The COVID pandemic has challenged important elements of the relationships between the healthcare, public health, and community, including the role faith has in those relationships. Stakeholder Health is a national network of non-profit healthcare organizations, including many established by faith groups. Several of our participating organizations are moving to require COVID vaccinations for all employees. This pastoral message expresses the hope that we can learn together how to understand the faith convictions of our healthcare colleagues, including those who might seek religious exemptions from vaccine requirements, while we also preserve the sacred trust of protecting the lives and health of those who come to us for care.
Throughout history, there have been times when faith and science have been wonderfully complementary and other times when they have woefully contradicted each other. These days, they are seemingly locked in continual conflict. This comes into sharp focus when people of faith working in healthcare organizations are faced with the decision of getting a COVID vaccination. We emphasize seemingly, as many faith and science leaders are collaborating effectively to overcome the carnage created by COVID-19. Sadly, however, some in each field view leaders of the other field not as partners but as adversaries.
Faith and vaccination
Stakeholder Health is a learning group of health systems and related organizations. Most of us are faith-based or faith-friendly. That is, our relationships with faith networks are part of how we work to advance the health of our patients—neighbors in partnership with community and public agencies. Rather, this intersection of faith and health is rich, fertile, creative and filled with healing and hope.
While nearly all those in clinical roles in our organizations are already vaccinated, significant numbers of our teammates are not. They are “hesitant.” As our organizations move to require COVID vaccination for continued employment or, at least, reassignment, we wish to invite people of faith into the dialogue.
Only a very few religious groups oppose vaccination in general. Even those who are themselves hesitant about the invasive nature of some technologies clearly endorse the positive value of other vaccinations as a sign of God’s creative gifts to humanity and evidence of basic life-saving respect for neighbors. Large portions of the sacred texts of many traditions are devoted to the kind of health counsel and prevention practices that were commonly shared long before modern science. Beyond those few exceptions, one would be hard pressed to find in any religious tradition guidance to decline a vaccination. Still, we hear hesitancy expressed by individuals based on their personal faith convictions. Other reasons for reluctance include the pace of vaccine development, the lack of final governmental approval, and the widespread misinformation regarding safety and efficacy of specific vaccines. However, we in Stakeholder Health are confident in both the science and faith that affirm the value of current vaccine mandates.
Accepting a vaccine—especially for those in the healing professions—is the essence of gratitude for the capacity God has given people to be healing partners. There is an even higher duty to prevent needless illness and suffering than to provide healing after the fact. What greater offense could be imagined than to avoid preventing a highly predictable burden of disease, much less a needlessly lost life? No historic religious support exists for breaking such trust—especially for those blessed to be among the healing professions.
Religion is not just about the negative. In this particular pandemic moment, religion is about the positive, about what we should be doing and why.
For a variety of reasons many in the healing professions are unhappy with much in our culture, politics and places of practice. The currents of race, class, and privilege have undermined much that many of our teammates consider valuable, even sacred. While there may be no explicit traditional religious support for refusing vaccination, many religious people have strong reservations about such mandates. The structures of authority, including many levels of government and, sadly, our own healthcare organizations have lost trust even of those who work within them. This is a time for lament over the lost trust, confession of how we have been complicit in that losing of trust, and commitment to new behavior that might create one people again.
There is more than one virus around. So many of us in the fields of faith and health promote accepting the vaccines that protect us, our families, and the communities we serve from these viruses’ detrimental, even fatal, impacts.
Somehow, COVID-19 finds itself differentiated from these other viruses, even though multiple vaccines have proven even more effective than the vaccines we accept for other viruses. We appreciate the hesitancy among members of those communities that historically have been abused or neglected by healthcare systems in our nation. We lament that our faith has not fully informed the science of healthcare through the years. But the larger numbers of those expressing either hesitancy, or outright rejection, of the COVID-19 vaccine are not from historically marginalized groups; COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is common in an alarmingly large portion of the population – including people of faith.
So we feel the imperative to collectively urge all our colleagues of faith to take that vaccine.
A vaccine against divisiveness
Just as important, we implore our colleagues of faith to seek to be filled with the truths of their faith as we face another deadly virus, one that turns us against each other and feeds on the vilest accusations of ill intent.
We in Stakeholder Health view the vaccines approved by the CDC as evidence of a loving God who has poured creative diligence into all of our lives through the sustained labor of thousands of scientists and public servants of many faiths. We accept the fruits of their work—the vaccines—with gratitude in that spirit.
Other healthy gifts from the same God involve none of the technology that many have been hesitant to accept. People of diverse faiths will recognize the fruits of the Spirit as relevant to the civic virus that divides. Expressed in well-known words of a sacred text, these characteristics are “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Every faith tradition commends a similar array of virtues. Often understood as personal traits, we commend these qualities to those in positions of influence in organizational life, as well. This may be the only safeguard against the deadly divisiveness that opens the way for ugly patterns of distrust on which the COVID-19 virus thrives.
All of our institutions have seen thousands of lives lost to a merciless virus, and many more passing through a perilous journey of illness and recovery. So much more lamentable will be the lives of those lost in coming months when we know so clearly that the COVID-19 virus is almost entirely preventable with the most minor mitigation measures including masks, handwashing, social distancing and most effective of all—vaccines.
Every religious tradition regards lament as the beginning of healing, not the end. We hope this is true in our moment of institutional and public life. We hope for sorrow even unto soul-sickness at the reality of how many of our fellow professionals have so little trust in science and in those of us who have accepted the vaccine. This is a time to let that reality enter deeply into our collective consciousness as a very late-stage sign of civic failure. Religious tradition is good and useful in such times as it prevents us from skipping lightly to compliance without owning all the contributors to the hesitance. It is time to speak the truth—especially that which would save the lives of patients and neighbors otherwise defenseless against the virus. And it is time to listen to the truth in others’ lives, too.
What leader within any religious tradition is unacquainted with some person whose life was lost or greatly diminished due to COVID-19? Many religious leaders who have declined the vaccine are, in these days of the Delta variant, becoming infected and succumbing to its crippling and life-threatening effects. Our work includes extending grace to those who, having experienced the virus they felt was “someone else’s problem,” are not only lamenting their faulty conclusions but also need support from colleagues as they stand boldly before their congregations and admit they were wrong and implore congregants to change their minds, as well.
Words of gratitude and courage
We finish with a word of gratitude for the countless thousands who have given their lives freely and generously to care for others in these bitter COVID-19 years. Their witness will resonate for decades as a time when we will remember why we came into the work of health, public health, healthcare, social service, and religious life. It has been good to experience such courage. In this profound moment of suffering and threat, God has made us strong for each other.
Rev. Dr. Gary Gunderson, Wake Forest Baptist Health
Dr. Dora Barilla, chair, Stakeholder Health Advisory Council
Amy Bovi, Advocate Aurora Health
Dr. Teresa Cutts, Wake Forest University School of Medicine
Rev. Dr. Jay Foster, Indiana University Health
Dr. Carla Park, AdventHealth
Rev. Dr. Kirsten Peachy, Advocate Aurora Health
Rev. Dr. Gerald Winslow, Loma Linda University