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Following long tradition, Black clergy take the lead in coronavirus pandemic

Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at 132 Odell Clark Place, in Harlem in Manhattan, NY. His wife also received the vaccine. He said he received the Pfizer vaccine.
Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at 132 Odell Clark Place, in Harlem in Manhattan, NY. His wife also received the vaccine. He said he received the Pfizer vaccine.Jennifer S. Altman

When the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a newly elected senator from Georgia and pastor of the church Martin Luther King Jr. once led, got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Friday, he joined a long line of Black pastors taking the lead in a national crisis.

Warnock’s vaccination, captured on video and shared on his Twitter feed, is highlighting the pivotal role Black pastors are playing in the fight against a pandemic that has devastated Black and low-income communities.

“As we continue to fight this pandemic, it is so important that we trust the science and do what the experts advise, and that means receiving the vaccine, continuing to social distance and wear a mask,” Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, said in a statement Friday after he was vaccinated.

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Black clergy have long been at the front lines of change, pushing for better public education for Black and brown children, criminal justice reform, and voting and civil rights. And now they are on the front lines against the coronavirus.

Since the pandemic, the nation’s Black pastors and their allies have joined the anti-COVID effort to save lives and help restore confidence in the medical community. They have delivered masks, joined initiatives to ramp up testing and contract tracing, and doled out critical public health information in online town halls.

Now many are — or soon will be — rolling up their sleeves to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, in a showing aimed at swaying skeptics.

Black pastors in Boston are planning to get their shots later this month, said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, who founded the COVID-19 Clergy Committee in Boston.

“People will feel a lot more comfortable with getting the vaccinations if we do it‚’' said Culpepper, senior pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, who also made a public showing in getting tested for the coronavirus.

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Citing King, who said that science and religion “are not rivals,’' Culpepper said he has no doubt that the slain civil rights leader, who would have turned 92 last week, would have joined them.

“I would think that he would have done what’s in the best interest of Black folks,’' Culpepper said. “If it’s going to save Black folks, if it’s going to raise a quality of life and deal with the inequality and save lives, then . . . I think he would have advocated for it.”

The Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Sunday along with his wife. His Harlem, N.Y., church received 500 doses this weekend for members of the congregation and the larger community, specifically people who are 65 and older and other eligible New Yorkers, including teachers, grocery store workers, and first responders, a church spokeswoman said.

“I hope the trust that [people] put in me to resolve their family conflicts, to bury their dead, to counsel them through challenging situations . . . will translate into trusting that if I take the vaccine [they might] take it also,’' Butts said.

Butts, who has been involved in the health and social welfare of his community for a half century, recalled being recruited to take the AIDS test during that epidemic many years ago. At the time no one in the Black community wanted to take that test. Butts said he was urged by Debra Fraser-Howze, who led the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, to help lead the effort to quash the disease, which had ravaged the Black community.

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During the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worship service at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church Sunday, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper said he'll be getting the COVID-19 vaccine soon.
During the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worship service at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church Sunday, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper said he'll be getting the COVID-19 vaccine soon.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

So with cameras rolling, he took the test.

“That encouraged many people across the country and many ministers to get involved in the fight against HIV,’' said Butts.

Black Americans account for a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths, but many remain hesitant to trust doctors and scientists, embrace the use of experimental medical treatments, or get vaccinated against the illness, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Many recall unethical research and medical practices, including the federal government’s Tuskegee experiment, a secret study of Black men in Alabama who were left untreated for syphilis.

They also recall the 1950s case in which doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital used cervical cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five, to pioneer medical advances and research that continues globally today. Lacks, who died in 1951, never gave her consent and her family has never been compensated.

Black ministers and their allies said they are keenly aware of that history and the skepticism that remains. They said they are doing what they are called to do.

Butts said he is working with a group called Choose Healthy Life, which includes 50 ministers in five cities — Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Newark, and Washington, D.C. — who are willing to be vaccinated. (Warnock was vaccinated at the recommendation of the Congressional Office of the Attending Physician, but Butts said the incoming senator and the Rev. Al Sharpton are also part of the Choose Healthy Life effort. )

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“The Black church overall stands for the health of our communities,”' Butts said. “When no one else barely cared for us, except as chattel, we were the ones who had to care for our men, women, and children. So the Black church has always been available to the Black community in the midst of all crises, but particularly health crises.”

In Chicago, Black and Latino clergy said say they, too, will get vaccinated when the time comes. The Rev. John Zayas, a Latino pastor of Grace and Peace Church in the North Austin neighborhood of Chicago, said worshippers are expressing fear about the shot.

“For people of color, at times the world — especially United States — doesn’t feel welcoming. . . . And people [are asking], ‘Is the system against us?,’ ” said Zayas, who noted that if Black and Latino people see their faith leaders taking the vaccine, “they will follow.”

In Boston, Culpepper and other pastors have held virtual Sunday services in mostly empty churches in neighborhoods where the virus has taken a toll. They want nothing more than to see their worshipers healthy and safe, and again filling the pews.

When the pandemic struck, Culpepper said he and members of the COVID-19 Clergy Committee teamed with Whittier Street Health Center and made a public showing of getting tested. They also used their church properties as testing sites.

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And as the vaccines were announced, the pastors began meeting with the health center’s experts, peppering them with questions that they and their congregants had, including about the vaccines’ timeline and whether they are safe. Culpepper said that at first he, too, was hesitant about taking it. But that has changed.

Near the end of Sunday's service, "We Shall Overcome" was sung in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church. Deacon Joseph Britt held the hymnal.
Near the end of Sunday's service, "We Shall Overcome" was sung in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church. Deacon Joseph Britt held the hymnal. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“As a result of prayer . . . and the great wealth of information that we got [from the health center’s experts], many of us are very comfortable about the vaccine,” said Culpepper, who announced during Sunday’s service that he and five other pastors will be getting vaccinated at Whittier Street Health Center this month.

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, associate pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church, said he has been urging a member of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group to have a public event showing Black ministers being vaccinated.

“This is the kind of response that you should see coming from church leaders in this COVID age,’' he said.

The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, a pediatrician and copastor at Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, has been leading a series of virtual town halls about the pandemic, including one featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“In my experience working with patients over the years, if I’m credible . . . and if I give them accurate information, people make the best decision for themselves, their families, and their communities,’' she said.

Still, the Rev. Art Gordon, the young senior pastor at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, said he remains “slightly suspicious” about how quickly the vaccine was developed. But he said he is encouraged by seeing elected and other officials get vaccinated.

“My wife and I actually talked about it,’' said Gordon, who just turned 32. “Being so young, [we are] towards the back of the line, so I have to wait to whenever my turn is. Whenever they make it available to someone my age, I will take it.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.