Photo by CDC on Unsplash
By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
As the Delta Variant continues to move through Arkansas, more and more United Methodist Churches are turning to one of three recommended vaccines to help prevent the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
Although Arkansas still has a relatively low rate of fully vaccinated individuals compared to other states in the U.S. — 39.9% of Arkansans are considered fully vaccinated, 38th out of all states and territories, according to data from Covid Act Now — in recent weeks, more people are getting the jab in order to keep themselves, their families, and their church communities safe from the coronavirus. Some churches have even partnered with local businesses to encourage vaccinations and incentivize participating with giveaways.
Lakewood UMC of North Little Rock recently conducted an online survey to gauge how many in their congregation had been vaccinated and found that about 92% of survey respondents, 308 individuals, declared they were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The Rev. Roy Beth Kelley, who started her new appointment at Lakewood in July, said in a letter that they believe the respondents who responded saying they were unvaccinated were families with young children who were not yet eligible to get the vaccine.
“It seems likely that our church events are safer than what you might experience in other gathering spaces such as stores and restaurants,” Kelley said.
At the First United Methodist Church of Siloam Springs, senior pastor Rev. Clark Atkins said that his church conducted a survey in April 2021, prior to the FDA giving emergency approval for the vaccine to people under 18 years old.
“At that time our survey indicated that 90% of vaccine eligible people in our worshipping congregation were either fully vaccinated or would be in the next month,” Atkins said. “Since that time I believe that number has increased and we are probably at 93%.”
Atkins said they haven’t conducted a follow-up survey since children 12-17 were approved for the vaccine, but he believes that ⅔ or more of that age group are vaccinated.
“A driver for many young people in our church is the ability to participate in athletics and extracurriculars without having to quarantine,” he said.
For some congregations, vaccination hesitancy has caused their numbers to rise slower than other churches. The Rev. Daniel Thueson, senior pastor at First UMC Mountain Home, said that although less than half of the church’s active membership responded to the survey they sent out, he was still pleased with the responses and thinks that there are more in the congregation that are vaccinated but chose not to participate in the survey.
“To get our numbers up, we encouraged the congregation early on to get vaccinated, especially since many are considered part of the highly vulnerable population. As we offer COVID updates to our community, we intentionally encourage vaccination. As a result, some of our Sunday School classes, on their own, said all the members would need to be vaccinated in order to meet as a class again.”
The Rev. Cindy Henry, deacon at Lakewood UMC, said returning to Sunday School classes was a big factor for Lakewood’s congregation to get the vaccine as well.
“Truthfully, we didn’t take any ‘intentional’ steps. The Sunday School classes were very encouraging of one another because they wanted to meet face-to-face and feel safer,” Henry said. “The staff got fully vaccinated early on and we were very public about our choices to get the vaccine.”
But for many, the biggest persuader to get vaccinated seems to be word of mouth and personal conversations about the importance of getting the vaccine.
“I’ve had several one-on-one conversations with people asking about the vaccine theologically. Helping them put the politics aside and thinking of it as a way to love their neighbor allowed them to make the decision on getting vaccinated,” Thueson said.
Similarly, Kelley said her church is currently studying “The Jesus Priorities” by Christopher Maricle, which explores Jesus’ priorities during his life on Earth.
“Jesus’s number one priority was healing. There are many ways we can bring God’s healing love to our neighbors, and being vaccinated and telling our own story about why we did is one step within our power to bring healing,” she said.