has received the vaccine, but she understands the distrust carried by so many in the Black community.

“I was initially hesitant, but after doing my own research, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to get it,’" Byrd said. “I think it speaks to the long-standing trauma that African Americans have had when it comes to experimentation in the Black community.”

She points to moments in history, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Hundreds of Black men were left untreated for decades while being told they were receiving free healthcare.

“There is real trauma that hasn’t been adequately dealt with, so even though I’m a physician, I carry that weight of my people," Byrd said.

Dr. Byrd has also spoken with a church in her hometown of Detroit and is working to speak with more Black churches as the vaccine rollout continues.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than a quarter of Black adults say they’re hesitant about getting the vaccine.

“There are people who say, ‘You know what, I don’t trust those people in government,’ or ‘I don’t trust those doctors. However, I’m going to trust my pastor. I’m going to trust the people in my church,’" Byrd said.

“I really pray that as pastors, as Black pastors, especially with everything going on in our world, that we lead people to green pastures and to still waters and we trust when we lead them there. If they want to eat, if they want to get the vaccine, we’ve giving them all the information," said Rev. Lester.

The reverend says he hasn’t heard too much vaccine hesitancy in his church.

As for himself, while the Bible preaches patience, there are some things that are difficult to wait for, even for a man of faith.

“For me, there’s not much hesitancy and I want to go watch college basketball in person again, so there’s really not a lot of hesitancy for me," he said.