By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

With recent surges and a devilish Delta variant running rampant, there’s someone new getting sick or dying from COVID-19 complications seemingly every day. 

Blacks remain unvaccinated in high numbers. This despite public health officials’ continued emphasis on the importance of the vaccine.

Local clergy, however, have the faith to move mountains. Several area pastors have stepped up and gotten involved, working to ensure that the congregations and communities they serve have access. 

“We were one of the first community testing sites, “ said South Sacramento Christian Center’s Pastor Les Simmons.

“As a predominantly Black church, we knew we needed to advocate and once we advocated, we knew we needed to facilitate,” Pastor Simmons said. 

Staff, led by the church’s first lady, Katrina Simmons, have created a “safe, friendly and faith filled environment” to get tested and vaccinated and have served hundreds of thousands of people. With the recent surge of the Delta variant, it’s not uncommon to see lines of hundreds of people wrapped around the building, waiting for their turn. 

Like Pastor Simmons did in South Sacramento, Rev. Mark Meeks opened up his church in Oak Park as a vaccination site to help ethnic groups overcome challenges to getting the vaccine.    The City Church clinic was held on Fridays in partnership with UC Davis and vaccinated close to 1,500 people in three months, before closing in late May. 

Rev. Meeks credits the church’s deacon and chaplain, Tracee Lewis with helping to educate the community, working past mistrust and misinformation. 

“There are so many stories of reluctant folks that ultimately decided to get vaccinated,” he shared. “She was integral for the success of the clinic and she fielded literally thousands of calls.”

Kelsey Long, the wellness coordinator at Wellspring Women’s Center said having a clinic at City Church was a blessing. Long personally drove many of the center’s clients over to the church to be vaccinated. 

“One of our guests who’s 93 years old, who I’ve worried about this whole pandemic, I got to drive her. I think she must have gotten one of the very first shots that first Friday. I stood there and watched her get her vaccine and I cried,” she recalls.

“It was really beautiful to watch community members of City Church truly look out for their neighbors and recognize that this process that we had where other people were able to navigate trying to get a shot at CVS or one of these other places, was just not going to reach this community,” she said.

The Black church has a long tradition of being on the frontlines in the community.  In partnership with Focus on the Word, the State of California launched a “Shot of Faith,” campaign earlier this year to “engage the Black faith-based community and provide critical information about COVID-19 vaccine access, safety and equity.” The campaign was kicked off with a webinar at the Baptist Ministers Conference. 

“The State recognizes the influence and impact clergy and churches have within the Black/African American community,” said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California Surgeon General. 

The campaign encourages the community to remain vigilant against COVID-19 by continuing to practice safe behaviors like wearing a mask correctly, washing hands, watching physical distance and getting vaccinated.   

“Educating the faith community is key,” said K.W. Tulloss, senior pastor of Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church and president, Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Southern California. “As trusted advisors, it’s critical that we get the word out about the vaccinations and direct our parishioners to available resources as well as to medical experts able to answer the many questions that have arisen out of this COVID-19 pandemic.”

While the initiative is largely focused on Southern California, Dr. Tecoy Porter of Sacramento’s Genesis Baptist Church was a participant. Dr. Porter was among those sharing COVID-19 testimonials on ShotofFaith.org and on social media platforms. 

“I have been on the front lines of advocating for vaccine equity from the very beginning of the vaccine roll out,” Dr. Porter said.

Dr. Porter joined other African American leaders in forming a group called Sacramentans Advocating for Vaccine Equity (SAVE). He later partnered with District 8 City Councilmember Mai Vang in a Meadowview pop-up clinic at the Sam Pannell Center. Vang also brought a group of community-based groups together under the SAVE acronym. Theirs stands for Sacramento Alliance For Vaccine Equity.

“The reason why I chose to be a part of this group and others, is because of the devastating and disproportionate impact COVID has had on the Black community economically, educationally and health wise,” Dr. Porter said. 

“According to the CDC and other health officials, the path out of this pandemic is through vaccinations,” he continued. “According to the numbers, we still have work to do. We are still running behind in getting vaccinated due to some hesitancy and lack of accessibility in Black and brown communities.”

Being of service to the community is the cornerstone of what the Black church stands for, Pastor Simmons said.

“Whether it’s a year from now, two years, 10 years or 50 years from now, history will tell the story of what the church was doing during one of the most challenging times in our history,” he said. 

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Senior Staff Writer Genoa Barrow as an accompaniment to her two-part series, “Giving Ourselves A Shot,” reported on as a participant in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship. The Observer will also host a forum on how the faith-based community has stepped up to ensure vaccine equity on Wednesday, September 8 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.