sign

A sign sits inside the Native Dog Brewing building in Camden, Arkansas, part of a partnership between Camden FUMC, the brewery, and other local leaders to get their community vaccinated. Photo courtesy of Camden FUMC.

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise in all 50 states, and vaccine rates moving at a meager pace in most places, churches are now turning to incentives to get more people vaccinated in their communities.

Arkansas is in the middle of a COVID crisis — hospitalizations have hit an all-time high and the fully vaccinated number currently sits much lower than many other states at 37% — but churches like Camden First UMC have stepped up their outreach efforts to ensure that vaccination rates continue to go up.

“This is a church that has a strong missional bond with its community. We started planning for COVID a month before COVID hit (in 2020) so we could pivot safely for our food pantry and our weekly community meal (called Sue’s Table),” said the Rev. Beth Waldrup, senior pastor at Camden FUMC.

When vaccines were made available to the public in early spring of 2021, a collective sense of relief reverberated through many United Methodist churches in Arkansas, but Arkansas has lagged behind other states in its vaccination rate. Waldrup and FUMC realized they would need to step up their efforts to encourage people to get the jab.

“As the vaccination numbers began to lag and the variants started creeping in, we first started talking about vaccines with all our neighbors at Sue’s Table and the Food Pantry. When Dr. Erin Goss, a local physician, announced she was organizing a pop-up clinic to be held at a new micro-brewery that has significant outdoor space, we volunteered to purchase gift cards as an incentive,” Waldrup said.

Waldrup said that $25 gift cards to Walmart and Brookshire’s, a local grocery store, were purchased by the church and given out at pop-up vaccine clinics to encourage vaccinations.

She said the vaccine clinic at the local brewery, Native Dog Brewing, was a big success, and 31 people from the community were vaccinated in one night. The event at the brewery was even more successful than their first night at the local health department where eight vaccines were given out.

Waldrup said there have been a couple more pop-up clinics, with more than 100 vaccines and gift cards given out in the last few weeks.

“We consider it successful. If it saves one life that might infect a dozen more, it is worth every cent,” Waldrup said.

Although the clinics have been a team effort, Waldrup said one person who has helped out quite a bit with the campaign is Allison Lawson.

Lawson used her experience as the Executive Director of the Ouachita Valley Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to charitable giving in Arkansas, to help organize a media campaign to raise awareness of the vaccines.

“I should start by saying the work I did with Camden FUMC was as a personal volunteer and church member and not in my executive director capacity. But I definitely used a lot of concepts and training I’ve learned from the Community Foundation for this project, like the importance of collaboration with trusted local partners,” Lawson said.

“I think we approached it in a very community-oriented way. It was important that we reached out to medical providers, of course, but we also wanted respected community leaders to be part of this effort so that every part of Camden was represented.”

To get the word out about the free vaccination clinics, Lawson and Camden FUMC worked with their local newspaper, Camden News, to create a series of video public service announcements. The video included local community, religious, and medical leaders discussing the importance of getting the vaccine.

Additionally, local leaders in the Camden area were asked to submit letters to the editor encouraging vaccinations. And finally, Lawson said they hosted a Facebook Live Q&A with local medical professionals to answer any questions that people in the community had about the vaccine or COVID-19.

“They talked about how important it was to our community that everyone get vaccinated; what they’d say to a friend that was considering whether to get vaccinated. One doctor also explained how an mRNA vaccine works,” Lawson said.

According to Waldrup, this is not the end of their efforts, but only the beginning. She said while the congregation at Camden FUMC has a 98-99% vaccination rate, Ouachita County only has a fully vaccinated rate of around 41%. However, Waldrup said before their efforts to get people vaccinated began, that number was only 36.5%.

Waldrup said while they were at first worried about adults getting the virus, now their main concern is children and teenagers heading back to school.

But she said they are committed to continuing their vaccine efforts until the rate goes up in Ouachita County.

“We would love to see our county rate up to 70%,” Waldrup said. “Our church loves the people in its mission field so we will continue to work with all available parties to keep people safe.”