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St. Louis Pastors Say The Church Must Ask Black People To Get The Coronavirus Vaccine

Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church
The Rev. Anthony Witherspoon of Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church spoke with members over the summer about the severity of COVID-19. His church provided masks, hand sanitizer and gloves to those in need. Witherspoon is pushing the vaccine through church forums, because he is worried that not enough Black people will take the shot.

When the Rev. Rodrick Burton began his weekly Bible study via Zoom last week, he opened with prayer and a special announcement. He encouraged everyone on the call to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Burton and his leadership team at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings talk about the importance of the vaccine in the Black community at least twice a week — midweek and Sunday services.

“I'm going to continue to message positive messages about the vaccine,” said Burton, who pastors a congregation of about 500. “I have to tell them or remind people, ‘Hey, look, we lost last year.’”

Some Black preachers in the area are using their online services and social media channels to encourage members to take the vaccine because many are leery of it.

New Northside Missionary Baptist Church lost about 20 of its members last year, including about three congregants who died of COVID-19. Burton, also a member of the St. Louis Department of Health Clergy Advisory Board, said the loss of a few church leaders led him to discuss the vaccine as much as possible.

“My members said I just don't trust it,” Burton said. “I want to see what happens.”

Burton shares his platform with Black doctors and nurses who are members of his church to help build trust in the vaccine.

“My biggest concern is that people will drag their feet in getting it. And for me, it is very crystal clear, it is life or death," Burton said. “We've had people die.”

The Rev. Anthony Witherspoon, senior pastor of Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church, also is apprehensive about some of his Black members missing out on being vaccinated because of lack of information.

“The Bible tells us the Bible's message that God wants us to be prosperous and in good health, and so if the vaccine is going to help us be on the way to good health, then that's something we need to seriously consider doing as good stewards of the body that God has given us,” said Witherspoon, whose church in the Midtown neighborhood has about 300 members.

Witherspoon allows his health unit to talk with church committees and answers COVID-19 related questions.

Both Witherspoon and Burton said the rushed vaccine and the misuse of African Americans for medical experiments in the past are common responses that many African Americans advert to as to why they are hesitant to take the vaccine.

Witherspoon is not hesitant to take the vaccine, but some other pastors are not sure about it.

Bishop Elijah Hankerson of North St. Louis' Life Center International Church of God in Christ said he wants to learn more information about the vaccine before he virtually talks to his congregation of about 300 about the shot.

“What we're doing in our local church is just adding more information to the pot so that people can look at that and just weigh their options as far as what they desire to do,” Hankerson said. “So, to be specific, I'm not telling people to take it. I'm not telling people don't take it. I'm just telling people, ‘Here is the advice I'm getting, and you make your decision based on that.’”

Hankerson said he is in consultation with his church’s staff doctors and nurses because he wants his church to be aware of the positives and negatives of the vaccine, since the Black community was hit hardest by the virus.

Many African Americans not only turn to the Black church when in need of prayer or inspiration, but they also expect the Black pastors to be socially informed and involved in the community.

“The Black church has always been the anchor in the community,” Witherspoon said. “The Black preacher was always expected to have the knowledge ... and not just knowledge based on his or her own impulse — but to go out and gain that knowledge to research, to have collaborations with people and to have relationships with the community.”

Burton said that Black people have a dire need for the vaccine given the high number of coronavirus deaths in the Black community, and that they should push health officials to provide doses.

“We have to be out there really demanding the vaccine for our community. And guess what? They're going to give it to other communities that are demanding it,” Burton said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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