On a biweekly virtual conference call in early March, Bishop Lawrence Wooten of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ in St. Louis asked county health officials to use churches to help bring the COVID-19 vaccines to predominantly Black neighborhoods in north St. Louis County.
Wooten recommended a few worship facilities and recreational sites, because the county executive specifically asked him to help get more African Americans in north St. Louis information about the vaccine and registered for the shot.
"We have the highest death rate from coronavirus of all ethnic groups," Wooten says. "The Black community is the one that has been hit the hardest."
Not only are African Americans seeing high death rates from the virus, but Black communities across the country are also seeing low vaccination sign-up rates compared to other groups. And to encourage Black communities to get the vaccine, Black clergy across the country are leading the efforts.
In most of St. Louis County, about 20% of residents are pre-registered through the health department. But only 9% of people in north St. Louis County have signed up for the vaccine. That's the part of the county with the highest percentage of Black residents.
"We are most vulnerable and that's why we need it the most," Wooten says.
County health officials attribute the low registration rates to lack of access to vaccine information and transportation to vaccination sites. Wooten is working with other Black clergy in the area to bring faith-based vaccine messaging to the community.
He is also working to get more Black clergy vaccinated, which he believes will encourage pastors to talk to their congregants during online or in-person services about getting the shot themselves.
Rev. Rodrick Burton of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis has been discussing the importance of the vaccine during Bible study and Sunday services since early this year.
Burton wants his predominantly Black congregation to know the severity of the virus and that the vaccine can help save lives.
"This is so important," says Burton, who pastors a congregation of about 500. "I'm still going to talk about it every service to get the people prepared so that they understand and just get it in their mind."
He opens services with prayer, a conversation about the shot and what the Bible says about how Jesus uses people and medicine today to heal. But Burton is still concerned that Black people will be left behind in the vaccine rollout.
"My biggest concern is that people will drag their feet in getting it. And for me, it is very crystal clear," Burton says. "It's life or death. We've had people die."
Burton has seen some positive effects from his vaccine messaging. Some of his members have already signed up for the shot and others have already gotten it. His congregation's media team now produces weekly Facebook Live conversations to educate people on the virus and to get them pre-registered for vaccination.
One of his congregation members, Juliette Hughes, was nervous about taking the shot at first. But her pastor's encouragement as well as her own conversations with community doctors convinced her to get the vaccine.
"I was one of those people with conspiracy theories in my head at first because we all go back to the Tuskegee experiment and other things throughout history," Hughes says.
Hughes says she came to the realization that she would rather get the shot than take a chance of catching the virus and becoming severely sick or even dying.
"People were dying at an alarming rate just in the community," Hughes says. "When I had people that I knew personally who passed from that, that was basically it for me."
Now that she is vaccinated, Hughes feels empowered to talk to others about the importance of the vaccine. She also helps host the church's weekly Facebook vaccine conversation.