Missouri church leaders implore congregants: Get vaccinated

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 4:20 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 5:29 PM CDT
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O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — As lead pastor of one of Missouri’s largest churches, Jeremy Johnson has heard all the reasons congregants don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccination. He wants them to know it’s not only OK to do so but also is what the Bible urges.

Across Missouri, hundreds of pastors, priests and other church leaders are reaching out to urge vaccinations in a state under siege from the delta variant. Health experts say the spread is due largely to low vaccination rates — Missouri lags about 10 percentage points behind the national average for people who have initiated shots.

Now, many churches in southwestern Missouri, like Johnson’s North Point Church, are hosting vaccination clinics. Meanwhile, more than 200 church leaders have signed onto a statement urging Christians to get vaccinated, and on Wednesday announced a follow-up public service campaign that will include paid advertisements.

“Vaccine hesitancy in our pews puts our congregations and communities at greater risk. Given their safety and availability, receiving a vaccine is an easy way of living out Jesus’s command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’” the statement reads, citing a verse in Mark, chapter 12.

Opposition to vaccination is especially strong among white evangelical Protestants, who make up more than one-third of Missouri’s residents, according to a 2019 report by Pew Research Center. A March poll conducted by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nationally, 40% of white evangelical Protestants said they were unlikely to get vaccinated, compared with 25% of all Americans.

Johnson, whose Springfield-based Assembly of God church has three campuses and will soon open a fourth, said the New Testament includes dozens of references urging people to serve one another — and getting vaccinated is a way to do that.

“I think there is a big influence of fear,” Johnson said. “A fear of trusting something apart from scripture. A fear of trusting something apart from a political party they’re more comfortable following. A fear of trusting in science. We hear that: ‘I trust in God, not science.’ But the truth is science and God are not something you have to choose between.”

Springfield, Missouri’s third-largest city with 167,000 residents, is home to the U.S. Assemblies of God national office and is in the heart of a deeply religious region. Mayor Ken McClure noted that when the pastor at a large Assembly of God church recently preached about the need for vaccinations, large crowds turned out the next day to get shots.

“We found that the faith community is very influential, very trusted, and to me that is one of the answers as to how you get your vaccination rates up,” McClure said. “So we’ve reached out to the pastors and they’ve been very receptive.”

They face a tall task. Over the past two weeks, 14 counties in southwestern and central Missouri have been designated as “hot spots” for the virus by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

That number will likely grow and may soon include the state’s most populous county. St. Louis city and county leaders have warned that with cases and hospitalizations rising in the region, the city and county are considering a new mask mandate.

“While we don’t have an announcement to make today, this is a topic of conversation and it’s ongoing,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a Democrat, said Wednesday.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday announced a new statewide vaccination incentive lottery. The program, MO VIP, will offer chances to win $10,000 to people who get shots.

New cases continue to rise sharply statewide. The state health department reported 2,229 newly confirmed cases on Wednesday, the largest one-day spike since January. The state has cited 549,191 confirmed cases since the onset of the outbreak last year, and 9,526 deaths, including eight reported Wednesday.

Christopher Dixon, pastor of West Finley Baptist Church in Fordland, said the message from pastors involved in the vaccine outreach isn’t meant to “shame anyone or put anyone down.”

“We’re simply here to care for other people... and to say this is is something we would respectfully ask you to consider doing,” Dixon said.

Darron LaMonte Edwards Sr., lead pastor at United Believers Community Church in Kansas City, noted the disparity in vaccination rates in the Black community, due in part to longstanding mistrust of the government. He understands, but said it’s important to get a shot.

“Would you please go get your shot out of Christian duty and compassion?” Edwards asked.

Faith leaders know they’re entering a politically-polarizing topic by encouraging vaccinations but Rev. Emily Bowen-Marler with Springfield’s Brentwood Christian Church said it goes with the territory.

“I’m a Christian faith leader and I follow Jesus. Jesus did not stay out of the business of the things that were happening in his time,” she said with a laugh. “When he saw an injustice he spoke out against it. There were people who didn’t like what Jesus was doing because he was making a statement that was contrary to those who were in positions of power. So I feel it’s important for me to speak when I see harm is coming to people.”

“What we’re seeing is something that’s being politicized that doesn’t need to be,” added Dixon. “And I’m not pointing any fingers or casting any blame there on either side of the aisle left-or-right. What we’re saying as faith leaders is this doesn’t have to be a political issue. So what I would say to someone who says you’re being controversial is no, I care about human life. What I encourage folks not to do is listen to political leaders on either side as much as your doctor or your clergy. Get some trusted opinions of folks that really have your best interest at heart.”

Dixon said he understands why people are hesitant and that faith leaders are definitely not wanting to shame or finger-point at those who for whatever reason are reluctant to get the shot.

For instance, there are those who want to wait until the FDA gives full approval to the vaccine’s use.

“That’s a legitimate thought,” Dixon said. “But where we stand at this point is the urgency is so serious, especially now that the Delta variant is the dominant strain, we want to encourage being good neighbors.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Bowlen-Marler added. “I have always taken that to mean that the way we love God is we love our neighbor. And when we are failing in showing our love for our neighbor, that really is the start of so many other things breaking down.”

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