Officials grapple with coronavirus vaccine hesitancy among Latino evangelicals

Farm worker Marcos Cruz receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson Janssen Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination site organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW), Kern Medical, and the Kern County Latino Covid-19 Task Force inside Reuther Hall at Forty Acres on March 13, 2021 in Delano, California. - Central Valley farm workers were administered the vaccines free of charge, regardless of insurance or immigration status. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images) (PATRICK T. FALLON via Getty Images)
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EVERETT, Mass. - Sunday after Sunday, parishioners would approach Victor Chicas privately after he delivered his sermon in a small storefront church next to a Dunkin' Donuts.

Was the coronavirus vaccine safe, they asked their beloved pastor. Would it enable the government to track them? And what, they wanted to know, might the vaccine represent for Christians?

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Chicas agonized over what to tell the 80 members of Ministerio Dios Habla Hoy's congregation, weighing concerns about his own ill health against his interpretation of the word of God and rumors spreading on the Internet.

"This vaccine has the potential to become a method to control humanity," Chicas said from his wheelchair, echoing worries that the technology will allow authorities to keep tabs on immigrants.

Chicas's doubts reflect the dilemma facing public health officials as they grapple with vaccine hesitancy among Latinos, including the growing number, like Chicas, who identify as evangelical. Long-standing distrust of government among many Latinos is combined with widespread misinformation online and religious worries that the vaccine represents loyalty to God's enemies. The reluctance, which threatens communities that have already been devastated by covid-19, is prompting responses from the White House on down, where the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has held regular calls with faith leaders to discuss strategies for combating hesitancy.

Related video: Biden sets new COVID-19 vaccination goal

"We are being very intentional," said Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, who takes part in the White House calls. "There are justifiable reasons to be cautious," Salguero said, describing a history of abuse by public health officials and wariness of immigration authorities. The coalition has made vaccine acceptance central to its mission, teaming up with the nonprofit Ad Council to create messages aimed at Hispanic evangelicals at several thousand congregations across the country, including in the Boston area.

In recent sermons, Salguero said he has used biblical language and imagery to counter misinformation:

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," he said, quoting a verse from the New Testament.

Religion appears to play a significant role when it comes to vaccine hesitancy.

Skepticism appears to be relatively high among evangelicals in general. More than 3 in 10 self-identified evangelical or born-again Christians say they will probably or definitely not get the vaccine, compared with just over 2 in 10 Americans who are not evangelical, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month.

Across the country, 28% of Hispanics say they definitely or probably will not get the vaccine, according to March polling data from the Pew Research Center. The number goes up to 33% for those who identify as Protestant. The majority of Hispanic Protestants in the United States identify as evangelical.

While many church leaders such as Pope Francis and prominent Protestant bishops have urged people to protect themselves with the shots, the evangelical faith is highly decentralized, allowing for myriad interpretations of scripture - and differing views of vaccination, including the false claims that it alters recipients' genetic makeup or contains tracking technology.

Recently, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins described himself as "a follower of Jesus" as he addressed an online event hosted by Wheaton College in Illinois. Collins urged listeners to consider vaccination as "a love our neighbor moment" that will help them protect others from covid-19.

In Massachusetts, as in many other states, vaccination data on race and ethnicity is incomplete. But state data suggest Latinos have the lowest vaccination rate of any ethnic group. Despite efforts to vaccinate Latinos in their communities, just 30 percent have been vaccinated, according to the state's health department, compared with 34 percent of Blacks and 52 percent of Whites.

Among those who have expressed skepticism of the vaccine is Luis Morales, the founder and leader of the evangelical church Vida Real Internacional, headquartered in Medford, Mass. The church, which occupies almost the entire floor of an office building has an online presence that reaches far more widely.

Morales, who declined to allow a reporter to attend his services and asked members of his congregation not to speak with her, agreed to an interview in which he asserted that he is immune to covid-19 after having contracted the disease last year.

"I wouldn't get the vaccine. I don't need it," Morales said.

Online, Morales has been more outspoken. In a video posted on Facebook in November, the pastor made false claims that the coronavirus vaccines can cause male infertility, alleging a conspiracy to reduce the world's population of Latinos who, Morales asserts in the video, are reproducing at higher rates than other ethnic groups. After YouTube blocked his channel, which has more than 330,000 followers, for a week, most of the videos in which Morales talks about the coronavirus or the vaccine disappeared.

Morales appears recently to have adopted a less radical posture, asking his followers to do research before they decide whether to get the shot, and making his own skepticism clear.

Morales said in an interview that he supports the notion of reaching herd immunity and is recommending that his followers drink a smoothie he designed with natural ingredients intended to boost the immune system.

"A doctor might not be as knowledgeable about the virus as I am," he said.

Morales is not alone. In a December video, Florida-based Pastor Guillermo Maldonado instructed his congregation not to take the vaccine. The footage, published by Right Wing Watch, a project of the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way, shows the Honduran-American televangelist and leader of the Miami megachurch King Jesus International Ministry alternating between Spanish and English as he exhorts his followers.

"The vaccines, they are made to alter your DNA," Maldonado said, carrying a microphone so that is voice boomed around the church, which former president Donald Trump visited as he was drumming up Latino support in the state. "They are made to trace you down, track you down," Maldonado continued, as he strolled up and down. "Do not put the vaccine. Believe in the blood of Jesus. Believe in divine immunity."

Maldonado did not respond to numerous attempts to reach him.

Kmarie Tejeda, a graduate student in theology at Boston University, has been tracking social media messages shared by Hispanics who believe in QAnon conspiracies on YouTube and in encrypted Telegram groups that have thousands of members. Among their worries is the unfounded view that the vaccines contain a microchip that will allow authorities to track people.

Tejeda, who is of Dominican descent and identifies as evangelical, recalls her sympathies for the spiritual, anti-authoritarian thinking when the pandemic began.

"I was trying to find answers," Tejeda said. "I like this mystical thinking because it is part of my history, of my ancestors."

Although she has distanced herself from information that did not make sense to her, she has continued to track the groups, including "Patriotas Unidos y Despiertos en Conciencia, apoyando a Donald Trump" (United Patriots Consciously Awake, supporting Donald Trump), which has more than 29,000 members.

In the group chat, where new comments are posted almost every second, participants describe the vaccine as part of an agenda to "harm the oppressed" or reduce the world's population. Posts question the science behind the vaccine, alleging it is "in the hands of evil."

Such prophetic language centered on the vaccine, "is definitely something that's in the air," said Roberto Miranda, pastor of Lion of Judah in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, one of the biggest Latino evangelical churches in New England. He, like Chicas, is often asked for medical advice and whether the vaccine is compatible with evangelical theology.

On a recent Sunday, Miranda dedicated the beginning of the service to explaining the evolution in his own thinking and why he ultimately decided to get vaccinated.

"I thought for a while 'I'm not going to get it'," Miranda said in Spanish to an audience of about 100 Latinos, largely from the Caribbean and Central America. "Not because I thought there was something harmful, sinister in the vaccine, but simply because God has brought me here without having to use any kind of medicine. God has protected me," he said, as people nodded and applauded with excitement.

After meeting with health experts in Boston, Miranda changed his mind and is advising his parishioners to get the shot. In March, he hosted a vaccination clinic at the church.

Among those who were vaccinated that day was Damaris Lopez, a member of Miranda's church and community organizer for the Boston-based nonprofit Alpha, which recently launched a campaign to boost vaccination rates among Hispanics.

Lopez helped set up the vaccination clinic. She said it is common to hear from people who feel conflicted about the vaccine because of their religious beliefs.

"We don't judge them, we listen because there are enough reasons for them to be skeptical," she says. "The system has failed us, immigrants, so many times, including those of us with religious beliefs, that the distrust is natural."

Eight miles away in Everett, Chicas has been reevaluating his own attitude toward the vaccines.

Chicas, 48, suffers from diabetes and obesity, both factors that his doctor told him would increase the chances of a bad outcome if he were to be infected with virus. He needed to stay well not just for himself but to care for his wife's 11-year-old son.

Chicas did not believe some of the more far-fetched rumors spreading online. But he had been hearing from other preachers, some in neighboring churches, that the vaccines would be used to control people's movements. That left him uneasy. He did not like the idea that he might be required to offer evidence that he had been vaccinated before boarding a plane to travel to his native El Salvador.

He weighed those worries against his own health problems, which are an ongoing concern, ultimately convincing him that he should get the shot - and opening a whole new conundrum.

How should he talk about his decision with the parishioners who had asked for his advice? As a religious leader, he was accustomed to listening to their private problems and providing spiritual guidance on the interpretation of the bible. But how should he, an immigrant pastor who created his church here a decade ago out of a car rental office, explain away concerns that were roiling evangelicals around the world?

His conclusion was pragmatic, based in his understanding of the bible.

"I tell them 'God is a fair judge,' " Chicas said. "If we did it with a clear conscience, he will approve."

Chicas knows some members of the congregation will not believe him.

"We can say anything from the pulpit," Chicas said. "But many parishioners look for answers on social media, and nobody controls that territory."

- - -

The Washington Post's Scott Clement and Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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