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Faith Leaders In McLean County Seek To Boost COVID Vaccinations

LeRoy First United Methodist Church has hosted two COVID-19 vaccination clinics

NORMAL — Surveys show white evangelicals, people of color and rural residents are among the most likely to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine.

As vaccination rates drop, health officials are targeting those specific groups to encourage vaccination to get closer to herd immunity. They say you should talk to the people you trust if you have questions about the vaccine.

Faith leaders in McLean County say they are willing to help the public health campaign, but they can only go so far.

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Christ Church of Normal is a conservative Presbyterian evangelical church. It recently returned to a regular service schedule after 15 months of pandemic restrictions.

“Father, we are so thankful you have you have brought us back together, that we are meeting again with no restrictions,” Brad Lucht, Pastor of Youth and Young Adults, Christ Church, Normal, told the congregation during a service June 6. “We are here enjoying fellowship with one another.”

Bob Smart is pastor at Christ Church. He said COVID made organized worship difficult. The church started online services and ran three simultaneous in-person services to social distance.

Smart said last summer, it made one of the services mask optional.

“There’s always a debate and some just did not want to wear a mask and felt they were fine,” Smart said. “We tried to represent everybody well.”

Smart said writing sermons has also been difficult in the last year, trying to help people make sense of so many pressing issues—the pandemic, racial justice and then a contested election. When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, Smart said he doesn’t talk much about that from the pulpit.

A survey from the Public Religion Research Institute ranks white Evangelicals first among Americans who say they won’t get the COVID vaccine.

Smart said he believes a healthy percentage of the approximately 450 members at his church are vaccinated against COVID. Smart said his church’s members may have vastly different views about political issues, but he said they don’t fit the stereotypes often portrayed on social media.

“It seemed like there weren’t a lot of evangelicals represented in social media that had both conservative views and compassion,” Smart lamented.

Smart said the isolation many of us lived in over the last year made our differences seems more dramatic. He hopes a return to normal will help people see past those differences.

Smart said he believes in the efficacy of COVID vaccines. He said he listens to the medical professionals in his own congregation. That’s a key part of the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) response to ease vaccine hesitancy: seeking advise from people you trust.

The department held several virtual town halls for the Black and Spanish-speaking populations to address their concerns about the COVID vaccine.

McLean County Health Department public affairs coordinator Marianne Manko speaks to a gathering during a COVID memorial observance outside the McLean County Museum of History in March. Emily Bollinger/WGLT

MCHD public affairs coordinator Marianne Manko said churches and other faith communities can provide a trusted environment.

Manko said the health department has worked with faith-based groups to identify potential barriers to vaccination. Maybe someone lacks transportation or they don’t have time to drive to Bloomington to get the shots. Rural residents are another target area where vaccination rates have been lower.

“We found that most faith-based organizations, most pastors, most churches are getting the message,” Manko said. “Take a look at all the parameters and what’s going to help you make your decision, but in the end, we want you to be healthy and we want you to do the right thing. We want you to protect yourself and protect your community.”

Steve Dean is mayor of LeRoy, a city of less than 4,000 people southeast of Bloomington. Dean pushed to get the vaccine in his community from day one.

“I started haranguing the McLean County Health Department and saying ‘I want clinics in LeRoy. I can come up with the place. I can come up with however many volunteers you need,’” Dean recalled.

The health department responded. It has hosted four clinics in LeRoy churches, including two at the mayor’s house of worship, LeRoy First United Methodist.

Pastor Mattheis Lorimor said the congregation has been very careful about COVID. He jokes the church bought enough hand sanitizer and Lysol to float Noah’s Ark. He said he wants everyone to get vaccinated, but it’s not something he preaches from the pulpit. He said that’s more of a one-on-one conversation when people ask about it.

“It always felt like an issue that was meant to have more of that personal touch than to be a lecture, but a one-way conversation,” Lorimor said.

Having personal conversations can be hard during a pandemic, especially when you are new to a community. Timothy Mark Harris started last month as senior pastor at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Bloomington, one of the area’s oldest predominantly Black churches. One of Harris’ first tasks as pastor was to transition the church back to in-person worship.

Timothy Mark Harris, senior pastor at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Bloomington. Courtesy of Timothy Mark Harris

Harris said the congregation has been cautious in trying to keep everyone safe. COVID has hit minority communities especially hard. African Americans, and in particular Black protestants, have also been unwilling to get the vaccine in larger numbers. Harris said we wants to encourage vaccinations as much as he can. He said that will take time to build trust to have those conversations.

“It takes people time to open up completely, so I am just going to continue being engaging and open and available to the best of my ability and lead them to a place where they have some comfort but also a clear understanding of what’s going on in the world today,” Harris said.

Harris said while the congregation has been cautious about reopening, he believes as many as nine in 10 of Mount Pisgah’s members are vaccinated. Harris said he understands the hesitation the Black community may have about vaccines given a history of medical racism, but he said it’s unfair to suggest that African Americans can’t see past that to see the science.

“I think in some sense that’s an unfair characterization,” Harris replied. “Of course, we should never forget our history and we actually learn from our history. Being cautious and moving through a systematic approach of thinking regarding decision making is important to our community.”

One challenge health officials face in pushing more people of faith to get vaccinated is the conflict some see between faith and science. LeRoy mayor Steve Dean said he doesn’t see it as an “either or” proposition.

“You have to trust somebody, and my preference is I’ll trust God but I’ll also trust science,” Dean said.

Dean’s pastor at LeRoy First UMC, Mattheis Lorimor, offers a biblical analogy to the current state of the pandemic.

“In LeRoy it does in many ways feel like the ‘promised land’ is very much in sight. We’re maybe at mid-point across the Jordan getting there, so we’re not fully there yet.”

The survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows Jews and white Catholics are least likely to refuse the COVID vaccine.

Illinois Public Radio

Illinois Public Radio

Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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