WASHINGTON— In the same way sinners come down the altar to offer prayer, receive communion and give their lives to Christ, Rev. Patricia Hailes Fears, pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church in District of Columbia, sat at the altar of the Washington National Cathedral and got vaccinated for COVID-19.
Fears was the first in an ecumenical group of church leaders to be vaccinated after an interfaith service where White House officials joined clergy from the around the nation’s Capitol area to encourage others to get vaccinated.
“I am certainly full of hope today,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, during the cathedral program that was part faith service and medical rally. “Last year has been full of struggle.” He went on to say that the Tuesday night event was “a chance to be part of God’s plan to healing.”
Collins said while “many are still holding back” from the vaccinations, “the church can play a leading role by modeling and encouraging.” But he cautioned that “hope is not a strategy… this is a love-your-neighbor opportunity to spread that hope nationwide.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joined Collins and faith leaders for an interfaith service that was organized to show and talk about the importance of getting vaccinated. Fauci, who has been the central voice of the fight against the coronavirus since the beginning, used his time to address misinformation about vaccinations.
Dr. Elliseo j. Perez Stable, MD., director of the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, said, “Almost 50 percent of all deaths” from COVID-19 are in the African American community and with other minority groups.” He said reaching this population has become a challenge.
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, opened the program that included speakers from national, state and local officials.
“As people of faith, we should be leading the effort to send a clear message that these vaccines are a great blessing, and we need to take advantage of that blessing,” Hollerith said.
Melissa Rogers, director of the White House of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, said the event is one example of a partnership between government and faith-based organizations, “as President Biden has recognized that faith-based organizations can play key roles in helping Americans get vaccinated.”
While Rogers said working with faith leaders was a great idea because “faith leaders are highly skilled with reaching underserved communities.”
“Countless Americans are more comfortable in getting a shot in a house of worship than in a pharmacy or doctor’s office,” Rogers said. “Second religious figures are some of the most trusted community leaders, so seeing congregational leaders get vaccinated first can relieve anxieties and fears.”
Dr. Fauci has estimated that between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population still needs to get vaccinated to stop the tide of infections in the country. Nearly 600,000 people have died, and the numbers continue to rise every day.
The coronavirus has killed Black and Hispanic Americans at disproportionate rates compared with their relative populations, according to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say higher rates of diabetes, obesity and other co-morbidities among Black and Hispanic Americans have contributed to their higher death rates from the virus.
In Washington, D.C., Black Americans account for a little under half the population but nearly three-fourths of COVID-19 deaths. While the District of Columbia has offered vaccinations to residents over 65, the Associated Press reported that statistics show that older Americans living in the highest concentrations of poor, Black Americans are still slow to come for the vaccinations.
At one vaccination site in Southeast Washington, officials say White Americans have shown up to get shots because they received emails in other parts of the country saying that vaccine doses were available. There are people from outside the District getting shots simply because they come and ask.
Rev. Lenard Hamlin Sr., Canon Missioner of the Washington National Cathedral, said during the service, “It is important that we encourage everyone who can get vaccinated. Faith leaders, medical chiefs, managers, regional leaders, we are all here that we might not be defined by the demographics that often divide us.”
The clergy who received shots were political and medical leaders from Washington, D.C.; Montgomery County, MD; Prince George’s County, MD; Arlington County, VA; and Alexandria, VA. In a statement, organizers said, their participation sends a message to diverse faith communities across the country that they trust the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
The political and health leaders present included Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, Dr. George Askew, Chief Medical Officer of Prince George’s County, Rev. Thomas Bowen of the DC Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs and leaders from Howard University Hospital.
The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, closed the speaking portion of the event by saying, “Let this vaccination be our marking event and restore the trust that we need.”