Impact of COVID-19 and vaccinations on commmunities of faith
As more are vaccinated faith communities open up
COVID vaccinations make a difference in rural, urban and ethnic congregations and faith communities.
In mid-May, nearly 50 pastors across the region were interviewed about the percent of their congregations and communities who are vaccinated, attitudes about vaccinations and what difference it makes for members to be vaccinated.
The pastors interviewed said that a higher percentage of their members—which they estimated to be 50 to 100 percent—were vaccinated than were people in their communities.
Those with many older members gave a higher percentage because they were able to have vaccinations earlier.
Wesley Howell, pastor of Trinity Lutheran in Pullman, estimated that 80 percent were vaccinated or are in the process, noting that most members are 60 and older and many are in health care on front lines or vaccinating people so more can be vaccinated.
Patty Heath of St. Paul Lutheran in Colville reported when interviewed in mid-May that at least 50 percent of the congregation were vaccinated, while Stevens County was at about 35 percent.
Marilyn Wilder, pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church in Oroville, said that "close to 100 percent in our church are participating in services. Most who have been vaccinated are happy and feel free, while others think they won't get it no matter what. It's a safety factor that goes along with the freedom factor."
Eric Peterson, pastor of Colbert Presbyterian Church, sees a similar disparity: "I'd guess upwards of 90 percent of the congregation is vaccinated now and something around 50 to 60 percent of the general community. There are to my knowledge no anti-vaxxers in the congregation, but there certainly are some in the community."
Colbert Presbyterian has some medical professionals—nurses and doctors—to consult with as the church developed protocols and as members have questions.
Jeff Milsten, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran in Dayton and of Pomeroy Congregational, reported: "In both churches most everyone attending is vaccinated, but I have not asked. We go on trust. I know that some people who are not attending said they are not getting vaccinated."
While some pastors and congregations are hesitant to ask, others were in communication with their parishioners.
Those with few members knew 100 percent were vaccinated. Some took polls.
Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ did an anonymous poll on Zoom and learned that 97 percent of those attending were fully vaccinated. On May 23, members began in-person worship.
With almost all of the 45 members over 60, Ed McBride, pastor at Colfax United Methodist Church (UMC) figured 90 percent were vaccinated.
"I know a few people have chosen not to, but most have, as the older group was second in line after health care workers," he said. "In Colfax, the vast majority are getting vaccinated."
Congregations are educating members various ways—sending information from their regional denominations, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and their county health department.
"Many people know and understand. We have pretty well-educated and well-informed folks," said Michelle Mitchell, pastor of Harrington UMC, where she guessed 50 percent are vaccinated in contrast to 29 percent in the county.
"They realize with vaccinations, a percentage of people may still get sick, but they feel they don't have to be as concerned," she said. "One woman needed the vaccine to see her mother. It made a difference for her."
With limited doses there, few under 18 were vaccinated.
Don Short, pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church, said most people in Othello want to get vaccinated, but there are a few anti-vaxxers.
"Two church members who are on the hospital board encourage people to get vaccinated," he said.
Father Michael Savelesky who serves Holy Rosary Parish in Rosalia and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in St. John, said, "Attitudes vary. In a small community, it's important not to raise divisive issues, but to have tolerance of people's ideas."
With few gatherings, there has been little public discussion.
"As pastor I have kept abreast of the Catholic Church's understanding on vaccination, and have sent parishioners home with documentation, including Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly's letter, Moral Guidance on COVID-19 Vaccines, which is at dioceseofspokane.org.
The bishop considers the distribution of vaccines "an occasion of hope for many people." Because of concern spread that a cell line from a past abortion may have been involved in creating two vaccines, he made three points: "1) We may morally receive the currently available vaccines. 2) We are not morally obligated to take the vaccine. 3) We should take this opportunity to advocate for more ethical research and pharmaceutical development."
The bishop also expressed concern that COVID has "engendered resentment and division in our society and even within the Body of Christ." Given that "we are morally free to make choices, we ought not allow our differing responses to the demands of these times be occasions for division."
Julie Reinholz, pastor of Pioneer UMC in Walla Walla, reported that the city and county vaccinated at the county fairgrounds near the church. They added two more sites. Pharmacies, doctors' offices and mobile clinics began offering vaccinations.
"Nurses in the church have shown videos during worship, and spoken to the positive effects and goodness of getting vaccines," she said. "We have had newsletter articles, links to those articles and weekly emails with CDC information and testimonies of doctors. Health folks in the congregation have shared the education.
One church set up a site for vaccinations in their church.
Katherine Tuttle, pastor of Wilbur Community Church, said, "We have been a vaccine site. We partnered with Lincoln County Health twice to be a vaccine site for first responders. We felt proud to participate. Our fellowship hall was not being used. It is spacious, clean, sanitary, socially distanced, climate controlled and regularly cleaned by our sanitation team."
The church offered education events when a nurse from the county hospital came to answer questions people had in a judgement-free way, Katherine said.
Another pastor said the church is across the street from the health clinic, and the community has access to a local hospital.
Michelle Mitchell at Harrington said her church has three health professionals—a nurse practitioner, a pharmacist and physical therapist—who have helped members understand what is going on.
"They helped us stay safe, doing Zoom services. As things opened, the Greater Northwest UMC Conference gave us protocols to open up," she said. "A few people asked us to do what the denomination and governor stated and posted when it was okay to open up with distancing and masks. One woman, in preparation for opening up, put tape every six feet. At first, there was some reluctance, but following health department guidance, members jumped in so we could be ready for people to come back."
For several pastors, education was part of pastoral care.
First Congregational United Church of Christ in Walla Walla has a Reopening with Care Task Force to help guide decision-making, said the pastor, Nathaniel Mahlberg. "We have a doctor and a nurse to help us be objective in our assessments. We did not make assumptions and just have anecdotal evidence on whether members are vaccinated."
Some members helped others with no computer or having difficulty navigating how to sign up.
"For the most part, our people trust data-driven medical science and were overjoyed when vaccines were deemed safe and available," he said. "Some volunteered at vaccination clinics, seeing it as a public service to promote community wellness.
"Our education has been more one-on-one between pastor and member. Some were nervous, so we talked them through that. A few were reluctant, so we talked with them," Nathaniel said. "Understanding the science behind the vaccinations is reassuring, so is knowing that medical professionals who developed the vaccines asked the right questions.
Pastors report that people have told them they feel better to be vaccinated.
Jeff Milsten, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran in Dayton and Pomeroy Congregation, explained, "When I've been challenged, I've said vaccination is positive and a personal choice. I want it for myself and for my children, so I don't have to worry.
"For my congregations, if everyone is vaccinated, we won't have to wear masks," he said. "We can start doing things we previously enjoyed."
Stacey Friedlein, pastor at Zion Lutheran in Davenport and Christ Lutheran in Egypt, said: "It makes a huge difference in feeling comfortable about safety. It is important to do to get back to some sense of normalcy."
Most in American Lutheran Church at Newport "shed tears of gratitude and hope to be able to be together again," said Janine Goodrich, pastor. "A few are afraid, but the overwhelming majority is grateful.
"Because vaccines reduce fear, we can visit places and can visit each other. There is hope because we can be together without being afraid," she said.
The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Spokane offered a two-hour pop-up COVID vaccine clinic on June 3. People were able to pre-register on a link. The cathedral partnered with Consistent Care, which has some nurses in the cathedral.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2021