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The good news: Many pastors don’t believe science and faith are mutually exclusive

Union Presbyterian Seminary webinar explores ‘to vax or not to vax’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Hakan Nural via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — To vax or not to vax has become a life-and-death question for millions of Americans — especially people of color. Tuesday’s panel put on by Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership explored ways communities of color can use trusted voices to both drive up vaccination rates and boost access to health care proved both engaging and informative. Watch the hour-long discussion here or here.

The three panelists were:

  • Dr. Jerome W. Williams, Jr., senior vice president for Consumer Engagement at Novant Health
  • Dr. Augustus Parker III, medical director for Novant Health’s Women’s Urgent Care Centers and Novant Health’s facilitator for diversity, inclusion and health
  • Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., associate professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary and the director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation, who hosted the two physicians.

While there’s a need across the nation for more providers of color, Williams said another way of improving health in communities of color is “to give our white brothers and sisters cultural competency to understand where we people of color are coming from.”

Dr. Jerome W. Williams, Jr.

“We have known for a long time” the inequitable distribution of services, power, money and resources available across communities of color, Williams said. “We have been living this and fighting this for decades.” Eighty percent of chronic problems that afflict people of color have their roots in the environment where they live — housing and food insecurity, lack of social connectivity and limited upward mobility, Williams said. “You see these inequities, and it’s no wonder you see disparate outcomes,” because “continued distrust affects our health overall. If you don’t see a primary care physician or a specialist, it’s only delaying preventative and other much-needed care.”

Communities of color must be challenged to “look at the data” that shows people of color succumbing to COVID-19 at a greater rate than white people do. “We’ve got to educate about the benefits of seeing one’s provider to understand how we can advocate for ourselves and how to ask pertinent questions of our providers. Hopefully then we can active a healthier community.”

We’re also now “more mature in our thinking about systemic racism,” in policing, in the criminal justice system and in health care, Parker said. “Where you live matters,” he said, and sinful acts such as the Tuskegee experiment must be acknowledged before “we move forward to engage Black and brown communities to trust the health care system.”

Parker said it’s important where people receive their information and whom they trust. Myths are still in circulation, including the presence of aborted fetal tissue in the vaccines and claims that mRNA vaccines change one’s DNA or contain tracking devices. Those myths “need to be debunked,” Parker said. Fortunately, Parker said, “there are many pastors who don’t believe science and faith are mutually exclusive.”

“Many pastors in the Black and brown community are standing up to say, ‘Utilize the faith and know what God has given us,’” Parker said.

One cannot ignore the politics that undergirds the debate, Williams said. While congregants may be hearing sermons about taking individual responsibility and providing for oneself, “public health is a community-based effort.” Take masking, “something that’s free and highly effective,” Williams said. “Ask Dr. Parker how many babies he’s delivered without a mask on.” But somehow, mask-wearing has “become politicized.”

What is, Sadler wondered, the ethical responsibility to become vaccinated?

We have a strange dichotomy in the Black community, Parker responded: vaccine hesitancy coupled with the fear that systemic racism “will eliminate our access to the vaccine … My fear is that because of political backlash, a lot of people are turned off” to viewing reputable news sources. “So,” Parker said, “we need to utilize our leadership, particularly in the faith-based community, to promulgate our message.”

Black church leadership, Williams said, “has a strong voice and presence and is well trusted in the community. They are positioned to continue to educate and inform. You can’t force people to do something, but you can meet them where they are without judging them. And it’s not just the vaccines — it’s medicine and science as a whole.”

“We don’t live in isolation,” Williams added. “We are historically a communal society. We need to get away from an individual focus. What I do has impact on my neighbor, positive or negative. A common North Star will go a long way.”

Asked by Sadler what role seminaries and white churches can play, Williams said the first step is to understand “the true history of race and racism in this country. That’s the foundation for understanding a lot of health disparities out there.” After they educate themselves, “they’ll be better equipped to transmit the message because they have become trusted by understanding and acknowledging the history. I’m not saying own the history — just understand and acknowledge it, because it starts with trust.”

Dr. Augustus Parker III

Encouraging people of color from youth to adults to engage in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — courses of study can’t occur overnight. But Parker and others are engaged in outreach programs including Black Men in White Coats so that students in communities of color can interact with health care professionals who look like grownup versions of themselves.

“You can’t be it unless you see it,” Parker said, and so be wears a white coat and a stethoscope when he speaks to elementary-age students. “We create our own element of heroism,” Parker said. Middle schoolers, by contrast, “are much more inquisitive. We have to be realistic and lay the foundation about the value of being excellent in science and math.” By the time students are preparing as undergraduates, “we need to mentor them through the minefields of their coursework, support them financially and offer them coaching services.”

Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

Williams said Novant Health offers a Provider Ambassador Program, which includes Parker, “designed to engage the community” including younger children. “Their eyes light up and they say, ‘I want to be that gentleman right there,’” Williams said.

That approach, Sadler suggested, might be “a great way for white and Black churches to partner.”

Physicians of color have a particular role to play to reduce vaccine hesitancy and increase access to health care, according to Parker.

“We need to listen more than we talk and allow people space to stay secure in their own beliefs,” Parker said. “I believe this work is rooted in my faith, and it’ll lead to better health care for all.”

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