New York City

The Black clergy takes on the virus

How leaders of faith are banding together to spread the word on COVID-19 safety and the vaccine.

The Rev. Al Sharpton

The Rev. Al Sharpton Celeste Sloman

A certain amount of faith is required when venturing into the unknown. This is especially true when it comes to new medical advancements. 

Luckily, Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, had faith in science on Dec. 14, the day she became the first person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the U.S. (She received her second and final vaccine dose a little over three weeks later.)

“It is rooted in science, I trust science, and the alternative and what I have seen and experienced is far worse,” Lindsay told The New York Times, regarding her decision to get vaccinated. “So it’s important that everyone pulls together to take the vaccine, not only to protect themselves but also to protect everyone they will come into contact with.”

Lindsay also hoped that receiving the vaccine as a Black woman would “inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”

The Revs. Jacques DeGraff and Calvin Butts
Celeste Sloman

While many have been apprehensive about receiving the inoculation, people of color, particularly Black Americans, have been anxious about the new vaccines due to a lack of trust in health care and the government. According to research on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Black and Latino communities conducted in the fall from Langer Research Associates, Unidos U.S., the NAACP and the COVID Collaborative, only 14% of 1,050 Black respondents surveyed said that they believe a vaccine will be safe, and 34% of the 258 Latino participants felt a vaccine will be safe. And 43% of those same Black respondents said that the government can rarely be trusted to keep their best interests in mind. Much of the trepidation around the new vaccine stems from the historical trauma of experiments performed on the country’s Black population, typically without their consent or knowledge. The Tuskegee experiment is frequently cited as one of the main roots of distrust in medical care among the Black community today. In a study lasting from 1932 until 1972, Black men with syphilis were invited to gain free medical care in Macon County, Alabama, but were not given medical treatments, unbeknownst to them, so that medical professionals could study the full development of the disease. 

Aware of these concerns, some of the most widely recognized Black clergy members in the U.S., including the Revs. Al Sharpton, Calvin Butts and Jacques DeGraff, have partnered to educate Black Americans about the coronavirus, new vaccines and health disparities, imparting the importance of getting tested and providing access to COVID-19 testing for high risk communities. The clergy members are working with United Way of New York City, Quest Diagnostics and Resolve to Save Lives to launch the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan. The campaign will kick off in New York City and will be expanded in neighboring Newark, New Jersey, as well as in Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Sharpton, co-chair of the campaign, founder and president of the National Action Network and renowned civil rights leader, told City & State that working more closely with experts on this project has even helped him feel more at ease with the vaccine. “I, myself, raised questions (about the vaccine’s safety at first) and now I feel more comfortable,” he said. “I'm not totally relaxed in bed yet but I'm sitting on the edge of the bed. I think that as we speak to credible experts from our community and we become more involved, we become more comfortable with it.”

“I see more people who are willing to receive the vaccine based on the encouragement of the clergy.” – Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church

Throughout the pandemic, neighborhoods with higher proportions of Black and Latino residents, as well as those with lower median incomes, saw far higher death rates than other neighborhoods in the city. National data has also revealed that Black and Latino individuals are more than twice as likely to contract the coronavirus as white individuals. Low-income people are also at higher risk. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised that individuals that live in low-income communities and have been most affected by the virus would be among those first in line for a vaccine. Now, the Choose Healthy Life campaign is hoping to bring attention to these disparities and lack of health care accessible to many members of the city’s Black communities to make change, especially as the city is in the throes of yet another wave of the deadly virus.

The program was developed by Debra Fraser-Howze, the founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and her daughter, Sheena Wright, CEO of United Way of New York City. The model for the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan was initially created and developed by Fraser-Howze to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community. “United Way has become the gold standard of equity in the equity movement and their leader Sheena Wright is a transformative figure,” DeGraff, a minister at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, told City & State. “She could work anywhere, but she chose to provide leadership there.”

So far, the initiative, which launched in December, has already had an extremely positive reception in New York City, according to the clergy members. “I'm happy to report that since the information has started to spread across the Black community, particularly with ministers in the league, empirically, I see more people who are willing to receive the vaccine based on the encouragement of the clergy,” Butts, a national co-chair of the initiative and the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, told City & State. “I've seen more people feel more compelled to practice the regular good health proceedings, wearing masks, washing hands, being socially distant, being careful about gathering for the holidays.”

Not every Black American is a Christian, but Black churches have been a trusted source of information. They have also been historically strong supporters of civil rights movements across the nation, making equity one of their fundamental values. This has allowed clergy members to relay valuable information to members of their community, without fear that they will be led astray.

 “I think it ought to embarrass (the government), that we have to stand up and do this and come to the public, rather than them come to us.” – Rev. Al Sharpton

“Obviously, the pandemic caught us all by surprise,” Sharpton said. “I think that's the job of clergy to be able to bring people through what they have not been able to see … That's the good news. The bad news is that it wasn't like we had to get in line to do it. There's no other effort that's really coming out trying to do (what we’re doing for the Black community).” 

“I think it ought to embarrass them (the government), that we have to stand up and do this and come to the public, rather than them come to us. But city officials and the state officials didn't come to us. We're coming to the public. We're filling a vacuum,” Sharpton continued.

Sheena Wright, CEO of United Way of New York City
Celeste Sloman

While Sharpton noted a lack of outreach, Cuomo's office pointed to several references to clergy, at least in rhetoric.On Dec. 10, Cuomo sent a letter, cosigned by a coalition of community leaders, to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling for a fair and equitable federal vaccination program. In it, he asked the Trump administration “to enlist faith-based organizations, neighborhood groups and local non-profits with deep roots in Black, brown and poor communities to get this done.”

“Governor Cuomo has made recognizing and addressing health disparities in low-income, minority communities a cornerstone of New York State’s COVID-19 response,” Jonah Bruno, the director of public information at the New York State Department of Health, told City & State in a comment. “He frequently reminds New Yorkers of the need to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine reaches underserved communities, predominantly Black, Latino, Asian, and poor communities.” 

“City officials and the state officials didn't come to us. We're coming to the public. We're filling a vacuum.” – Rev. Al Sharpton

During the governor’s State of the State address on Jan. 8, Cuomo did address the higher likelihood of Black individuals to succumb to the virus over white individuals. “This has to be done with social equity and social justice in mind,” he said. “Blacks died at twice the rate of whites. Latinos died at one-and-a-half times the rate of whites. The infection rate was higher in poor communities. The COVID testing was lower in poor communities. We're not going to decide in this state who lives and dies by race or income. That is not going to happen.”

Despite major frustrations with the local government, Wright of United Way points out that in order to reach out to the most vulnerable members of the city and state’s communities, actions need to be made systematically and at scale – and only the government has the ability to do that. However, that is not to diminish the important role that community outreach programs have and must continue to play. According to Wright, the Choose Healthy Life campaign has already caught New York’s eye. “I think there's an appreciation of this kind of relationship and the credibility that we have on the ground and in the urban community at United Way and with these faith leaders, that's something that the government needs and absolutely will be critical to leverage this fight against COVID-19,” Wright said. 

“There's an appreciation of this kind of relationship and the credibility that we have on the ground. … That's something that the government needs and absolutely will be critical to leverage this fight against COVID-19.” – Sheena Wright, CEO of United Way of New York City

“We have planned trainings and community conversations with partners that will support trusted messengers delivering information in their communities around vaccines,” Dr. Torian Easterling, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s first deputy commissioner and chief equity officer, told City & State in an emailed statement. “This follows years of work – that precede COVID-19 – to engage partners in the community. We acknowledge that this has been an especially stressful and painful year, which has come on top of decades of disinvestment, biased treatment and lack of access as a result of historic and ongoing systemic racism and oppression. These experiences have reinforced cycles of trauma and created a lack of trust towards government and health care. The work we are doing that seeks to partner with and gather information from Black New Yorkers on vaccination is with these important truths in mind.”

Still, in order to build trust within the Black community, the reverends and Wright suggest that the state and federal government must first learn to understand Black people’s relationship to public health and the information they’ve been receiving about COVID-19, before they can truly create culturally competent and relevant messaging. Most importantly, whatever information they attempt to communicate needs to come from trusted sources. “People just don't just build trust upon you, they've got to know that they can rely on you, they've got to know, most importantly, that you understand this situation,” DeGraff said.

“People just don't just build trust upon you, they've got to know that they can rely on you, they've got to know, most importantly, that you understand this situation.” – Rev. Jacques DeGraff, minister at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem

Butts also emphasized the importance of showing members of the Black community images and testimonials from other Black individuals, such as Lindsay, to build trust. “When we saw that the doctor who was injecting the new vaccine was Black and the nurse who was receiving it was Black – those kinds of images and testimonies from these individuals make a huge difference,” he said.

While the approach to tackling the virus has begun the work of bringing the city’s Black community up to speed on COVID-19 and has helped supplement testing in its health care deserts, where pharmacies and urgent care centers are largely absent, both Sharpton and Butts agree that new leadership will be key to combating health disparities beyond the virus’s tenure in New York. “We’re going to have to reimagine the health care industry, we're going to have to reimagine how we get health services to people,” Sharpton said. “Because the whole question of how COVID-19 was dealt with exposes what was already there, it's almost like you have a situation in a room that is dark and then someone comes in and cuts the light on. COVID-19 cut the light on the health disparities in this city in a way that no one knows, and nothing else has.” 

In November, New Yorkers will vote for a new mayor, who Sharpton and Butts say will need to be responsible for tackling these health care deserts as well as the city’s economic crisis that has disproportionately affected people of color and has left them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Neither Butts nor Sharpton has yet to see a candidate with a plan to tackle both issues. They’re ready and waiting to find someone with that “spark,” with meetings lined up to speak with eager candidates, so that the city can be brought back not only to its former glory but to make it better and brighter than it ever was for those who were once cast aside in darkness.