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Saving souls, saving lives: Building COVID-19 confidence with faith at the forefront

Rev. Matthew Watley and his wife, Shawna Watley, are part of a new push by Maryland's governor to reach Black and brown communities through trusted faith leaders.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — In the battle over life and death, those hit first and worst by coronavirus are among the last in Maryland to get a critical shot in the arm. 

Among Black and brown communities, what little supply there is, is not getting to the people the virus has decimated the most. A new campaign is using trusted leaders to help close the vaccine gap with faith at the forefront.

On any given Sunday, you’ll find Reverend Matthew Watley, senior pastor of Kingdom Fellowship AME Church, delivering a message of hope and frank insights to thousands across the country.

“I need a little help from the virtual world, come here Martha, I need a witness in the house,” Rev. Watley said in his most recent sermon. 

COVID-19 has impacted this house of worship that serves nearly 6,000 from its empty sanctuary in Silver Spring.

“We’ve had church members who’ve lost both parents to COVID within small spans of time, and not being able to bury them,” Watley said. 

Pastor Watley has been preaching for a generation. But he speaks openly about the challenges around leading a congregation during a pandemic.

“It really has become a pastoral burden to know your voice matters not just in the saving of souls, but in the saving of lives," he said. 

The reverend and his wife, Shawna Watley, are part of a new push by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to reach people in Black and brown communities with leaders they trust. The hope is that these voices will help amplify the message around the safety of vaccines.

RELATED: Dr. Fauci addresses vaccine misinformation in appeal to Prince George's County

But the pastor’s wife will tell you, he was already in motion when the state called.

“He was like, 'Shawna, if we don’t tell folks to get involved in the trials and take the vaccination, then we are going to lose people in our community,'" Mrs. Watley said. 

Last Spring, Rev. Watley started reaching out to clergy around the nation. They teamed up to help educate their congregations, hoping to tear down fear and build up confidence in the life-saving shots.

Then, Rev. Watley decided to roll up his own sleeves for science.

“I didn’t serve in the military, I’m not a health care worker," Rev. Watley said. “But this is one way I think I can contribute to larger society.”

RELATED: Nurse who vaccinated Kamala Harris working to solve vaccine disparities in DC

Watley recently received his second shot and said he even prayed for side effects, hoping he had received the actual vaccine and not the placebo. Days later, his prayers were answered in the form of body aches, joint pain, and tiredness.

The Watley family has felt a direct impact from the virus. The pastor’s 90-year-old grandmother battled it, and Shawna did too, back in August. She still struggles with fatigue.

“I was fortunate,” Shawna Watley said. “But I could have gotten a worse case and I’m still not out of the woods.”

RELATED: Howard University joins Novavax Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccination trial

Credit: Courtesy Rev.Watley
COVID affected Rev. Watley personally when his 90-year-old grandmother, Marion Watley, contracted the virus herself.

She said the responsibility to emerge from the grip of a killer comes down to all of us. Shawna said as Americans, we need to think beyond our own needs and think about protecting our families and others.

And, for those who want to take a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine, Rev. Watley offers a word or two of caution.

“Every day you wait, you keep yourself susceptible to the virus," he said. "And not just you -- you’re more likely to infect your friends and family members. It also suggests a moral challenge. Because if you say you want to wait and see how it works, what you’re really saying is I want to use others as guinea pigs.”

RELATED: ‘Potentially heading for a massive crisis’ | Most Black Americans not planning to take COVID-19 vaccine, study says

This family of faith believes the trials and vaccines themselves – along with taking measures like wearing masks, keeping distance, and washing hands – offer all of us a chance to serve. Something they believe we are all called to do, to return to the lives we once knew.

Kingdom Fellowship AME Church will get an added chance to serve the community as a vaccination pilot site in the state of Maryland. The church is partnering with Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. They’ll do two pilots where the hospital staff will administer shots at the church. The church will also send members to the hospital. The goal is to do more when the supply can meet the demand. Kingdom Fellowship is also teaming up with the United Way of the National Capital Area to provide covid testing.

To learn more about the governor’s campaign around equity and the COVID 19 vaccines, click here

Editor's Note: On Feb. 17, the author -- Lesli Foster -- will be hosting a virtual town hall called "Covid-19 Vaccine Confidence in Diverse Communities" in partnership with the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project (CVEEP). Click here to register

Credit: WUSA9

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