Dr. Barry C. Johnson
In the culture of the church, we have always believed, “He may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time.” Although we continue to suffer with COVID-19 issues, there seems to be good news on the horizon. Whether it is created by Pfizer, AstraZeneca, or Moderna, many people in the country anxiously anticipate the long-awaited vaccine. However, all is not well with the thoughts of some within the Black Church. There is a segment, in the Black community, of serious mistrust as to the validity and efficacy of the vaccine. Because of the general sense of apathy and fear that the development of the vaccine was rushed (e.g., Operation Warp Speed), many persons hold the belief that the clinical trials were not enough to ensure its safety. This is a common fear shared by many; however, there is an additional built-in suspicion of national health care not being kind to the Black community.
Black pastors who are leading the efforts to create this fear are doing a disservice to their congregations. Several pastors cite the failed government-sponsored Tuskegee Experiment through which, from 1932 to 1972, doctors allowed 622 black men to believe they were receiving treatment for the dreaded syphilis disease. In truth, these men were given placebos, which allowed them to go untreated, while being used as guinea pigs, to glean data on the effects that untreated syphilis has on the human body. As for the current COVID-19 vaccines, the idea that the government would again use the Black community as an experiment is not realistic because blacks would have to be segregated and issued a separate vaccine – the system would have to be two-tiered, one for whites and one for blacks. Moreover, blacks have participated in other bona fide clinical trials that did not produce any issues that should signal an alarm to cause blacks to reject the vaccines.
The Black Church should wholeheartedly embrace the obtaining of the vaccine because, as those members over the age of 60 should remember, Black Churches used to be a bastion of vaccine centers, where children of the era would be inoculated (think about the polio vaccinations). I personally remember assembling in the basement of my childhood church, along with my brothers and sister and the other children of the community. Attempting to be brave, we waited on the intimidating (yet comforting) black nurses who were going to stick needles into our little arms. The Black Church served as the center for this type of healthcare, where our pastor and parents knew that their children would be served and not overlooked. The Black Church of that era did not allow the ghosts of Tuskegee to harm her children, and many of our generation still have the “booster shot” scars on our arms to prove it!
As Black Americans, we find pride in our heroes; therefore, we should embrace Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a 34-year-old black female scientist, who is one of the persons receiving praise for her work in the development of the vaccine for the coronavirus. Corbett’s team designed the vaccine that Moderna submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization. Will we trust the position of Dr. Corbett, or will we compare her to Eunice Rivers, the black nurse who was the main contact in the Tuskegee Experiment? (Incidentally, Rivers knew that her patients were not being treated, but was nonetheless, enthralled to be a part of the government program). These two situations are totally different, and I do not believe we should compare them. We should find comfort in Corbett’s involvement, which will help to generate confidence in the COVID-19 relief programs. Skepticism from the pulpit will only further facilitate the dangers of reinforcing a health system already fraught with many disparities, in which blacks do not receive equal healthcare. The Black Church and community must not allow themselves to be last to receive the vaccines (or any other needed healthcare), as the result or byproduct could represent the negative “back of the bus” approach.
Black pastors should encourage members of the church to take the coronavirus vaccine. We may have misgivings about the vaccine or the procedures; still, these medicines are the most prominent hope for disease protection and the return to a normal existence for our congregants. We cannot complain if we do not take advantage of the vaccines because of our fears. One may ask, “Where is God in all of this?” Remember, God allows events to occur in human history, but continues to “open doors” for us, when needed. People of faith are constantly reminded that God can change evil circumstances into situations of good. We are going to survive this pandemic; please be ready to take your shot!