Throughout the pandemic, Black churches across America have played a key role in reducing vaccine hesitancy. Now, faith leaders want to do more, shifting their focus to other health issues in hopes they can reduce disparities within the Black and brown community.
For more than a year here at New Hope Church, the pews have remained empty. Still, each week, Senior Pastor Eugene Downing faithfully delivers a powerful message for Sunday’s service as though the sanctuary were full.
His message is filled with hope, but sometimes, one of truth from a painful past in our country.
As his virtual sermon comes to a close, Rev. Downing reminds each member tuned in where to put their trust. Here at New Hope in Denver, that trust instilled goes beyond spiritual wellness.
“Together, we attempt to keep an eye on health disparities, but even more than that, just awareness issues that particularly effect the African American community a little more adversely,” he said.
Downing talks about health disparities surrounding illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Partnering with retired medical professionals in his congregation, he is providing a safe space for members to stay healthy and informed.
“We’ve done mental health fairs; we’ve done physical health fairs."
During the pandemic, Downing says health efforts shifted.
More than 1,000 COVID-19 vaccines have since been administered to his members, who may have been hesitant at first.
"Our experience with the medical community, we’ve learned both during COVID and of course before, isn’t always on par with the experience of other cultures," Downing said.
Downing says that's the reason his congregation may feel more comfortable addressing health concerns with leaders of faith.
“What we’ve learned is that empowers persons to then go to their doctor,” said Downing.
“Its comfortable coming here, you know, you see people from your community,” said Mikia Milton, a patient at Denver’s Inner City Health Center.
Convenience is also a factor. Milton, only travels a few blocks for her appointments at the faith-based health center. At this medical facility, the primary focus is accessible, affordable health care to underserved communities.
“Our primary purpose is to be a place where people who fall through the cracks can be welcomed and receive the full care that they need,” said Kraig Burleson, CEO of Inner City Health Center.
Burleson is also the pastor of Loving Saints Christian Fellowship. Burleson says the center has administered more than 10,000 vaccines through pop-up clinics. However, he’s seen a decline in check-ups for other major health issues.
“We need to bring those back to the forefront. We need to tend to those things we need to monitor your diabetes. We need to know how your blood pressure levels are,” said Burleson.
Burleson says this starts with actively going into neighborhoods and meeting people where they are. His outreach program, Congregational Health Ministries, does just that.
“Bring education and bringing screenings where people congregate, whether that’s at church, a community event,” he said.
To address these health disparities across the country, 50 black churches in these states across the country have joined to form Choose Healthy Life. The initiative partners with the United Way of New York City to address health disparities.
“If they’re coming here and they feel safe, then why wouldn’t I feel safe,” said Milton.
Downing and Burleson agree. The safety Mikia and others are feeling all starts with trust.
“Our community needs a place where they can be certain that they’re best interests are taken to heart and that the information they’re given is unique to who we are and how we’re navigating as a people in this country,” said Downing.