Churches vaccinate the vulnerable
By Lindsay Peyton
Churches in the Texas Annual Conference are rolling up their sleeves and transforming into vaccination sites, an effort of the Church and Community Health Initiative. Already, hundreds have received vaccines as a result.
It all started with a question, Wellness Director Jessica Somerville recalled. Every week during the pandemic, she met with the Community Health Coordinators on her team – Nicole Thomas in the West Houston Hub, Cheryl Prince in the North East Texas Hub, Valencia Simpson-Wiltz in the Southeast Houston Hub and Pelumi Oloyede in the Central Houston Hub.
Somerville knew that churches were involved with immunization clinics for the flu. “How do you all feel about doing an immunization clinic for the vaccine?” she asked.
Already, a pharmacist had mentioned the possibility in the area, and Somerville took the necessary steps to prepare. Then, she reached out to a congregation in each hub – looking for pastors who already had a foothold in their communities.
Vaccinations for the community
The goal, Somerville explained, was not to reach the church’s own members, but rather to provide them with an opportunity to serve surrounding residents, especially those struggling to get vaccinated.
Ebenezer UMC, located in Houston’s Independence Heights, became a test site. The vaccination clinic was scheduled for March 6. Then, Bear Creek UMC, Crossroads UMC and Riverside UMC would follow – and would benefit from lessons learned during the first event, Somerville said.
Little did she know how much they would learn, she said with a laugh.
First, she learned, getting the vaccine was more difficult than expected. And pharmacies needed a lot of notice before preparing a batch.
Then, a week prior to the Ebenezer UMC event, the winter storm hit Houston, destroying the church. Still, the congregation’s pastor Rev. Enid Henderson was determined to remain open. Already, more than 200 individuals had registered for the vaccine.
If that weren’t challenging enough, Somerville also discovered that the independent pharmacist, who had been working with her on the project, was unable to get the vaccine.
“By the grace of God, Pastor Enid’s husband works for Walmart pharmacy,” Somerville said.
Dr. Frank North, founder and pharmacist consultant for Frank North and Associates, introduced Lance Henderson to Alexandria Gallien, pharmacy manager with Walmart. She had just enough doses on hand to fill the need at Ebenezer UMC.
Partnerships and interns help
Somerville also partnered with Texas Southern University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Services and the University of Houston’s College of Pharmacy. Interns from both programs signed up to become immunizers during the events.
Dr. David Wallace provided the interns from UH and Taylor Mitchell, a member of Riverside UMC, recruited the students from TSU.
The interns could provide the shots if an instructor were on site. Dr. North signed up. He also helped at the Bear Creek UMC vaccination later and provided Spanish translation, as well as tents. Lance Henderson also volunteered as an immunizer, not only at Ebenezer but each clinic since then.
At 7 a.m. on Saturday morning of the event, Somerville and her team finally had all the pieces in place to make it possible.
“We went from thinking it could happen to ‘it might happen’ to ‘it’s going to happen,’” she recalled. “So many different people were connecting to help serve – Walmart, interns, and doctors. It really required a partnership of people willing to do their part.”
By the end of the day, 230 individuals received the vaccine. A clinic provided a second dose on April 3.
“It was such a testimony to the fact that it’s never the way you think it will happen,” Somerville said. “But it turns out greater than you could have ever imagined. It could not have worked out better.”
Once the first event proved successful, Somerville was able to greenlight all the other locations – and Carmalita Landry, owner of Custom Care Pharmacy, provided the vaccines.
Bear Creek UMC offered a first dose on March 28 and followed with a second dose on April 18. About 280 individuals were vaccinated.
Crossroads UMC vaccinated 120 individuals, with the first dose on April 9 and the second on April 30. Riverside UMC distributed the first dose on April 24 at a nearby elementary, allowing parents to register their children for school and get their shot the same day. The congregation’s second dose is scheduled for May 15.
And Somerville’s entire team played a role in making all eight events happen.
“They stayed up late nights, registering people,” Somerville said. “They had to prepare for all of the events. They worked every weekend.”
The effort was well worth it, she added. People have told her since, “If you hadn’t made it easy, I would not have done it.”
That’s exactly what she had in mind – to remove any barriers that could prevent people from getting vaccinated. Perhaps the digital divide or transportation issues stood in the way, she explained.
Equipping churches to serve
Instead of finding a vaccination site, individuals simply drove up – or even walked into their neighborhood church. And that’s what the Church and Community Health Initiative is all about.
“It’s been such a blessing,” she said. “We were able to equip the churches with everything they needed to serve.”
One day, Somerville imagines, a church could house a pharmacy or a care clinic. “I don’t see that as something that can’t happen in a church. I actually think it’s something that needs to happen,” she said.
After all, she asks, who better than people of faith to address health care needs – like accessibility, cost, transportation and prevention? The pandemic brought many of these concerns to the forefront.
“I hope it’s a topic that does stay on top,” she said. “Health ministry can look more different now than it ever did before.”
For now, she is planning an outreach event at Houston’s Gethsemane UMC with Harris County Public Health. First, an information session will build awareness of the vaccine with translations available. Then, on May 8, the church will offer its first does and on May 29, the second dose.
“We’re giving people a chance to be advocates for their own health,” Somerville said. “Everyone deserves good health care. It’s so gratifying to see – we’re serving people the way God tells us to.”
Looking back on the past year, Somerville said, all the gears were in motion for these vaccination clinics, well before she even realized it.
If the Church and Community Health Initiative had not started just as COVID-19 hit, if her dream team of dedicated workers were not hired and trained, if the past year had not been spent developing relationships, none of this would have been possible.
“It’s just like God always does,” Somerville said. “There’s a lot in motion, but you don’t always realize it.”