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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Grassroots Initiative Engages Charlotte-Area University Students To Organize COVID Vaccines

A service at The Park Church’s Beatties Ford sanctuary is seen. Claude Alexander, bishop of The Park Church, said faith has a role in vaccination for COVID-19.
Keshaun Holley
A service at The Park Church’s Beatties Ford sanctuary is seen. Claude Alexander, bishop of The Park Church, said faith has a role in vaccination for COVID-19.

A new Charlotte initiative relies on university students to mobilize vaccinations for COVID-19 among populations with “vaccine hesitancy,” including groups with historic distrust for government programs.

Working with faith communities and nonprofit organizations trusted by these groups, students will provide reliable resources about the vaccine. The “Faith in the Vaccine” initiative is included in a monthlong focus by the White House on getting more people vaccinated by July 4.

“It’s much like voter mobilization -- it’s connecting with folks who are on the sidelines and saying, ‘I want to hear what you’re thinking,’ and ‘Can I share my information and my perspective in a way that helps you make an informed decision?’” said Suzanne Henderson, founder and director of Bridge Builders Charlotte, the organization leading the initiative.

Henderson said the Duke Endowment recently provided a $200,000 grant to the initiative as part of its response to the pandemic’s impact on the Carolinas. Bridge Builders’ partner on the project is the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization of university students, faculty and staff focused on interfaith leadership.

Vaccine Hesitancy And Faith Communities

One project objective is to address a connection between vaccine hesitancy and members of faith communities, Henderson said. Studies conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute indicate one-third of vaccine-hesitant Black Protestants and Hispanic Americans say a faith-based approach would make them more likely to get vaccinated. Among white members of evangelical Protestant churches, the research indicates nearly half of people who regularly attend services say faith-based approaches would work for them.

The leader of a large Charlotte ministry said faith influences public health.

“Religion can reframe how people view personal, familial, and neighborhood health and well-being, communal responsibility, and the role of faith in public health,” Claude Alexander,bishop of The Park Church, wrote in a recent email. The church includes three Charlotte locations and a global ministry with several thousand members.

“This frame helps better understand the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Alexander wrote. “I am in favor of the COVID-19 vaccines for the aforementioned reasons. It is the safest way to protect me, my family and our city.”

Doubts Among Communities

Wide-ranging doubts about COVID-19 vaccines in some communities stem from a history of negative experiences with federal, state and local government, Henderson said.

“It’s a lack of trust,” she said. “For different but related reasons, Black people in our country and Hispanic people in our country haven’t always found the government to be trustworthy. Many of them, but not all of them, look to their faith communities and faith identities as a solid source of support and a solid sense of where their values, bearings and actions come from.”

A Pastor’s Military Experience With Vaccines

Sonja Lee, a pastor with the Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte, said past experiences with vaccines made her initially unwilling to take the vaccine. A U.S. Army veteran, Lee said she was once required to take a vaccine while on active duty.

“At the time, it was no big deal, but as a result of taking that vaccine, I was paralyzed and diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which you know is rare, but it happens,” said Lee. “I was paralyzed for four weeks, I was hospitalized for four weeks, and it took me about six weeks before I got back to where I could take care of myself again.”

Faith and prayer ultimately helped her decide to be vaccinated for COVID-19, she said.

“It’s important for our community to get vaccinated so that we can work, so that we can socialize, so that we can support our families, so that we can be in the community safely,” Lee said. “I had to be prayerful and push through my own reluctances before I could confidently say to anyone else, ‘Get the vaccine.’”

Details About The Initiative

The Faith in the Vaccine initiative plans to mobilize more than 25 university students, along with community partner organizations, to create resources and programming that inform people about vaccination. A religion professor at Queens University of Charlotte, Henderson is organizing programs at Queens, Davidson College, Wingate University, Central Piedmont Community College and Johnson C. Smith University to participate in the project with the Interfaith Youth Core.

One of the students involved, Gabrielle Gadson of Wingate, said the safest way to gain people’s trust is to answer questions.

“My end goal is really just to hear their concerns and hesitations and to really just give them all the information that I can with the end result of them getting the COVID-19 vaccine,” Gadson said.

Because the White House tapped the initiative to line up with its monthlong campaign, Henderson said this is an opportunity for Charlotte to showcase a faith-based approach to a critical issue.

“It’s a stand-up moment for Charlotte,” Henderson said. “It’s a chance for us to shine and I think folks are going to be looking at Charlotte because of the White House initiative … to show the world how we can come together to address legitimate concerns about the vaccine to promote the common good.”

As part of a national vaccination tour by top U.S. administration officials, Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles are scheduled to speak at an event focusing on this initiative at 10 a.m., Tuesday, June 15 at the Movement School Eastland, a charter school located at 5249 Central Ave. Other stops on the national tour include Vice President Kamala Harris and other cabinet and White House officials.

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Corrected: June 14, 2021 at 2:40 PM EDT
This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of an event at Movement School Eastland to June 15.
Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.