The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A pastor’s life depends on a coronavirus vaccine. Now he faces skeptics in his church.

From left, Steve Ward, Debbie Ward and Dawn Younce sing during Sunday service Dec. 6 at Houston Northwest Church. Masks are encouraged, but not everyone wears them. (May-Ying Lam for The Washington Post)

HOUSTON — Concerned someone from his own congregation could pass him the coronavirus, evangelical pastor Steve Bezner sneaks in a back door of his church to protect himself from his flock.

Before the pandemic, the 45-year-old minister, who normally leads nearly 2,000 people, would stand by the entrance to shake hands and offer hugs. Now, before services, he stays secluded in a room offstage until it is time to preach while an armed church member who works for Homeland Security watches the door.

Members of Houston Northwest Church don’t wish him harm, but because of heart failure issues in his 20s, Bezner’s doctor has warned him he could die if he catches the virus. Many of his members shun masks and don’t take the virus seriously.

“I took it pretty personal at first,” he said. “Over time, I realized their decisions have nothing to do with me. Instead, they were based on personal opinions or political persuasions.”

Bezner would be less fearful of his congregants if he and enough of them would get vaccinated for the coronavirus. But many of his Southern Baptist parishioners are skeptical of vaccines or completely opposed to getting inoculated, a reflection of broader suspicion of the coronavirus vaccines among many White evangelicals. They are split nearly 50-50 on whether they “definitely/probably” will get the vaccines, according to a November survey by the Pew Research Center, compared to 60 percent of the American population who say they would get them.

Down the road from Bezner’s church, Blake Wilson, pastor of a predominantly Black church called Crossover Bible Fellowship, also fears his community will have similar reservations over the vaccines but for different reasons. Distrust of the medical establishment permeates Black communities. Many recall how, starting in the 1930s, Black men with syphilis in Tuskegee, Ala., were deceived and denied treatment over a 40-year period so doctors could study the disease. According to Pew, 59 percent of Black Protestants say they definitely/probably will not get the vaccine, making them the religious group least likely to say they plan to get one. There is no agreed upon number of people who need to be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity,” but Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert, has said at least 75 percent of the population needs to opt in.

To combat that wariness, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and other top public health officials have been reaching out to other pastors and influencers in faith communities to help with messaging that the vaccines, once ready for wide distribution, will be safe and effective. But religious leaders like Bezner say they face a difficult task persuading their parishioners to vaccinate, especially when their congregants are getting conflicting messages online.

What NIH chief Francis Collins wants religious leaders to know about the coronavirus vaccines

In interviews, many of Bezner’s parishioners said they are hesitant because the vaccines were developed quickly. Some are concerned by reports that the vaccines used a cell line that originated in fetal tissue. And a smaller number of conservative Christians believe a vaccine could function as the “mark of the beast,” an identifier of the end times in the biblical book Revelation.

“If I’m talking for an hour a week, and they’re feeding their souls with something else 15 hours a week,” Bezner said, “I simply can’t win.”

‘The foolishness you get on Facebook’

Even as other churches have returned to in-person services, Wilson has kept his worship services online and wears two masks as an extra form of protection. He also has a doctor in his congregation provide more than 1,200 parishioners updates on the virus, as well as advice on how they can protect themselves. The doctor recently told her fellow church members she plans to get the vaccine and offer it at her family practice. He plans to address the issue as well.

“I can come behind [the doctor] and say something like, ‘I’m getting the shot,’ or, ‘I’d advise you to get the shot,’ ” Wilson said.

But even here, in a congregation that has taken the threat of the virus seriously, Wilson’s influence is limited. Sitting around conference tables, spaced out for social distancing in the church building, several members of his staff said they might get the vaccine eventually but plan to wait and see if people they know experience side effects. They acknowledged skepticism toward vaccines rooted in historic injustices but also in the same sort of misinformation Bezner has encountered in his flock.

Amid history of mistreatment, doctors struggle to sell Black Americans on coronavirus vaccine

Reggie Holiday, who handles the church’s finances, said a White friend, who works for a pharmaceutical company that received an early dose of the Moderna vaccine, recently urged him to get the vaccine when he can.

“I don’t know Sheila. Black folks are a lot more skeptical,” he texted back to her. “All of my friends are like H--- NO!! Hahahahahaha.”

He then texted her a screenshot from a Facebook meme, which imagines a person becoming deformed and sprouting hair all over after getting the vaccine.

Holiday said he has heard from some people who are worried about chips being implanted by Bill Gates, citing “the foolishness you get on Facebook.”

Edith Washington, whose husband is the church’s executive pastor, said predominantly Black churches don’t carry the same authority for a younger generation. What will matter more, she thinks, is whether certain celebrities publicly take the vaccine, such as former president Barack Obama or Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

“We were trained to listen to our pastor. Younger people have so many voices coming at them,” said Washington, a nurse who has worked in public health on tuberculosis. “Many are asking about the question of the greater good versus our personal liberties.”

Important public health partners

While the influence of faith leaders may not be what it once was, Collins at NIH says they remain important public health partners. The agency worked through predominantly Black churches to try to convince people to take part in early vaccine trials. In recent weeks, Collins has done public videos with several faith leaders, including California megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore. A regular churchgoer who speaks openly about his Christian faith, Collins has done two private calls with groups of about 30 faith influencers. Fauci, who praises his Jesuit education, has addressed houses of worship this year, including to the Orthodox Union of rabbis, at Roxbury Presbyterian church in Boston and to a children’s chapel service at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring.

One of the biggest concerns religious people voice about the coronavirus vaccine is whether cell lines created from aborted fetal tissue were used in any of the vaccines in production. Collins said four of the six leading vaccines did not use fetal tissue in the development, though some of the vaccines have used those cell lines in lab trials.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a recent internal memo, described that while the vaccines “are not completely free from connection to abortion” it is a “relatively remote” connection. Several bishops have already publicly supported the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, has said he will urge people to take them.

Josh Williams, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, did several listening sessions in 2019 and early 2020 with faith communities in Colorado to hear their attitudes about vaccines. He found the vast majority of people he spoke with didn’t have theological concerns about vaccines. Instead, they voiced the same concerns as the general population over whether vaccines are safe and effective. This suggests faith leaders can play a role in reassuring the public they are safe.

Collins believes because they have more credibility than government officials with some skeptics, they have a duty to help. “I think of pastors as shepherds who figure out how can I keep my flock safe and secure and keep the things from happening,” he said. “I think that is part of the overall responsibility and mandate of our leaders in the church and not to be shied away from. … The church, in this time of confusion, ought to be a beacon, a light on the hill, an entity that believes in truth.”

He added that religious leaders “are in a tough spot because they have a lot of strong opinions coming at them from their parishioners.”

He attributed resistance to vaccines among some White evangelicals to a perception of science as “atheistic and materialistic,” that is as old as the question of whether evolutionary biology contradicts the Bible. But he argues there does not need to be a divide between science and religion.

“If we have a chance to stem the tide with science and good public health measures, God is calling us to do that,” he continued. “Christians and other people of faith ought to be on the front lines of trying to promote the lifesaving activities that could make this less horrible.”

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‘It’s a personal decision, just like salvation’

Before a recent Sunday worship service at Bezner’s evangelical church, a group of women met for a Bible study in a classroom where a sign required masks. They talked of missing being able to spontaneously hug one another. One widow spoke about how she craved physical touch. Most members of the group sat close together, without masks.

The church, which has been meeting in person since September, when Bezner felt pressure to resume services, tried to implement safety measures. Church officials offer disposable masks and Purell to people entering. They put red tape over every other row of chairs to ensure socially distanced seating. They spaced out the band of about 14 musicians onstage.

In his recent newsletter, Bezner urged people to keep their masks on during the service. But many disregard the rules: As members found their seats for worship in the sanctuary, most took off their face coverings before belting out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

Bezner appears conflicted about his upcoming plan to hold indoor and outdoor Christmas Eve services, but he has replaced candles with battery-powered votives so “we don’t breathe covid on each other.” Bezner, who spends his Friday nights clanging a cowbell at his son’s high school football games, had to flee from his own home after his son contracted the virus in October.

In 2017, the church was flooded by Hurricane Harvey, and members rallied together to rebuild. This year has shown little unity because everything has been divisive, from the shutdown to the election.

“I kept moving to the language of unity under the banner of Christ,” he said. “But the messages people heard in the world were divisive messages.”

At Houston Northwest’s first community event since the pandemic, low-income families were invited to shop for Christmas presents and pay what they could. Dressed in an elf costume, Steve Ward, a 67-year-old volunteer and a deacon at the church, said he doesn’t plan to take the vaccine because he and his wife take Juice Plus+ supplements to build their immune system.

“It’s a personal decision, just like salvation. You can’t force that decision on people,” he said of the vaccines. “If death is what the Lord has for us to bring us home, we won’t try to resist that.”

As people began streaming in, the Bezners walked outside. A local home-school group in plaid uniforms strolled in, took off their masks and began singing carols. An hour later, Bezner and his wife considered going back in, but when she saw people without masks, she told him it wasn’t safe.

Members of Bezner’s staff, including the head of the church’s counseling services, also are reluctant to take a coronavirus vaccine because most people survive the virus.

“I’m just apprehensive with the new administration and how political it’s become,” said Matt Delp, who runs the church’s ministry for recovering alcoholics. “I don’t know if it gets put on a registration.”

But at the end of the day, Delp said, he probably will get the vaccine. It’s what his pastor would want.

Bezner said he’ll probably talk about the vaccine in an upcoming sermon when it becomes widely available. He also is planning to talk about how Christians should be motivated by seeking to protect their neighbor out of love.

Some of the pastor’s parishioners tease him that they’ll let him go first in the vaccine line.

“I’ll be there the day they open,” Bezner said. “I’m ready to get my life back.”