A Church Recovers After a Tumultuous Year of COVID-19
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For a long time, Valencia Jenkins-Mann wasn’t sure if she wanted to get the shot.
It wasn’t that Mann didn’t believe COVID-19 was real. She knew all too well how deadly the virus could be. Late last year, it took the lives of her mother, uncle, aunt, and brother. It sickened them, along with dozens of members of Gordon Chapel Community Church that survived.
Jenkins-Mann, a lifelong resident of Hawthorne, Florida, who with her husband helps lead the rural church that goes back generations in her family, also became sick last fall along with her daughter. It was one of the worst fevers she had ever had and, for a time, her ability to taste disappeared.
But when vaccines came around, she wasn’t so easily convinced. She had heard of the few cases of doses causing damage — such as rare blood clots that for a moment sent the U.S. government to pause the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — and also wondered how useful vaccination would be for her as someone who had already been infected.
I closed my eyes and prayed to God. If he wanted me to get the shot, I would get it.
“Some people were telling me not to get it. They were claiming it would harm my body,” Jenkins-Mann says. “Other people in our community were telling us to rush and get it as soon as we could.”
She turned where she always does when advice from family and friends alone won’t cut it.
“I closed my eyes and prayed to God,” Jenkins-Mann, 59, says. “If he wanted me to get the shot, I would get it.”
As the nation turns the corner from the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine hesitancy has remained a hurdle to whether and when the country will reach herd immunity. In surveys, wide swaths of Americans have said they don’t plan to get vaccinated or are not sure about it. Early polls showed that racial minority groups, including Black Americans like Jenkins-Mann, were among the least likely to sign up. But newer surveys show that gender, education level and political party are better predictors of whether one will get vaccinated or not. More educated women, for example, are more likely to get vaccinated. April data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 60% of people who were hesitant to receive the vaccine were white.
The nation needs about 75% to 80% of its population vaccinated to reach herd immunity, the point at which the virus will rapidly cede to spread because it has limited options of where to go. Earlier this year, difficulty securing appointments prevented some Americans from getting their jabs. Now, with an over-supply of doses in many parts of the nation, the problem is demand.
For Jenkins-Mann, it was a routine shopping trip to Publix that led her to get her shots — two doses of the Modern vaccine, per the Food and Drug Administration recommendation.
“A woman who was set up doing shots asked me, ‘Have you had yours?’” Jenkins-Mann says. “I told her, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Do you want to take it?’ I said, ‘Yes!’”
Now Jenkins-Mann is advocating for others in her community to also get vaccinated — in her own way as a woman of faith. “I tell people to pray on it,” she says. “I’m not going to make you go. But I’m not going to tell you not to go, either.”
At Gordon Chapel, a mostly Black congregation outside Gainesville where the church is now fully open again after a short closure in the fall, fears over the virus still have kept many families tuning in online instead of attending in person.
“Some people are still scared to come after what happened to us last year,” Jenkins-Mann says. “I lost my mother, so I know what the dangers are. But we’re doing everything we can to be safe. Social distancing. Wearing masks. Washing hands. For me, that includes the vaccine.”
The church broadcasts on Facebook and keeps an archive of sermons online for those who cannot virtually attend live. Jenkins-Mann shares preaching duties with her husband. Recently, she addressed the pandemic and her take on trusting faith to guide the community to better days.
“The topic of my sermon was, “What are we chasing?” Jenkins-Mann says. “People are out here chasing everything except God. Even with the coronavirus, God will take care of you. You think these vaccines would have been developed so fast without him?”