Virginia faith leaders, churches play vital role in fight against COVID-19 pandemic


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Scientists, doctors and nurses have been working tirelessly to get everyone through the pandemic, but there’s one community that’s stepped up in the fight against COVID-19 that many may not realize and that’s faith leaders.

When the pandemic first started, churches across the country made headlines for holding in-person services violating guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, that doesn’t paint the picture of how vital faith leaders and their houses of worship have been during the pandemic, especially in central Virginia.

COVID-19 halted in-person worship in 2020 forcing many faith leaders to get creative by going virtual, holding drive-in and drive-thru services. As church doors temporarily closed, many places of worship became community health hubs.

Local faith leaders, like Senior Pastor Ralph Hodge, opened the parking lot of Second Baptist South Richmond on Broad Rock Boulevard in May of 2020 for COVID-19 testing. Earlier this year, they opened their doors for vaccinations.

“We were part of helping the community protect the community,” Pastor Hodge said.

WFXR’s sister station asked the long-time pastor how many people have shown up to the church for COVID-19 resources since the pandemic started, he laughed and said thousands.

“I think we really helped,” Pastor Hodge said. “All the churches that participated early on, we really got those numbers to where they needed to be. We really helped.”

The Islamic Center and Sacred Heart Catholic Church are also involved in efforts to help and have partnered with the Richmond and Henrico health districts. A spokesperson with the districts says that Sacred Heart has increased vaccinations in the Latino community and the Islamic Center has done the same for the Muslim community.

Dr. Danny Avula, the State Vaccine Coordinator, says faith leaders have been pivotal in the fight against the virus and helped a lot with vaccine hesitancy.

“We have regular connections with imams, rabbis and church pastors all over the region,” Dr. Avula explained. “The real value that churches and other faith communities have brought is that they are trusted by their congregation and their community.”

The trusted messengers are working to debunk COVID myths, but not without learning the facts for themselves.

Dr. Avula credited his fellow health professionals, like Dr. Robert Winn. Dr. Winn, director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, hosts ‘Facts and Faith Friday’ bringing in state and federal health experts to educate African American pastors.

“Now there are over 100 pastors going back to their congregation and relaying the facts,” Dr. Avula said. “I think it’s made a huge difference in vaccination uptick, especially in the older African American community.”

Sister station WRIC interviewed Dr. Winn last year as he worked to educate the public about health disparities in the Black community.

“There would be a lot more people dead if it weren’t for churches stepping up to the bat,” Pastor Hodge said.

Dr. Avula is applauding the progress Central Virginia has made but says there is still work to be done when it comes to bridging the vaccination gap with the younger generation.

For COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, residents can go to Second Baptist Church in South Richmond on Thursdays.

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