“Hope Is Still Here”: How the Black Church Is Building Resilience Amid the Pandemic
July 22, 2021
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. The series features racially and religiously diverse leaders across the United States who shared their stories with IFYC via one-on-one interviews. In addition to illuminating distinctive experiences of the pandemic through a faith lens, these interviews offer practical guidance for conducting vaccine outreach in thoughtful, culturally competent ways.
The following interview features Debra Fraser-Howze, founder and president of Choose Healthy Life, an initiative that fortifies community infrastructure to better address the pandemic in Black communities. The interview was conducted by Shauna Morin for IA; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith America (IA): I recently learned about the Choose Healthy Life Council and its work with communities of color in churches across the country. Can you begin by sharing what’s been happening within the organization?
Debra Fraser-Howze (DFH): Well, I created Choose Healthy Life. It comes out of Deuteronomy: “Choose life so that thou and thy seed may live.” And the premise of it is to let the community know they have the power to choose life over death, for them and the generations to come. When Covid-19 hit, my concern was that I did not see an adequate response. There were no vaccines at the time and there were these testing deserts. And when you put a map on top of the map on top of the map of health maladies and disparities, by the end the testing deserts are all in the same communities.
The notion of Choose Healthy Life was that we would become partners with the [Black] church and do testing all over in five cities across the country: New York, Newark, Detroit, Washington DC, and Atlanta. Some of it is built on the assumption that churches already have health ministries. But how do we professionalize those health ministries? How do we professionalize that activity in the church? We got a $4.7 million grant from Quest Diagnostics, and we funded 50 churches—10 in each of those cities—to hire full time, Black church, public health navigators. So, there is somebody in the church that works every day whose sole focus is on health in the community. And they’re all already part of the community.
Nobody knows the community like the church. It’s an asset; the church is an underused asset. They have brick and mortar … and they have the knowledgebase. They have scientists in the building because a lot of the churches have doctors that belong to the National Medical Association. They also have political structures. Anybody who wants to get elected goes to the Black church. So that has to be reciprocal. We found that the best advocates [in the Black church] would pick up the phone and call the governor and mayors and say, “We want the vaccine. We want it now. You come here when you want us to vote for you, and we want to live. We want you to make that happen.” And they made it happen. The mistrust in the Black community is real, but a lot of the people that got vaccinated did it because the church asked them to do it; otherwise, they never would have done it.
IA: You mentioned the role of the churches in vaccination efforts, which is something I’d like to ask you about. Have the churches been hosting vaccine events, or are they offered at a variety of sites?
DFH: [Through Choose Healthy Life] we had 50 Black churches funded and trained, so the infrastructure was already there to pivot very quickly to vaccination. In the first 90 days, we vaccinated over 30,000 people and we are continuing to vaccinate. Part of each church’s responsibility is to complete a community service action plan, so we have pop-up vaccination sites in the churches every week, but we also go out and do vaccinations outside of the church. We have the church involved with vaccinations that are happening at community health fairs, all those kinds of things. And Choose Healthy Life works very closely in every city with the Department of Health to ensure we have a vaccination partner in that city.
For each city, there’s a [Choose Healthy Life] council member. In Atlanta, it’s Rev. Raphael Warnock, who’s the new senator. And our co-chairs are the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Calvin Butts. Everybody was picked for a very specific reason. As we branch out, we will bring on more and the council will grow. We’re also looking at another pivot now to address other health disparities. It’s what we’re calling the Never Again Coalition, which will make sure we’re never again in a situation where so many of our people die because of a pandemic. We want to go back to normal, but we don’t want to go back to that normal. We died in that normal. And we want to go to a place where we do not die.
IA: That hits on a really core interest of ours at IA. Of course, we’ve been in the midst of Covid, and we are responding to Covid in different ways, but what about the longer term? Are we learning lessons about how faith communities can play a role in public health and make it more equitable? I’d love if you could speak a little bit more about how you imagine the infrastructures you’ve described becoming permanent.
DFH: We need lots of partners. We need the federal government to step in and help. We need to plan at a national level and then we need to deploy on the local levels. If we allow [Choose Healthy Life] infrastructures to fall apart, particularly the ones that we put in the churches, then we’re right back where we were. We have to ensure those infrastructures don’t go away. So, we’re looking at resources that can make this permanent over at least a 5-year period. That would allow us to do an adequate assessment of what the Black church response yielded in terms of pandemic preparedness and health disparities.
IFYC: What are you hearing from your partners in these churches about how their work is going so far? What have been the challenges or successes?
DFH: It’s like everywhere else. Numbers are down, people who wanted to get a vaccine have gotten it. We’re working very closely with Columbia University—Columbia is doing the evaluation to see what works, how it works, how you set it up, all those kinds of things. Anecdotally, there’s a digital divide. If we are going to continue to tell people they have to go online to do these things, we have a problem. If there’s no one there to connect them to what they need, there’s a breakdown. And the same way technology has impacted older people, the internet is something that’s impacting younger people. They’re hearing all kinds of things—they’re going to be infertile, [the vaccine is] taking out DNA. It just runs the gamut.
IA: As you think about young people and the concerns they’re having, I’m curious if you have observed differences between the older generation and the younger generation in terms of their hesitancy or responses.
DFH: The older generation is much more connected to the church. The younger generation is not as connected. I realized very early on that while the church is an anchor in the community, to get to those younger people, we may need a different message, a different messenger. As a vehicle, the church does have young people in their church; they have youth ministries, they have a youth minister, some of them have young celebrities in their churches. So, they do have outreach, and we’re now [discussing] how we get to a younger generation through the churches.
IA: In the time we have left, I want to ask you two more questions. First, it’s clear to me as you’re talking that your life experience is informing the work you’re doing now. If you were to give some words of wisdom to somebody in a different faith community trying to establish an infrastructure to do public health work, what would you tell them?
DFH: I would tell them to be true to their faith, be familiar to their community, and don’t turn into a public health agency. Remain a church and make sure you have the correct, accurate information. Make sure you are connected to the medical community. Make sure you are there as the protector that you should be. Don’t try to be Sinai Hospital, because you aren’t. And that’s not what they’ve come to you for. That would be my recommendation.
IA: That’s great, thank you. My other question is—and I just want to zoom out a little bit—how has your own religious or spiritual worldview motivated you to be involved in this work over all your years of professional life?
DFH: You know, it’s funny you should ask that. When I retired the last time [before the pandemic], I went to seminary. I’m at Moravian Theological Seminary. So, I’m in my second year of seminary and COVID hits, and I’m coming out of classes in the New Testament, the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This [pandemic] hits and looking at all my people dying felt like Exodus. It was a “let my people go” moment. And I think it was seminary that made me get up and say, “No, I’m not going to sit back and watch this. I’m going to do something. I’m going to show you something before I go.”
I had no idea it was going to be this hard to go back to school. I’ve done things in corporate America, I’ve worked with the CDC, I’ve moved mountains in business. And then I sit down, and I have to write a paper on the Hebrew Bible, and I think, “I have lost my mind.” But I’m not going to stop. I’m going to stick this out. I’m going to get my degree. And I’m going to preach, because I think that’s what God would want. He called me to this moment for a reason.
IA: What an intersection between what you’re doing now—partnering with these churches—and learning that theology at the same time. I love it. And I think you’re already answering this, but as we close, I would like to give you the opportunity to share something that is giving you hope in this moment with the work you’re doing.
DFH: What is giving me hope … is that hope is still here. In the midst of the turmoil and the sadness and the death and destruction, hope is eternal. And it’s still here. Isn’t it a blessing that there is some ray of hope that could come out of this? And that hope is the Black church. I’m very proud of it.
If you would like to know more about IA’s work on Faith in the Vaccine, please click here to see how you can help.