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The Rev. Dr. Lawrence E. Van Hook, pastor of Community Church in Oakland, says when COVID-19 vaccinations were first released late last year he did not want to get the shot.

“As African Americans, we have a healthy distrust of the government based on our history,” said Van Hook.

But after some soul searching, there was a shift in his spirit, says Van Hook. It led to a change of his heart.

“It came to me through God’s visitation of the holy spirit that not only do I need to get vaccinated, but I need to become an ambassador in the community where we live work and worship. So that’s how my journey began.”

A little over a year ago, Van Hook joined hands with 38 other Black pastors from around California and formed the African American Community Empowerment Council (AACEC). With help from the state, members began setting up testing and vaccination sites at their churches.

“It is an initiative led by African American pastors, realizing that we need to pay special attention to our community – an affirmative action plan, if you please — for Black Californians who are understandably skeptical and don’t want to get vaccinated,” Van Hook said.

“Our healing, our hope, come through vaccination,” he continued. “That is how we will push past this pandemic in a healthy way to get to our new normal.

Now, ahead of the holidays Van Hook and other pastors are encouraging Black Californians to get vaccinated and tested before traveling and getting together with relatives.

“A majority of the cases and deaths are among those who are unvaccinated,” said Van Hook. “For those of us who have been waiting to see what was in it, what it was all about, we now have over a year of vaccinations and nobody’s eyes have fallen out. No bug has been placed in us where we can be tracked. There are so many stories we have heard in social media.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Black people in the United States are being hospitalized for COVID-19 2.6 times more than Whites. According to the agency’s website, Black people are also dying of COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of White mortalities.

During the thick of the pandemic, the AACEC website says the pastors “stepped up” responding to a call to action by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who asked all Californians to deploy every resource available to them to confront and defeat the deadly virus.

“Through this effort, testing of at-risk, underrepresented, and under-resourced African Americans, and all community members appearing for a test, will be phased across the state beginning in Alameda County and extending in regular intervals to encompass San Francisco, Sacramento, Solano, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Gabriel, and San Diego counties,” the AACEC website reads.

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There are now also testing sites in San Bernardino County. Vaccination sites are located inOakland, Pasadena, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Across the country, another organization called Choose Healthy Life (CHL) has similarly united Black religious leaders to battle COVID-19, opting to focus on tackling misinformation and increasing vaccination rates.

Black clergy members and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, are leading the charge for this program.

“Covid-19 has exposed health disparities, and more disturbingly, the impact of misinformation among our own people.  But I have looked beyond the horizon of today’s headlines. After 750,000 deaths in America and more than 5 million worldwide, the pendulum is beginning to swing —and Choose Healthy Life is at the vanguard of that change,” Sharpton said.

CHL spokesperson Judy Klym detailed the program’s scope.

“After launching CHL in 50 churches in five major cities in January 2021, the program’s expansion has led to more than 50,000 members of the public being educated and empowered,” she said. “Through this collaborative effort, more than 6 million people have been impacted. Choose Healthy Life now has 120 participating churches in 13 states.”

Klym cited the new omicron variant as part of the reason for the urgency of this program’s implementation.

“As the threat from COVID continues with the emergence of the Omicron variant, the ongoing nature of the pandemic seems inevitable. CHL is rising to meet the challenge by building a sustainable infrastructure to help Black communities throughout the pandemic and future health crises,” Klym stated.

Debra Fraser-Howze, founder of CHL, says the Black church’s involvement in the COVID-19 fight is critical.

“The Black church and clergy have been a steadfast center of strength and leadership during so many of our crises and struggles in the past. Now, through the Choose Healthy Life Action Plan, they are once again leading the way by ensuring that Black communities are better informed and safer throughout the pandemic,” she said.

Van Hook says when vaccination began at his church earlier this year on Resurrection Sunday, he drew a parallel.

“Vaccinations equal resurrection. Both of them give life as opposed to the death that this invisible, deadly virus has ministered all over the world,” he said.