“Do not Throw Your Shot Away”

(RNS) – Approximately 77 million Americans have received at least one shot of the vaccines for COVID-19, including the single-dose version from Johnson & Johnson. But nearly a quarter of Americans still say they have no intention of receiving the vaccine or are unsure.

It is known that religious leaders can change their minds about public health action. “Congregants are more likely to trust not only their leaders but those who share their faith, especially people of their own traditions,” wrote Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Baylor University researcher, in a religious intelligence service published last year.

To find out what American clergymen are doing to support vaccination efforts, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, former executive director of the Rabbinical Congregation of the Conservative Jewish Movement and now a candidate for champion in the School of Public Health at the City University of New York, interviewed a number of creed leaders about the views of their traditions on public health and vaccination and these vaccination efforts. You can find the entire series here.

Schönfeld recently spoke with Pastor Clarence C. Moore, senior pastor of the New Era Church in Indianapolis. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me a little about how COVID-19 is affecting the people in your life.

The crisis is still very big here in Indianapolis. Our biggest task right now is to get all of our citizens to use the vaccine. So we were on a trip with my church trying to convince our members, in the words of the hugely popular Broadway play (“Hamilton”), “Don’t throw your shot away.” My medical staff at my church make a lot of phone calls with our members, trying to get them to understand first that they are somewhat scared even as medical professionals, and they have overcome that fear by doing their research.

I have had many members who, through our conversations, let me know that they are now ready to use the vaccine, but too many are still reluctant.

“Don’t throw away your shot” is a brilliant way of putting it. “Hamilton” is a play about people who organize themselves in turbulent times. Are there any stories from the past year remaining with you?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only closed us, so that we have not been able to get together in the past 12 months, but have also lost valuable members during this time. We lost my prayer minister, 38 years old, a wonderful husband, an amazing father. He and his wife had adopted three children and they had adopted children who were in a very difficult environment. It was so heartbreaking for me and our church. Two weeks later, my mentor, a 95 year old sane spirit who had caught him from a nurse, had disappeared. In 30 days I lost two wonderful, divine men.

What is your church doing to help those who have lost a loved one?

We have teams that are in contact with these members, especially the young widow with three children. Because of the virus, her own parents could not come to the rescue. We try to serve her through zoom. She always gets things on her doorstep from members of our Church, which is a great blessing. We are now trying to connect them and other families with the help of FEMA and provide them with easier access to the funds to offset the cost of their loved one’s funeral.

This is one of the great untold stories of the pandemic – how important places of worship are in this time. What can you share about how you can start educating people about what is available in terms of supplies and vaccines, and what do you think works best?

One of the tasks of the Church at this point is to be in prayer and give targeted support to those on the front lines of this virus. And especially the men, nurses, and doctors we come in contact with. The emotional toll really adds up and it comes to the place of mental fear. So we’re trying to make sure they have access to mental health.

The second thing we do is make sure all resources are available for single mothers trying to keep jobs. We are putting resources into helping these families with some of the financial difficulties they are facing, which is very helpful. We have mental health professionals in our church who conduct online mental health sessions with those who step in.

What else can you say about giving people the shot?

I am very personally involved. The mayor’s office called to try and shoot me, but the mayor was too slow. I had to get my shot as soon as I could. When he called, I had already got my shot! But that just tells you the impact New Era Church has on the community when it comes to COVID-19.

I am concerned about the availability, accessibility, and then acceptance of this vaccine. Availability may not be quite there yet, but I’m worried about how people get to it if it is. The third issue is acceptance – that people accept the vaccine and adjust to it. So these are the three things that we are observing here. I make sure that all three steps are moving in the right direction.

If you created the accessibility plan, what would your plan be?

I would set up stations in east, west, north, and south in the African American community and the Latinx community, in churches and in those medical centers that are closer to the people. I think people will go around the corner to a local church for a shot. I would move the volume closer to people.

The other thing I would do would be to push most of the African American communities, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because it’s a shot and the effectiveness of that shot is still keeping people out of the hospital and keeping them from serious illness. With all of the other obstacles and inequalities our community faces, getting them back for a second shot could be a challenge. But when I get a shot, it takes effect.

How do we deal in the future with what we have lost, what the families of more than 500,000 Americans have lost? Why did it happen like this?

I hope this pandemic has awakened people to the fragility of human life. We have to spend our time loving one another because our time is short and life is so uncertain. For those trying to grapple with “If we had gotten that shot in the arm sooner” – this is a real struggle for them.

As people of faith, we try to look ahead for purpose. Sometimes we only know God’s purpose by getting out, stepping forward, and fulfilling that purpose. Design what we do in a targeted manner. How can we work together to make sense of what we’ve been through?

I hope we see leadership issues. Whether it’s church leadership, whether it’s where you work, whether it’s in government, leadership matters. I pray and hope that in the future we will choose selfless leaders. When I look at culture as a whole, we get so selfish. I hope we can find ways to get close to people who are not like us, who may not look like us, who may not believe like us, but find ways to find a common humanity. I think closeness is one of the reasons we’re so polarized that we just don’t spend time putting on other people’s shoes.

If you think about this pandemic and how it has disproportionately affected the African American community and the Latinx community. I hope we can find ways to come together across religious, gender, and political boundaries and find ways to make this into the beloved community that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke.

Check out the full interview with Moore here.

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