Terris King is finally back at Liberty Grace Church of God, surrounded by its familiar wood-paneled walls and red pulpit. This time, he’s speaking straight into a camera, facing rows of empty pews.
As a pastor in a church in the area of Baltimore hit hardest by Covid-19, King knows his decision to keep services remote is the right one, even if it’s unpopular. Since the beginning of the pandemic, King, 60, has been fighting an uphill battle, weaving together science and scripture in the hopes his approximately 300 congregants will adhere to public health guidelines: mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing.
He invoked the story of Noah’s Ark to discuss common sense when it comes to pandemic decision-making. “He used the science of the raven and the dove to say when it was safe for him and his family to exit the ark,” he said in an interview about his sermon, referencing Noah’s decision to send birds out to look for dry land. He used the story of Jesus “distancing himself from his closest disciples” before his death on the cross to illustrate a kind of scriptural basis for social distancing protocols.
Now, King has set his sights on a new target: vaccinations.
Researchers have already raised concerns about the number of Americans who are wary of the vaccines in development for Covid-19, and particularly the number of Black Americans, who are far more likely to say they are skeptical. Given the country’s history of mistreating Black patients in medical studies, King understands why the congregants of his Black Baptist church may hesitate to get the vaccine when it’s available.
King is hoping he can combat that skepticism the same way he’s convinced his congregants to wear masks and stay home when they can — through his weekly sermons. And he’s hoping to take those teachings national. He’s already working alongside both academic and religious institutions in Baltimore and beyond to broaden his reach before a potential vaccine is approved.
“Act locally, and think nationally” has become King’s mantra of sorts, repeated in his low and slow tone as he talks strategy for his vaccine communications plan.
“I think that the nexus … of religion and health care is one that has not been examined, utilized, and exhausted in the African American community,” he said of his strategy, which he plans to roll out this fall. “I don’t think there has been enough attention to the importance of storytelling, and who those storytellers are, and the effectiveness of utilizing those storytellers to build a bridge between health care institutions and the community.”
King has a long history of interweaving religion and medicine. The native Baltimorean has previously invited nurses to screen for high blood pressure and HIV at Liberty Grace, where he’s been a pastor for over 25 years. He has also preached on the importance of healthy eating and recently set up a mental health hotline for his congregants to use during the pandemic.
“We take him as gospel,” said Alfreda Brooks, a trustee at Liberty Grace. “If he’s telling us to do this, he’s telling us this for a reason. I guess because we’re in a smaller church, we’re all so close. He knows all of us, we all know him.”
King has more authority than most pastors to speak about public health: He touts a 30-year career in government health care, including a stint at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, where he served as the director of the Office of Minority Health, an office he founded. He earned both a master’s and a scientific doctorate in community health.
King’s credentials, combined with the fact that his mother was the founding pastor of the tight-knit church, lends him a great deal of trust from, and influence over, his congregants. And it’s to them and their lives that he wants to devote himself. He says the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in 2016, which sparked protests throughout the city and country, spurred him to give up government service in favor of focusing on his community.
“I went from this racing executive who ran from pulpit to the executive suite of CMS, to one that said, ‘Wait a minute, my city’s on fire, there’s far more that should be and can be done to impact the community outside of our door,’” he said. “So that has become my life crusade.”
Since then, he’s left his government job and lent his public health and community-based expertise to grassroots organizations throughout the city, including the Family League of Baltimore, and he sits on the board of the National Minority Quality Forum to help develop a vaccination education strategy.
“He understands the science, but he’s living the work of translating it into health equity by staying in the community and trying to help in the community,” said Laura Lee Hall, president of the Center for Sustainable Health Care Quality and Equity at the National Minority Quality Forum, who’s working with King on the vaccine acceptance plan. “That, I think, is an amazing combination.”
Although King has the authority to speak on these issues, he’s careful not to prescribe any medical treatment to his congregation given the historic lack of trust of institutions, and medical institutions in particular, in the Black community.
“You can’t just say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to you. Here’s how we’re going to help you,’ he said. “That very paternalistic perspective is what has been harmful throughout the years and has exacerbated the distrust between many of these communities and institutions that attempt to work with them.”
King said the people in his community have raised concerns about a potential vaccine’s efficacy, and have questioned whether injections of the virus could actually infect them with the disease. They may also face socioeconomic barriers to accessing the vaccine at a convenient time in a comfortable setting.
Ultimately, King said many Black communities tend to opt out of engagements with the American medical establishment they deem nonessential. “There’s an overarching disdain in many African American communities, not just because of the history of Tuskegee but the ongoing unequal treatment that many African Americans continue to receive from the health care system, not perceived, but actual,” he said, referencing the infamous syphilis experiments on Black men in Alabama, in which experimenters knowingly withheld treatments from the infected men. “That reality is one that says, ‘I don’t know if I want to engage with the health care system if it’s optional.’”
King sees himself as a bridge between the faith community and the scientific community in encouraging vaccine acceptance this fall.
He plans to emphasize to his congregants the “scriptural basis for the use of the scientific method,” he said. “This in no way minimizes the importance of faith, but faith has to be looked at in the context of your environment and of the evidence that you see around you, and your common sense has to be used to look at that evidence.”
Researchers have studied the reasons for historically low rates of flu vaccination among Black Americans for years, and the same patterns seem to hold for coronavirus vaccine acceptance. This year, a study conducted by researchers at multiple universities found that just 52% of Black Americans surveyed are likely to get the Covid-19 vaccine, compared to 67% of white Americans surveyed by the group. They also found that higher education levels and incomes correlated to increased trust of the future vaccine.
Amelia Jamison, a research assistant at the University of Maryland, found similar results among those she interviewed in a past study on institutional trust and flu vaccines.
“The idea of Operation Warp Speed is just antithetical to the idea of community input,” she said, referring to the Trump administration’s effort to distribute 300 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine by January 2021. “We’re moving forward full speed ahead, the government is unclear on what’s happening, there’s not much transparency. Particularly, we’re talking about accelerated approval for experimental vaccines. That introduces a lot of new concerns, and we don’t see much public messaging.”
“We take him as gospel. If he’s telling us to do this, he’s telling us this for a reason.”
Alfreda Brooks, a trustee at Liberty Grace
King plans to update his congregation about Covid-19 vaccine development every week through the fall, during both services and Bible studies, to familiarize them with the drug companies and medical terms associated with the vaccine. He’ll also preach to them about the importance of getting the flu vaccine this year, both for their health and in hopes that it will make them more comfortable with the eventual Covid-19 vaccine. He’s also quick to say he’ll explain his plans to take those trainings national, a move he considers essential to maintaining trust between him and his congregants.
Next, he plans to share the lessons he learns from his congregation and a list of resources for teaching congregants with other pastors in the Baltimore community. Pastor J. L. Carter, president of the Minister’s Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity and a longtime friend of King’s and fellow Baltimore-area pastor, hopes to share this framework with other clergy leaders in the city and across the nation, a group he calls “the ultimate fraternity.”
Although the church is known as a means of sharing public health information for ailments common in the Black community, like sickle cell disease and high blood pressure, it has become even more important during the pandemic. Many of the traditional places to share public health information in communities, like barbershops and community health centers, are frequented less often due to fears about contracting Covid-19, so the onus may fall more heavily on religious leaders, said Hall, of NMQF. She added that local media outlets, school system leaders, and Greek organizations are also important distributors of information in the Black community.
Hall plans to leverage King’s learnings from conversations with his congregants to provide resources and support, including potential funds for community health workers, in the areas of Baltimore that may need it most. She also plans to work with King throughout the fall on establishing a national strategy for vaccine acceptance in historically underserved communities, using the resources at the forum’s disposal.
King is also collaborating with Johns Hopkins researchers on a separate, similar effort.
“What somebody like Terris does is he’s able to convene people, he’s able to understand how to leverage the resources that are already there,” said Lois Privor-Dumm, director of policy advocacy and communications at the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University. “He’s a linker. He’s somebody that will hold everybody accountable — and when I say everybody, I mean everybody, from our political leaders to the people that provide services to the community themselves, because the community has an obligation as well, to speak out, to voice their concerns, but to also listen and to make sure that they’re well-informed.”
King knows vaccine acceptance will be a challenge in his community, a community he says, like many others in the U.S. that has “often been taken advantage of and abandoned and left without the support” from institutions in the past.
King’s son, Terris King II, has been watching his father preach for most of his life, and said that his father’s approach to Covid-19, so far, has been working. “People listen to my dad. People are staying home. And the reason why is because what he tells him every week on these calls is like, ‘I actually love you,’” he said. “He’ll speak out against Trump and against the system and say, ‘They don’t know you, and I’ve been loving on you through my actions.’”
These actions have included dropping off meals for elderly congregants during the pandemic, talking through difficulties with congregants one-on-one on the phone, and keeping them out of the church, physically.
“The trust is in me and me in them,” the elder King said.
“It’s not about the agencies or the administration. It’s that, ‘This guy knows more than we do,’” he added, reflecting on how his congregants seem to see him. “‘He’s been inside those institutions. He’s led those institutions, therefore he knows what to look for. And we trust him because he wouldn’t do anything to hurt us.’”