How Churches Are Influencing Vaccine Decisions
People often look to their faith leaders for guidance on big decisions — who to marry, how many kids to have, whether to change jobs. These days, parishioners are asking another big question: Should I get a COVID-19 vaccine?
The answer San Diego area faith leaders give could impact when we reach herd immunity and the severity of future outbreaks.
Many are actively encouraging followers to get vaccinated. They’re including the message in sermons, hosting information sessions with scientists and helping people book vaccine appointments — even sometimes vaccinating congregants on church grounds.
But others, most notably some local megachurches, are avoiding discussing the vaccines at all. And KPBS identified one evangelical megachurch, Awaken Church, that is taking a clear anti-vaccine stance. It is the same church that’s been the source of significant outbreaks and that county officials have called out for its flagrant disregard of the COVID-19 health order.
Awaken, which has five locations in San Diego County, recently hosted a presentation by Dr. Simone Gold, a well-known anti-vaccine doctor who was also arrested for participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. During her presentation, Gold made several claims regarding the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines that have been debunked by health authorities and mainstream scientists.
“The future of humanity and freedom lies in the hands of the believing Christians,” she said, to loud cheers from the audience at Awaken’s San Marcos location.
Awaken Church did not respond to repeated calls and emails requesting comment. Late last year, the church defied cease and desist orders from San Diego County for continuing to hold indoor services, where few people wore masks. By mid-December, there were three COVID-19 outbreaks at Awaken Churches responsible for 81 cases, according to data obtained by KPBS.
'Healthy and ethical'
Religious services were the source of at least 30 San Diego outbreaks between March and November 2020, according to the data. This fact led some local religious leaders to actively advocate for members to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
“We haven’t shut down masses, taken the precautions we’ve taken just to let people ignore the opportunity of getting a vaccine,” said Kevin Eckery, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of San Diego. “We will do everything we can to encourage people to obtain a vaccination, to get it done so we can resume normal life.”
To that end, Bishop Robert McElroy wrote a pastoral letter that was read aloud at every San Diego parish encouraging people to get vaccinated and addressing fears that he wrote are “rooted in misinformation.” The church set up a website to address concerns, including that some vaccines use fetal tissue.
“The Pope on down, every leader on the Catholic side, one after another is trying to explain the situation, that the vaccines are perfectly healthy and ethical to use,” Eckery said.
Other traditionally conservative religious organizations are also advocating for vaccinations locally. Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego said his mosque held a virtual session on Zoom last month with two doctors from UC San Diego to answer members’ questions and address concerns. They are also planning a vaccination clinic at the mosque in a few weeks.
He said he and other religious leaders work hard to combat a deep-rooted mistrust of government and science that exists among some of their congregants.
“We’ve followed all the safety protocols throughout the pandemic, and thank God because of that we’ve had no outbreaks, no one got infected here, and that’s because we did the right thing,” Hassane said. “We’d like to keep doing the right thing, and the right thing now is to promote the vaccines.”
Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue in Bankers Hill said he recently held a 90-minute lecture on why Jewish people are “religiously obligated” to take the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Under the Jewish religion, our obligation is to seek and protect health for our children and those around us,” Meltzer said. “To make sure things are as safe as can be, that our life in this world is considered a gift, and should be protected, and the COVID vaccine is a part of that.”
Some local churches are taking vaccine advocacy a step further by actually helping put shots into parishioners' arms. Last month, the Bayview Baptist Church, San Diego hosted a clinic in collaboration with the San Diego Black Nurses Association where 500 people got vaccines.
Pastor Keith Brown said he got a shot, and that the event helped some who were skeptical of the vaccines make the decision — including him.
“I was a skeptic when they first had them come out, but what made me change my mind was statistics,” Brown said.
UC San Diego epidemiologist Rebecca Fielding-Miller sees faith-based communities as key drivers in the push to reach herd immunity.
“People mix randomly-ish, but not really,” Fielding-Miller said. “If everyone you work with, or go to church with, is talking about getting vaccinated, that’s a social norm, this is just what we do, and that’s really powerful with large groups.”
Fielding-Miller went on to describe how a faith community’s actions can impact the wider population.
“There are fewer people in that group for the virus to latch on to and make its way outside that group, it lessens the probability of people who spend time together getting infected, and also lessens the spread of the virus,” she said.
But if a big church like Awaken, which has thousands of members across the county, encourages people not to take a vaccine, that has a broader impact as well, Fielding-Miller said.
“If you have one set of people not interested in getting vaccinated, you’re more likely to see outbreaks in that group of people,” she said. “The reason that's important beyond that community is we do spend time and space together, so people who don’t get vaccinated still go grocery shopping and go out to eat and their kids go to school. Not getting vaccinated is their choice, but that choice is going to impact a lot of people beyond their immediate community.”
If enough people got vaccinated—between 75 and 80% of the population—COVID-19 would go away completely, says Davey Smith, an immunologist at UC San Diego.
“That’s amazing, that we have in our ability to do that,” he said. “But do I think that’s going to happen? I don’t think so. If enough people don’t get vaccinated, it will become an endemic, it will circulate, and it will show up in hospitals occasionally, but I hope it will be a lot rarer than it is now.”
Smith likened it to measles, a disease that was almost completely eradicated, but has made a comeback thanks in part to the anti-vaccine movement.
“I never saw measles in my practice, then enough people stopped getting the measles vaccine, and it started showing up,” he said. “I expect COVID-19 will show up randomly for the rest of my career.”
Nationwide, survey data show that white evangelical protestants are less likely to get vaccinated than other racial and religious groups, said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.
“That group tends to tilt more Republican, they stand out as less inclined to get vaccinated,” she said.
There are multiple reasons, she said, including past vaccine hesitancy and concern around government restrictions.
Avoiding the issue
In San Diego, other large evangelical churches aren’t advocating against the vaccines as Awaken has been, but they are also not in any way promoting the vaccines. At Rock Church, pastors won’t be making any recommendations, said assistant pastor Mickey Stonier.
“We’re not medical doctors, we’re doctors of the heart,” Stonier said. “We encourage those who enquire to consult with their trusted physician, we’re not medical advisers, we encourage people to adhere to all safety health guidelines, eat, exercise, keep yourself safe.”
The Rock Church does offer classes on marriage, finances, and other aspects of life, but the church doesn’t do “directive counseling,” Stonier said.
“We do biblical guidance, biblical instructions for faith, but outside of that we don’t do directives giving people opinions,” he said.
When asked why Rock Church isn’t advocating for vaccines the way other churches and religious organizations are, Stonier said, “we don’t have judgement on positions of other churches.”
At Flood Church, another large evangelical church in San Diego, the lead pastor has been vaccinated and shared that he volunteered at a vaccination site, but the church is not taking a hard stance on whether members should get vaccines, said executive pastor Adam Klekowski.
“There are a lot of sensitivities around that topic in general, so trying to figure out how to navigate people’s sensitivities, while still communicating, ‘hey we think this is a good thing,’ knowing there could be people who are not going to be first in line to get the shot,” Klekowski said.
In the coming months as more vaccines are available, if it becomes clear there are church members who don’t want vaccines, “that’s when we’d turn on the encouragement,” he said.
And at the Grove, associate pastor Grant Crary said while he and his wife have been vaccinated, the church isn't taking a position on vaccines.
“There are widely differing opinions regarding the COVID vaccines, just as there are differing opinions about the virus itself,” he said. “Some people can't wait to get it, and some want nothing to do with it. Probably most people are just somewhat confused as to what they should do and are somewhere in the middle. At the Grove, we consider being vaccinated or not being vaccinated to be a personal medical decision that we are not qualified to advise on...As a church leadership, we would not encourage or discourage someone regarding COVID vaccination.”