Pastor George Davis said it’s always difficult to go through the grieving process with families in his church. But when seven people died in a two-week span from COVID-19, it presented an unprecedented challenge.
He told ABC News’ Linsey Davis four of his late congregants were under the age of 35, and a number who died were unvaccinated.
“The young man who was 24, I’ve known him since he was a toddler,” Davis said. “Each of them were otherwise healthy. There’s no reason to expect they would’ve been passing away. None of them had cancer or any other disease that would’ve taken them out any time soon, that we were aware of. So it’s very frustrating.”
It’s been even more frustrating, he said, considering, “I’ve done everything I can to promote vaccination.” Davis, his wife and three kids were all vaccinated when it was made available to them, he said.
In March, Davis’ Impact Church in Jacksonville, Florida, hosted their first major vaccination event. Their building sits a few hundred yards from a space rented out by the state health department, but at the time very few people were getting vaccinated at the state’s site.
“I put forth the premise that, ‘Hey, people trust in this community, trust their church probably more than they would a government medical site, vaccination site,'” he said. “It ended up being 800 people that got vaccinated 200 yards from an existing site. But they were coming to a trusted location.”
Months later, after the fourth unvaccinated person in his congregation died, he knew he needed to do something more.
“We organized another vaccination event this past Sunday. … Last time we did it on a Saturday, I said, this time we’re going to do it on a Sunday. That way I’m going to make it as easy as possible,” he said. “We do it on a Sunday after all three of our services. If you want, you can go right over to a room across the hall and be vaccinated on site. It turned out beautifully.”
The church partnered with Duval County Health and University of Florida Health for the vaccinations and health workers.
“[UF Health] actually sent over a couple of educators so that even as people went over, if they had skepticism, if they had questions and they had theories that they heard they were going to talk to health professionals and let them answer those questions, dispel those myths,” he said. “We had almost 300 people actually … 35% percent of those being teenagers.”
Florida is currently experiencing all-time high numbers of COVID-19 with 134,506 cases recorded last week across the state. As of last week, 63% of people in the state are vaccinated but only 26% of Black Floridians are vaccinated, according to the state’s department of health.
Davis understands the skepticism in the Black community. His church is more than 70% Black.
“There has been a kind of historical mistrust of government and medicine kind of put together … and if that isn’t enough, you get all this misinformation on social media,” he said. “I have no doubt that many of the people who ended up passing away in our congregation, given enough time, they probably would have gotten the vaccination … at some point. … But unfortunately, in their case, the waiting game just didn’t play out the way that they wanted to.”
Davis pushed back on the idea that being religious means putting one’s faith in God, not the vaccine.
“I believe that as wonderful as our doctors and scientists are, from my perspective, God is the omniscient one — omniscient means the all-knowing one. And so any wisdom or ability for them to come up with a vaccine … I personally believe that didn’t come from man’s ingenuity, of a man’s Harvard or Yale training, I believe that comes from the providence of God, his love for all mankind,” he said.
“I believe that the vaccination is a part of God’s help for all of us, whether you consider yourself a Christian, Muslim, atheist or whatsoever, God loves everybody,” Davis added. “I believe that his love for mankind allowed this vaccination to be birthed so that as we are praying and trusting for our loved ones to be safe, that it doesn’t have to be just faith, that it doesn’t have to be just medicine. I believe that faith and medical science can come together.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly noted eight congregants had died from COVID-19. This was information received from the Jacksonville Impact Church, which has since corrected the number to seven congregants who have died from the virus.
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