Congregations often attend to the physical as well as spiritual health of their members. Local houses of worship — pre-COVID — often served as venues to screen for hypertension and educate those living with diabetes.

Now, most have adopted the need to encourage mask wearing, promoting social distancing and providing remote support for members who no longer feel comfortable at in-person worship.

The new year presents an additional challenge as mass vaccinations, which are at this writing already topping several million doses given, become a new health issue for congregations.

There were some initial objections, nationally, to the first COVID-19 shots, based on some purported association with the use of a cell line from aborted fetuses. But Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, assured local parishioners that accepting these vaccinations is morally allowed.

“Some individuals and groups are publicly asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines then it is immoral to be vaccinated with it,” DiNardo said in a statement to the archdiocese. “This is an inaccurate presentation of Catholic moral doctrine, and I would like to offer some clarifications regarding the moral permissibly of using the COVID-19 vaccines developed by the companies Pfizer and Moderna.

“Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development or production,” he said.

DiNardo went on to explain the vaccine made by AstraZeneca was more problematic. Although that vaccine is not yet approved for use, the Catholic church has some concerns about its nature but will allow members to receive its protection if they don’t have access to one of the previous company’s offerings.

“It is morally permissible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines, which will be available for distribution in Texas,” DiNardo said, adding that he was praying for an end to the pandemic.

We then turned for details to Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents our nation’s largest Protestant denomination. In his recent interview with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health on development of the COVID-19 vaccines, he covered similar ground for Protestant viewers. Collins also is known as a popular Christian thinker as well as a scientist.

“There’s no risk that the vaccine will actually cause COVID-19,” Collins told the faithful in that exchange. “But your immune system will go to town and build the defenses you’ll need if you actually encounter the virus.

“It’s important to say that no medical intervention is without some kind of potential risk,” he said. “But the risk is minimal and the benefit (substantial) with one person dying every minute (from COVID-19). We have the chance for this to end. If you believe that God offers us the opportunity to act as his agents to try to relieve suffering and death, this seems like a pretty good balance and to take advantage yourself and to roll up your sleeves.”

Collins also noted aborted cell lines were not used in the production of the two approved U.S. vaccines.

Churches may be especially key in reaching Black and other minorities with specific pandemic health information. The challenge is two-fold. The virus strains have hit Black communities hardest, and those communities survey as generally much less trusting of the vaccines being offered.

“People of color have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus, and Black Americans have died of COVID-19 at a rate roughly three times higher than whites,” U.S. News reported in mid-December. “Experts agree the virus has exposed health disparities hidden in plain sight, linked to the lingering effects of racism and inequality in the U.S.”

Dr. Richard Rupp, director of clinical trials and clinical research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Our Faith there’s a reason that pastors are key for the COVID-19 campaign.

“Congregations look to clergy for guidance,” he said. “Frequently, people trust their religious leaders more than scientists and politicians. This leaves clergy responsible not only for their followers’ spiritual health but also their physical health.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following be vaccinated now as supplies permit: Phase 1B: persons aged 75 years or older and front-line essential workers, then Phase 1C: persons aged 65–74 years, persons aged 16–64 years with high-risk medical conditions and other essential workers.

These priorities may map onto the demographics of our local houses of worship well.

Even with successful vaccinations, the standing recommendations for face coverings, hand washings and related protective practices are expected to remain in place for the near future. Churches and other houses of worship will have the opportunity to promote best practices as they believe to be in the interest of the members.

The last word: This print and online space is set aside each Friday to profile faith in action across Galveston County. Congregations, faith-centered nonprofits, individual ministries and more will appear here in 2021 but only with your help. Share your suggestions and photos by email.

Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.

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