Vincent T. Davis
The Rev. Juan N. Tolliver greeted a steady line of people at Bethel AME Church coming in for their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday.
It was a clear show of trust in the much-revered Black institution and its pastor.
Tolliver bumped fists and asked after the well being of masked visitors who had overcome misgivings about getting the shot as well as those who hadn’t hesitated to register for the vaccine.
Volunteers and family members joined the pastor in helping several older participants move from vehicles into wheelchairs and straightening up on walkers and canes.
For the pastor and congregation of the 137-year-old church, the event was one more service to their East Side community, something in line with their outreach ministry, food pantry and utilities assistance program.
“People feel more comfortable coming to the church to get the vaccine,” Tolliver, 60, said. “They are fearful of being in the larger places, and we’re trying to give vaccines to the Black and brown community who are underserved. They feel some connection with the church.”
Concerned that African American San Antonians are getting vaccinated too slowly, congregation leaders at Bethel AME Church decided to take action.
Parishioners of the church, located at 225 E. Swiss St., partnered with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District to bring a vaccination clinic into the parish hall. Volunteers called on congregation members and went into the neighborhood last month, scheduling more than 200 people to get vaccinated. Monday, those people were back at the parish hall, getting their second doses.
“Our event, with support from Metro Health, will hopefully remove barriers,” said church member Mike Bruton, who served on the vaccine committee.
Another clinic is in the works, church officials said.
Thomas Wright, 26, senior management coordinator with Metro Health, said the mobile pop-up clinics are set up in the hardest-hit areas of San Antonio to serve populations falling through the cracks.
“We found that partnering with churches and faith leaders is helping us kind of hit these demographics where they might be more hesitant to receive the vaccine,” Wright said. “We’ve seen a good turnout so we’re excited to hopefully keep doing these in the future.”
Tolliver was joined by the Rev. Raymond Bryant, Presiding Elder of the San Antonio District of AME churches, who said people are grappling with trust issues and information concerning their rights.
Bryant said the church coordinated with the Roseville Apartments to have 40 seniors driven to the clinic. They also want to get the word out that there is a monoclonal antibody treatment for people who test positive for COVID-19. According to the Texas Medical Association, the treatments have been shown to lessen the risk of hospitalization. It’s free, although an administration fee could be charged.
The vaccinations are free for everybody, regardless of income, insurance or lack of it.
“Free needs to be emphasized,” Bryant, 64, said.“That’s why we are finding so many of our people at home dead. Because they think they have to pay for it. The information that needs to be shared has not been shared in the community.”
At Monday’s clinic, the pastors visited with West Ford, 80, who said he was the first to sign up for a shot. They welcomed Gloria Camarena, 69, who lived a few blocks away, grateful that the clinic was just “a jump and a hop away.” They spoke to Rogers Jones, 87, an Army veteran who works at the church’s A.R. Nelson Outreach center. He was wary at first about getting the vaccine.
“I was hesitant because of literature I had read,” Jones said. “I wasn’t sure if the vaccine would cause a reaction.”
Co-workers convinced him the process was safe.
Just after 9 a.m., Glenda Tease, 55, moved through the screening line with her father, Leonard Williams, 78. Tease said she tested positive for the coronavirus in June and didn’t recover until the end of September.
“I was excited,” Williams said about the shot. “I wanted it as soon as possible.”
The church leaders knew that some of the elders in their congregation have doubts about the safety of the vaccine that was approved in a relatively short time compared to other medicines, and that, for some, seeds of mistrust about the federal government’s true intentions were sown long ago.
Community activist Lynda Richardson, 68, and her sister Sylvia Richardson, 66, were pleased the event took place in their neighborhood. As they moved through the screening line, they reconnected with longtime friends and relatives — some of whom Lynda Richardson had signed up herself.
“It’s in our community, and it’s so organized,” she said. “You have people out here that look like us.”
State figures show that, just as the deaths from COVID-19 are higher among Latino and Black Texans, fewer Latino and Black Texans are getting vaccinated.
The disparity is particularly apparent among older Texans; state figures show younger people receiving vaccinations are far more likely to be ethnically and racially diverse than their elders. And it’s that older population that is more at risk of complications from the disease. Black Texans make up 12 percent of the state’s adult population; between Feb. 4 and March 20 they received 8 percent of first doses.
Congregation member George Sikazwe, 19, pitched in as a volunteer, helping where needed. A freshman at the University of the Incarnate Word, he hustled in and out of the clinic, carrying supplies and a sense of pride.
“I wanted to help out,” Sikazwe said.
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