Minister of Health

Kansas City Eastside minster supports urban core with COVID-19 information

“Our Healthy KC Eastside” (OHKCE) is a large-scale, community-based partnership addressing vaccine hesitance and health inequities in vulnerable portions of Jackson County, Missouri. Meet the community partners who are dedicated to improving Jackson County’s residents’ lives.

In the late 1980s, Eric D. Williams, pastor of Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, fought a long, but worthwhile battle educating his community on AIDS awareness and prevention – both from his pulpit and in his neighborhood. Today, he continues his crusade for good health through the Our Healthy KC Eastside initiative to fight COVID-19.

COVID-19 is not the first health crisis Williams has sought to defeat.

“As a young minister in the late 1980’s I had a great relationship with some of the funeral homes, because of my efforts to help with the gang problem in Kansas City. One of the funeral home directors called me one day and asked me to do a service for a young man whose clergyman refused because he died of AIDS.”

Williams says there are elements and misinformation of the AIDS crisis that remind him of the current health crisis.

“The information wasn’t in a central place,” he remembers. “And then there were contradictions. As the community came together, [UMKC professor] Jeanette Berkley-Patton became involved and she took it upon herself to prove that what preachers say at the pulpit, people listen to.”

Williams, Berkley-Patton and their colleagues developed church-based AIDS education and prevention programming to reach the African-American community. They delivered their message through sermons from the pulpit and printed information in the church program of services. And the church leaders led by example, though sermons, public testing demonstrations and caring for people living with HIV.

“That’s our ministry. That’s our focus. That’s our heartbeat,” Williams says.  “We want to help do the same thing with COVID-19 because all of our congregations are hurting. We want to use what we’ve learned to help.”

Williams is leading the faith sector of Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside in an effort to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations. He thinks his colleagues’ reach and influence are significant.

“We have 15 churches on the east side that have signed up and are ready to host vaccination events. We have a waiting list of about six or eight more congregations that would like to participate. I think we can continue to keep them engaged so that they can influence people.  Their average congregation size is from a hundred to a couple of thousand.”

Williams thinks even if vaccination numbers are low at the one event, there may still be positive results.

“If we can continue to influence people from the strong stance of the pulpit, I think that can be significant. It’s like planting seeds. Even if you don’t get the shot in the arm that day, you’ve planted the thought in the minds of the folks that listen to you. Maybe in the future, they’ll make the choice.”

Williams notes that African Americans face health challenges across the board that COVID is compounding.

“We are leading all the wrong lists,” he says. “We top new infections with HIV, the most people living with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, mental illness, and on and on. And so, we are using those same lessons we learned with HIV to tackle the other health disparities that we see, through our strong relationships with our congregations.”

Williams has experience fighting the distrust that many people in the African-American community have for the medical profession.

“I think the first thing that helps is that we agree that yes, there have been abuses and that some of the conspiracies are real. [The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at] Tuskegee did happen. There was a General Hospital Number One [for white people in Kansas City], and a General Hospital Number Two for African Americans. There were cemeteries that wouldn’t allow black people to be buried there. So that is real.”

Williams says we can acknowledge that, “but look past history to see what’s happening right now. Week by week we see more deaths.”

He knows that some of the partner churches may handle things differently, but the general structure is delivery of fact-based information.

“We asked the preachers to deliver a sermon with some facts about COVID and vaccination. Facts, not opinions, and relate it to scripture and how Jesus may handle it.”

According to Williams, his go-to passage is 3 John 1:2: Beloved, I wish above all things that you prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.

“I think sometimes we get fixated on the soul and neglect the person and what they’re going through today,” he says. “Our desire is that people’s lives on Earth are as prosperous and happy as their afterlife.”