Vaccine Volunteers Across the North Georgia Conference are Putting Their Faith Into Action
Pictured: A volunteer from Barnesville UMC offers snacks to vaccine recipients.
By Sybil Davidson
As we approach a full year of a global pandemic, North Georgia United Methodists are doing what we are known for: putting our faith into action.
Clergy and laity across our Conference are volunteering in dozens of ways to help others get the COVID-19 vaccine, including participating in vaccine trials, using church facilities for vaccine clinics, and lending a hand to their local health departments.
The Simmons Arrive by Different Paths
Rev. John Simmons (retired North Georgia Conference clergy) and Helen Simmons volunteered in Phase 3 of the Moderna Vaccine trial.
“In April, a pastor posted on Facebook that Emory was looking for 25 volunteers between ages 55-70 for a vaccine trial,” said John. “Helen and I followed up with Emory and completed a detailed consent form after learning more about the vaccine and the process. We were not chosen for Phase 1, but were told we would be called about Phase 3.”
When the vaccine was deemed safe and effective through Phase 1 and Phase 2 of testing, John and Helen were both called to be part of a large-scale test. It was double-blind and random, meaning that neither volunteers nor the attending doctors and nurses knew who got the placebo and who got the vaccine. Only the nurse administering the shot and the statistician would know who got which one.
Helen and John each came to the decision to participate in the trial, but they arrived at the decision through different paths.
“I had a deep, visceral response when I got the call from Emory to participate in Phase 3,” John said. “I have been given a gift of good health from God—good genes, family with healthy habits, and resources. My faith tells me that gifts are to be used for good. ... My faith says trust God and have the courage to make the best decisions I can. My faith says love your neighbor as you love yourself. From deep inside, a voice said humanity would suffer until a safe and effective vaccine was administered. As an act of love, I got a shot.”
Helen wasn't as confident. She wondered if it was wise for both of them to volunteer. One night, a few days before their first appointment at Emory to get a shot, Helen was particularly unsure about participating.
“I’d like to say that I prayed specifically for guidance, but I had been struggling with putting into words what I wanted to pray—I was often falling into worry instead of trust. These worries would affect my sleep. I had come to rely on the words of others that helped me to articulate what at times I felt too overwhelmed to express. For my evening prayer, I used the words from a Compline song and listened to nuns singing it. A paraphrase of part of the prayer asks that ‘God be our guard and keeper and defend us from our nightly fears and fantasies.’”
When Helen woke up the next morning, she turned on the TV.
“The channel that came on was a PBS station, which was odd because it was not what I was watching the night before,” she said. “The beloved face of Mr. Rogers appeared on the screen, and with the tv remote in my hand ready to change the channel, I paused and I watched for a minute. It was at the very end of a show where Mr. Rogers takes off his sweater and sneakers. But before he put on his jacket, he rolled up his sleeve, patted his arm and said, ‘I can’t even see the place where I was given the immunization. Our bodies are so wonderful. We are wonderfully made, we human beings.’ I immediately was at peace and knew that I was supposed to participate in the trial – that it would be ok.”
Helen and John got shots in August and September.
“Sometimes God speaks to us more plainly like Moses and the burning bush, like I believe that God spoke plainly to Helen,” said John.
John and Helen have since been “unblinded” and learned that John received the vaccine and Helen received a placebo. Both agreed to continue in the study for two years to look at long-term efficacy of the vaccine.
Before I Knew It, I Had Enrolled
While John and Helen were participating in the Moderna Vaccine Trial, Rev. Karen Kagiyama was participating in Phase 3 of the Pfizer Trial. Karen serves as the O. Wayne Rollins Director of Pastoral Care at Wesley Woods.
Last spring she saw a call for vaccine trial participants on social media and reached out to learn more.
“They called me, and before I knew it, I had enrolled,” she said. “I just wanted to do something and this was something I could do, a small way to help move us along and potentially save lives.”
Phase 3 is the last stage of testing before FDA approval. This phase of the trial aims to establish the efficacy even more with a much larger group over a longer time. Like John and Helen’s study, Karen’s was a randomized double-blind study.
“I didn't know that I had gotten the placebo until January,” Karen explained. “When they unblinded me because I'm a healthcare professional, I decided to stay in the trial for two more years. I have now received the vaccine.”
Also in January, residents of the Wesley Woods communities began receiving their first doses of the vaccine Karen had played a part in testing.
“All residents and staff were offered the vaccine in-house through our pharmacy partnerships,” she said. “We are especially grateful that they would come on-site and vaccinate everyone.”
While Karen is a self-described “science geek,” she isn’t usually the first to adopt a new technology or try the latest new thing, but this was different.
“It's taken a little bit of time and blood and more swabs than I care to remember, but I'm glad I did it,” she said.
Called to Serve
Rev. Charlie Starr, a local pastor in the SouthWest District, is currently taking part in the Novavax Vaccine Trial.
“As pastors we are called to serve,” said Charlie. “That goes beyond stepping into the pulpit every Sunday and giving and sermon. We are also called to serve mankind as a collective.”
He has had his first and second injection and goes in regularly for checkups. Charlie is over 70 and in the high-risk category. He despises needles. But like John expressed, Charlie felt God tug, calling him to help. It’s important for a wide range of people to participate in the trials, even those at risk, so Charlie followed that call.
“There is no telling how many lives these vaccines are going to touch,” he said.
Now that two vaccines have been approved and are being actively distributed, many more North Georgia United Methodists are volunteering to help their communities receive the vaccine.
In early January the COVID numbers in Upson County were rapidly rising, Upson Regional Hospital’s ICU was full, and their COVID section expanded its number of beds to floor capacity.
“In response to our church family and desiring to continue in leading responsibly in our community, we decided to discontinue in-house worship services for the foreseeable future,” said Thomaston First UMC pastor Rev. Andy Cunningham.
The day after this announcement, Upson County Emergency Management Agency contacted the church with a request to use the Fellowship Hall as a vaccine inoculation site. EMA had a rapid response protocol in place if they could find locations.
A verse of scripture guided the church’s answer: "Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” —Proverbs 19:21, ESV.
One day each week Thomaston First serves as a second location for vaccination distribution in Upson County, working by appointment with Upson County Health Department.
"Working alongside the City of Thomaston, Upson County, Upson Medical, Upson Health Department, Law Enforcement, Fire and Rescue, and the many volunteers, Thomaston First UMC is very blessed to make community and congregation a kingdom priority, revealing the love and grace of Jesus Christ," said Cunningham.
"What an honor it is to partner with our community. What a blessing it is to bring hope in the confusion. What joy fills the soul when reminded that God’s got this," he said.
All Hands on Deck
Several members of Barnesville First UMC are on the local health department advisory board.
“When a drive-through vaccine clinic began in our county, the advisory board members reached out and we put out the call within the church for volunteers,” said church pastor Cyndi McDonald.
Barnesville First members are now volunteering at Southern Rivers Energy drive-through vaccination site by answering questions, directing people through the lines, and handing out treats.
Since then the church has reached out to the local ministerial association encouraging others to participate.
“It's going to be a long-term process and so they'll need a large pool of volunteers,” she explained.
A Long List of Servants
Dozens of North Georgia United Methodists are at work in dozens of ways to serve God and community by helping others get the COVID-19 vaccine. Here are just a few more:
Sybil Davidson is Conference Communicator in the North Georgia Conference. Contact her at email@example.com
- Red Oak UMC Newton County members with computer skills are helping to locate and schedule vaccine appointments for senior members.
- The Nett UMC is helping with mobile vaccine distribution in Gwinnett County.
- A Conference young adult is participating in the Novavax Trial.
- A church staff member is participating in the Moderna Trial.
- Laity who are retired medical professionals are volunteering to administer the vaccine.
- Several more congregations are working with local health departments to host vaccine clinics in their parking lots or church buildings.
- Congregations are assembling resource links and sharing advice on how to secure appointments for those who are eligible.
- And the list goes on …