Every Sunday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Joseph Jackson Jr. praises the Lord before his congregation. But since last fall he's been praising something else his Black community needs: the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We want to continue to encourage our people to get out, get your shots. I got both of mine," Jackson said to applause at the church in Milwaukee on a recent Sunday.
Members of Black communities across the U.S. have disproportionately fallen sick or died from the virus, so some church leaders are using their influence and trusted reputations to fight back by preaching from the pulpit, phoning people to encourage vaccinations, and hosting testing clinics and vaccination events in church buildings.
Some want to extend their efforts beyond the fight against COVID-19 and give their flocks a place to seek healthcare for other ailments at a place they trust — the church.
"We can't go back to normal because we died in our normal," Debra Fraser-Howze, the founder of Choose Healthy Life, told The Associated Press. "We have health disparities that were so serious that one pandemic virtually wiped us out more than anybody else. We can't allow for that to happen again."
Choose Healthy Life, a national initiative involving Black clergy, United Way of New York City and others, has been awarded a $9.9 million U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant to expand vaccinations and and make permanent the "health navigators" who are already doing coronavirus testing and vaccinations in churches.
The navigators will eventually bring in experts for vaccinations, such as the flu, and to screen for ailments that are common in Black communities, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, AIDS and asthma. The effort aims to reduce discomfort within Black communities about seeking healthcare, either due to concerns about racism or a historical distrust of science and government.
The initiative has so far been responsible for over 30,000 vaccinations in the first three months in 50 churches in New York; Newark, New Jersey; Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta.
The federal funding will expand the group's effort to 100 churches, including in rural areas, in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and will help establish an infrastructure for the health navigators to start screenings. Quest Diagnostics and its foundation has already provided funding and testing help.
Choose Healthy Life expects to be involved for at least five years, after which organizers hope control and funding will be handled locally, possibly by health departments or in alignment with federally supported health centers, Fraser-Howze said.
The initiative is also planning to host seminars in churches on common health issues. Some churches already have health clinics and they hope that encourages other churches to follow suit, said Fraser-Howze, who led the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS for 21 years.
"The Black church is going to have to be that link between faith and science," she said.
In Milwaukee, nearly 43% of all coronavirus-related deaths have been in the Black community, according to the Milwaukee Health Department. Census data indicates Blacks make up about 39% of the city's population. An initiative involving Pastors United, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope and Souls to the Polls has provided vaccinations in at least 80 churches there already.
Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, according to the studies by the Brookings Institution. Ericka Sinclair, CEO of Health Connections, Inc., which administers vaccinations, says that's why putting vaccination centers in churches and other trusted locations is so important.
"Access to services is not the same for everyone. It's just not. And it is just another reason why when we talk about health equity, we have ... to do a course correction," she said.
She's also working to get more community health workers funded through insurance companies, including Medicaid.
The church vaccination effort involved Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, which is faith organization working on social issues. Executive Director and Lead Organizer Lisa Jones says the effect of COVID-19 on the Black community has reinforced the need to address race-related disparities in healthcare. The group has hired another organizer to address disparities in hospital services in the inner city and housing, and lead contamination.
At a recent vaccination clinic in Milwaukee at St. Matthew, a Christian Methodist Episcopal church, Melanie Paige overcame her fears to get vaccinated. Paige, who has lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, said the church clinic helped motivate her, along with encouragement from her son.
"I was more comfortable because I belong to the church and I know I've been here all my life. So that made it easier."