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Black faith leaders assume key role in Hampton Roads vaccination efforts

Black pastors are working together to encourage trust and equal access to vaccinations in communities of color.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Pastor H. Patrick Cason is using his platform to preach wellness, and not just spiritual. He is one of several Black pastors in Hampton Roads encouraging people to get vaccinated for COVID-19. 

“The Black church is the pillar of the community,” said Cason, senior pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Chesapeake. “If I can trust the church, I can trust the pastor. If the pastor’s getting [the vaccine], then I can get it.” 

Studies show Black and Latino Americans are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in comparison to white Americans. However, other research shows less trust among people of color for the vaccine and less access to medical care. 

“It’s getting people to trust the science and be open to receiving the vaccine,” said Rev. Dr. Dwight Riddick, senior pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Newport News.  

Dr. Riddick said pastors on the peninsula are starting to work together to dispel myths and ensure equal access to the vaccine. A January report by the Kaiser Health Network found Black Americans received COVID-19 vaccinations at a “dramatically” lower rate in the early stages of the rollout. 

“People lean upon pastors,” said Dr. Riddick, who has been vaccinated. “They look to their pastors for leadership, not just in the church but in the community.”  

This week, 2,000 people in Phase 1B will receive vaccinations at Bethany Baptist Church. The two-day event began Tuesday and is a partnership among 20 African American pastors, EVMS, and Chesapeake Regional Healthcare. 

"What better place to be able to flatten the curve and using these empty edifices," said Rev. Cason.  “Because we can’t really gather to worship.”  

A mural detailing the church’s rich history greets people at the entrance of Bethany Baptist and serves as a reminder that the Black church has traditionally been at the forefront of social issues affecting Black communities. 

“When we look historically at the strides African Americans have made in this country, most of them have been led by the church,” said Dr. Riddick. 

Cason said there is no book on pastoring in a pandemic, but he believes faith leaders can guide by example. He does not hesitate to share his support for the vaccine with people in his congregation and community. 

“Now that we have given them facts this place was jumping today,” said Rev. Cason after the first day of the vaccination clinic held at his church.