When COVID-19 vaccines were first released, the Galveston County Health District knew reaching out to the community would be important to getting as many people vaccinated as possible.
And one important subject of outreach would be local religious leaders, health district spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.
“When we decided we wanted to do more community outreach, we knew those were community leaders that were respected,” she said.
But pastors around the county aren’t in agreement about whether they should advocate vaccination from the pulpit. Some see the advocacy as part of loving their neighbor, whereas others see the conversation as something that should be between a person and a doctor.
As of Aug. 20, close to 57 percent of Galveston County residents were fully vaccinated, according to the health district. But those numbers could be higher if more religious leaders would actively advocate their church members get vaccinated, said Randy Valcin, director of public health surveillance programs for the health district.
“I really believe that will make a big difference in the vaccine rate in the county,” he said.
Although vaccine hesitancy remains among all Americans, it’s most prevalent among religious groups, according to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core that examined vaccine acceptance, hesitancy and refusal rates by religious affiliation.
And although some remain hesitant, rates of acceptance are increasing, thanks in large part to the advocacy of local religious leaders, according to the institute.
In March, all religious groups showed a vaccine acceptance rate of at least 43 percent, with Hispanic Catholics having the lowest rate. By June, those numbers had jumped to at least 56 percent, with most groups showing acceptance rates in the 60 percent to 70 percent range, according to the study.
The changes in acceptance rates can be attributed partially to faith-based interventions such as local religious leaders getting vaccinated or religious leaders encouraging people to do so, according to the study.
Galveston County religious leaders who’ve partnered with the health district have helped increase vaccination rates, Valcin said. But not all have been receptive to hosting vaccination drives or having health officials speak during church services or events, he said.
“Some have been OK with coordinating events at their church,” Valcin said. “Some have just been, ‘Nope, thank you.’”
LOVE THY NEIGHBOR
For Michael Gienger, encouraging inoculation is part of the moral call to love your neighbor. As the pastor of Galveston Central Church, his congregation is 30 percent to 35 percent homeless people, many of whom don’t have good access to health care, he said. As a result, the church made the decision to encourage vaccinations to protect the more vulnerable population.
“What’s best for our neighbor may or may not be comfortable for me,” he said. “People have understood that.”
The church hosted a vaccination clinic in March and has held online panel discussions with the University of Texas Medical Branch to spread accurate information to the community about vaccines, Gienger said.
Gienger has seen the importance pastors play in vaccine acceptance first hand. The church drove a group of people to League City to attend a vaccination clinic, and only seven people signed up, he said. But at the church’s own vaccination drive in March, more than 150 signed up, he said.
“Our responsibility is to shepherd the flock, to be a person who’s helping the community understand difficult things,” he said. “I think it’s vital that we communicate the vaccine is safe.”
Communicating the safety of the vaccine is something The Rev. William Lloyd Randall has been doing for months with his congregation at Greater St. Matthews Baptist Church in Hitchcock.
Randall is part of a group of nearly 30 area pastors who have met virtually every Tuesday since the start of the pandemic to discuss the best way to manage churches during the pandemic. Over the past 18 months, the group has hosted speakers from the city, school boards and the health district to better understand what the community has been facing, he said.
“We’ve been keeping our members up with this and letting them know the seriousness of what’s going on,” he said.
Many of those pastors then went to get inoculated together when vaccines became available. That was a chance to show the pastors had faith in the vaccine, Randall said. Since then, they have worked to encourage their own members to get vaccinated by hosting vaccination drives, inviting health officials to speak at church services and having conversations with those who are anxious about the vaccine, he said.
The result has been a success, Randall said. More than 90 percent of his congregation is vaccinated, he said.
“Some are a little slower than others,” he said. “Don’t think they just jumped right to it, but we keep encouraging and encouraging.”
The church also held a vaccination drive, and Randall hopes to have a booster shot drive in the future, he said.
“It’s about saving lives,” he said. “If we’re going to do ministry, you can’t do ministry when you’re not healthy.”
A PERSONAL CHOICE
But not everyone feels it’s a pastor’s place to preach about vaccination.
“I kind of leave the doctor stuff to the doctors,” Kevin Herrin said. “I take care of the spiritual stuff.”
Herrin pastors The Fellowship of Texas City, which has reopened to in-person services and uses a color-coded bracelet system during services. A green bracelet means wearers are open to close contact; a yellow bracelet means they prefer some distance. Red means people want to be in church but prefer to be given extra space.
But even with this system, Herrin has been unable to keep everyone happy.
“I’ve lost members because I asked somebody to get their temperature checked when they walked through the door,” he said. “And then I’ve lost members because I didn’t mandate masks.”
What Herrin views as the differing opinions among medical professionals and scientists regarding the vaccine also has turned him away from advocating for vaccination among his congregation.
“There’s too much diversity of opinion out there in the medical community and the scientific community alone for me to get up and start trying to be heavy-handed,” he said.
LIFE AND DEATH
The religious community of Galveston County hasn’t gone untouched by the virus.
At the end of June, a COVID outbreak was traced back to a church camp hosted by Clear Creek Community Church in League City. More than 150 people eventually tested positive for the virus, and the church closed its doors for two weeks.
And in August, two pastors died from COVID complications. Darrell Boone, the pastor of LifePointe Fellowship Church in Hitchcock, and Rick Cortez, the pastor of ACTS Christian Church in Texas City, both died Aug. 8. A few days before his death, Boone had sent a text message to a group chat encouraging people to get vaccinated and said he would get vaccinated once he recovered. He died before he had the chance.
Randall has performed funerals for church members who died and lost friends to the virus, he said.
“I’d rather take my chance with the vaccine than take my chance with the virus,” he said.