This Knoxville church parking lot is bustling mid-week with a large medical van, health-care workers, and patients arriving to get their COVID-19 vaccines.
Inside the church, the Rev. Leah Burns is working the phone, chatting up church members and finding people to fill appointments left open by cancellations.
“I’m so glad you prayed and heard what you needed to hear to get the vaccine,” Burns says to a church member who’s finally been persuaded to get protection from coronavirus.
As the vaccine has been rolled out in stages to the public over the past several weeks, at least six churches in Holston Conference have served (or will serve) as vaccination site hosts
Some, like Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church where Burns is pastor, have taken proactive roles in helping to make the vaccine available to what they say are underserved populations.
“It’s documented that COVID-19 affects Black people and other people of color more than other communities,” Burns said. “So it’s a priority for us that the vaccine is available to our community.”
Lennon-Seney is a predominantly Black congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, while Randolph Avenue United Methodist Church is a Black congregation in Pulaski, Virginia. Marva Hickman said she and her husband, Mickey Hickman, were asked by a local pharmacy to contact church members and friends in Pulaski County “because there weren’t enough Black and Brown people coming out to get the vaccine.”
As of April 8, Mickey Hickman had already scheduled appointments for 90 of 100 people expected to get a Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine on April 10. The vaccination site was recently relocated from Randolph Avenue church to a school gym to accommodate more people.
After three church members died of COVID-19 during one week in December, Burns began working with Cherokee Health Systems in January to fill vaccination slots with people 75 and older from her church and community. When the vaccines were finally offered to the general public, Lennon-Seney began hosting vaccinations in their parking lot every Wednesday beginning March 24. Ninety-six people received the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine on the first day.
“It’s a hard job convincing some people to take the shot,” said Johnny Barnes, a Lennon-Seney member and volunteer in his church parking lot on April 7. “But anything we can do to help the public, we try to be of assistance.”
The challenge is not only that some are resistant to inoculation. (“This vaccine came so quickly, and there is so much uncertainty about the pandemic anyway,” Burns said.) Many people at high risk for COVID-19 do not have vehicles or other resources to seek out or drive a distance to acquire vaccines as others have done.
The Rev. Will Shewey contacted the health department about vaccines for his church and community when he realized homeless people were missing out. “Nobody seemed to be doing anything for them,” said Shewey, pastor of Shades of Grace United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee.
The health department quickly responded by setting up a vaccination day at Shades of Grace on April 8. Fifty-one people received the one-shot vaccine.
“You will never get them to the same place twice,” Shewey explained, referring to the vaccine of choice for his congregation, including many who struggle with addiction and homelessness.
Church Street United Methodist Church has also been proactive in helping older church members as well as left-out populations receive their vaccinations in Knoxville, Tennessee – reaching more than 200 so far. The parish health team began securing appointments for older members beginning in January, when they saw that “technology had so severely handicapped them” from acquiring their own, said Katie Vesser Strangis, director of communications.
Church Street leaders also scheduled vaccines for people served by their Beacon of Hope ministry in South Knoxville. On April 15, Church Street will host Johnson & Johnson vaccinations for the guests of their weekly soup kitchen. During the pandemic, soup kitchen meals have been served as to-go lunches for about 35 to 40 guests, Strangis said. On April 15, the health department hopes to vaccinate as many as 75.
Mafair United Methodist Church has played a big role in protecting Kingsport, Tennessee, from coronavirus, after the pharmacy next door asked if they could use the church parking lot for vaccinations.
“Our former parish nurse, now full-time COVID vaccine coordinator, Trish Downs, offered to help, and the rest is history,” said the Rev. Adam Love.
Mafair volunteers have gone all in to help, scheduling appointments, setting up the parking lot, and coordinating traffic during vaccine clinics that have happened every other Saturday since Feb. 20.
“My folks have been itching to get back to in-person ministry,” Love said. “This was a godsend ... I can’t tell you how proud I am. My folks are part of the solution. We’re living into the new creation.”
Fairview United Methodist Church was also approached by a local pharmacy in Maryville, Tennessee, to host two-dose vaccination clinics on March 6 and March 27. The Rev. Mickey Rainwater, senior pastor, said his church was glad to offer its spacious parking lot and entrance awning to help protect workers and patients in case of rain. About 500 people received the vaccine at Fairview.
“It was the first large vaccination site in this area, and we were thrilled to be a part of that,” Rainwater said.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
Update | April 15, 8:30 p.m.: About 80 people, including about 20 United Methodist clergy, participated in tonight's prayer service at Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church. Update | April 15, 2:15 p.m.: This is a developing story. Please follow ...