ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — At a gathering inside an Urban League auditorium, the sounds of applause and shouts of “Amen” sound out through the afternoon — audio punctuation not unfamiliar to Bishop Steven Thompson, who leads Leonard Missionary Baptist Church.
“I hope they have a hard time saying no to the message,” he said.
But on this afternoon, he isn’t standing behind the pulpit. Instead, he’s seated among dozens of other faith and church leaders to hear the good word about COVID-19 vaccines from area health officials.
“I take it back to my congregation. I need to have them informed,” he said.
At the meeting Tuesday at the Urban League, they’re called to help their communities believe in the science of the shots — especially since many of them go home to communities where the vaccination rates are low and COVID-19 cases are on the rise.
“Our job as faith-based believers and pastors is to try to eliminate the doubt,” said Pastor Zachary Lee of Mount Paran Baptist Church in East St. Louis.
The faith leaders were presented with the latest data and information and given the opportunity to ask questions. They were then asked to sign up with St. Louis City or County to be conduits of information to their congregations and even offer vaccination clinics at their churches.
“We touch thousands and thousands of people weekly and they trust our word,” said Bishop Michael Jones. He leads Friendly Temple, one of the largest Missionary Baptist churches in the metro.
“Seniors, young people, African-American men who impact families and generations. So I think if we speak the word, they trust us, they will listen and hopefully, we will influence them to participate in this process.”
This is part of a strategy to get the vaccine into communities where vaccine uptake continues to lag behind, especially important as the delta variant takes hold and large-scale public health measures, like mask requirements, are dropped.
“Increasing access, going straight to where people live, work, play and pray is the best option,” said Damon Broadus, St. Louis County's Director of Health Promotion. He presented at the meeting alongside Dr. Alex Garza, the head of the Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.
“It starts with the church. The biggest part of the community,” said Thompson. “I think if we start to get it and get it right and get it out to the people, it's going to be real effective.”