Leaders from 50 Kent County church congregations rolled up their sleeves to show their communities they are walking the talk on the COVID-19 vaccine front.

They gathered Thursday at the West Michigan Vaccination Clinic at DeVos Place to lend their support to the vaccination effort.

Representatives from the Kent County Health Department, Spectrum Health and Mercy Health facilitated tours and answered questions.

“Whatever your faith tradition, the principle of love thy neighbor is pretty consistent across centuries,” said Charlie Selmon Jr., pastor of Wellspring Church. “Getting a vaccine, just like wearing a mask, is about showing love for ourselves, our neighbors, our elders and our children. It is about protecting the sanctity of human life.”

The group is the Kent County COVID-19 Church Response Task Force. It is a coalition of church leaders from across Kent County who work closely with the health department to serve their communities during this unprecedented health crisis.

They are well known for their work during the peak of the pandemic when they agreed to forego in-person church services to slow the surge of COVID-19 cases and support health care workers.

The group’s most recent mission is to encourage all members of their congregations and their community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It has been a difficult year and your leadership in the community has been key in getting us to this point,” said Adam London, PhD, administrative health officer at the health department.

“Our community is very close to getting through this pandemic and moving on,” Dr. London added. “I want to thank you all for your voice and leadership. We know that people need to hear from people that they trust and respect—and that is you. Our community trusts you.”

“One of the hallmarks of this pandemic has been how cooperation has happened in ways we have never seen before,” said Brian Brasser, chief operations officer at Spectrum Health Grand Rapids. “When we work together, we can get so much further than working alone. You all are critical to the infrastructure of our society—for you to lead by example with your influence is essential, and on behalf of all of health care, we say thank you.”

The group gathered to bless the vaccine clinic.

“Thank you, God. Thank you,” said Robert Dean, pastor at New Life Church of God in Christ. “Only you can do what you do. We pray that you will lead us. Here we are today, in your name, representing you so that the world can see our good works. And we thank you for what you have done and are going to do as each and every person is inoculated against this virus. Let the spirit of fear be eradicated.”

Thurston Willoughby, a pastor at Kingdom Bible and president of Kingdom University International, was among the first of the group to be vaccinated.

“I did this for my wife,” he said. “She had taken her vaccine, and my care for her and the community is important. We are pastors and we lead by example. At one point there was some fear and unknowns, but after seeing what the health care providers are doing, I said I had to be a part of it.”

Renato Pecina, head elder at Grand Rapids Northwest Seventh Day Adventist Church, spent eight days at home in April with COVID-19 and then another 12 days at Spectrum Health, where he received convalescent plasma therapy.

“The main reason to get the vaccine is that I do not want other people to experience what I did,” he said. “It was very painful for me and my family. If this shot can prevent that, it is good to do it.”

Leaders from the various houses of faith all signed a vaccine pledge to endorse the vaccination and also volunteered to help get other people vaccinated. The efforts of this group has already led to 1,000 people getting their vaccinations.

Adam Green, a pastor at New Dimensions Victory Center, said some of his family had initial uncertainties about the vaccine, but he worked to share accurate information about how safe and beneficial the vaccine truly is.

“I feel as a Black race, we should really overlook the past and realize this is a new generation and a new day dawning,” he said. “There has been more accountability in creating this vaccine and making it safe for all. I would encourage everyone who is able to get the vaccine to do so.”

Over the next eight weeks the group plans to expand their advocacy work to include canvassing vulnerable neighborhoods across Kent County to register community members for vaccination at local clinics.