Unvaccinated people who have tuned out public health advice might be persuaded to get the shot by a word from their pastor.
“When people are attending a church or a religious gathering, there’s an opportunity for the person at the front of the room to provide moral guidance,” said infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness.
“‘Look to your left. Look to your right. Your fellow parishioner, your community neighbour, do you care about them? Do you care about their safety? OK. Get vaxxed and wear a mask.’”
With Haldimand-Norfolk reporting lagging vaccination numbers in rural areas, health officials there have reached out to churches and private religious schools to address vaccine hesitancy within their ranks.
“Generally, we find enclaves of anti-vax in religious groups,” Furness said, noting not every denomination or faith community is opposed to vaccination.
“But there will be some.”
Langton-area councillor Linda Vandendriessche said residents in her ward often cite religion as the reason they are not vaccinated.
“They feel that maybe they don’t need it, that God will do his thing,” she said.
“I do believe in God, and I can say that God created smarter people than me, so let’s look to them for some answers.”
The Mission, a Christian church near Langton, paused in-person services on Nov. 3 after learning of positive COVID cases among those who attended a service on Oct. 24.
In total, 10 people connected to the church tested positive, board chair Scott Wilson told The Spectator.
“But not all can confirm they felt they were exposed at The Mission, as some may have been exposed elsewhere in the community,” Wilson said.
The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit did not declare an outbreak at the church.
Wilson said no one required hospitalization and all who tested positive have since recovered. The Mission plans to reopen this Sunday.
Wilson said church leaders recommended testing for anyone who may have been exposed and The Mission continues to follow all local and provincial directives.
“We want to be able to provide complete assurance to all who attend our services that they can worship and practice their faith in spaces that will not compromise their health,” he said.
But pastors at The Mission have not used their platform to preach about the pandemic.
“We do not discuss the virus from the pulpit,” Wilson said. “Individually, we encourage all to be vaccinated.”
Furness said that approach falls short when congregations are faced with the threat of COVID.
“It’s not that people at a certain church are not eating enough fibre and that’s going to hurt them in the long run,” he said. “There’s a real public menace here of communicable disease.”
The challenge, said Rev. Mikal Schomburg of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Simcoe, is not making an already stressful time even more stressful by “harping on” about the pandemic in his sermons.
“People are in this heightened state of fear, and the more they watch the news, the more they’re terrified. I don’t really want to play into that,” he said.
Instead, he uses the pandemic to illustrate Christian teachings. A congregation that sings and prays together, Schomburg says, also takes steps to keep one another safe.
“Loving your neighbour means to want the best for them,” he said. “And some of the ways we live that out today is by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and all the other preventative things we do to protect each other.”
At Evergreen Heights Christian Fellowship, a Mennonite Brethren church in Simcoe, Rev. Jeff MacLeod tries to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”
“I think the Bible calls us to be loving and care for one another, and to not judge one another,” he said.
“And to be aware that the public’s health matters, and that we should never be doing something to cause a risk to someone’s health.”
Schomburg said the bulk of his largely elderly congregation was “eager” to get vaccinated to protect themselves, which he found “quite encouraging.”
“Because as a spiritual leader, I didn’t have to tell them to do it,” he said, adding he knows of no theological reason not to follow public health measures.
“Nowhere in my Bible do I read, ‘Don’t get a vaccine,’” he said.
Both pastors say their churches take COVID seriously and routinely review their health and safety protocols based on recommendations from public health. But neither supports mandatory vaccination policies, which Schomburg called “divisive.”
“Regardless of a person’s socioeconomic status, vaccination status, everybody has infinite worth to God, and so that’s how we’re supposed to treat one another — we’re all one,” MacLeod added.
“I’m not encouraging or discouraging vaccination. I’m encouraging love. And then talk to your doctor.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator