Elders at Colorado’s oldest Black church dressed in their Sunday finest and greeted one another warmly as they received COVID-19 vaccines, celebrating what they hope will be a healing turnaround.
African Americans have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, but so far, have received only about 5% of vaccines in the U.S.
UCHealth workers and doctors from the University of Colorado School of Medicine teamed up with the Rev. Dr. Timothy E. Tyler, pastor of Shorter Community AME Church, and several of the Denver church’s volunteers to vaccinate more than 525 people on Sunday.
Tyler said hosting a vaccine clinic at Shorter Community AME was ideal.
“The Black church has been the center of our community and people have trust in us. So, this is the perfect place,” he said.
Tyler said AME churches have a long history of tending to the sick.
“During the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and member of Mother Bethel AME Church risked their own health and lives to care for dying citizens in Philadelphia,” Tyler said.
“It’s been in our DNA to get out in the community and be a part of solutions to pandemics,” Tyler said.
He and his wife, Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler, the first lady of Shorter Community AME, both received their first doses of the vaccine three weeks ago and their second doses on Sunday.
Tyler looks forward to continue offering vaccine clinics in partnership with UCHealth until many more members of the community receive their vaccines.
“It’s important that a Black church leads the way in encouraging people of color and Black people who are most affected by the COVID-19 virus, to receive the vaccine,” Tyler said. “The church has always been a central place of trust and healing in the lives of Black people.
“We’re living out what we’ve been called to do,” he said.
‘It meant a lot to me. I don’t want to die’
Calvin Burnett, 81, wanted to look dapper when he got his vaccine. He sported a suit, a dress hat and sapphire-blue leather shoes. He bought the shoes in both blue and red a couple of years ago and was excited for an outing to show them off.
“I like to look nice,” Burnett said.
He grew up poor in Arkansas and remembers other kids teasing him because his only shoes had holes in the soles.
“I told myself, “If I ever get old enough, I’m going to buy some shoes.’” Burnett said.
One of seven kids, Burnett left home at 16 and headed to Florida to pick fruit. He later drove cement trucks and other heavy equipment.
Now that he’s had two doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, Burnett looks forward to someday driving to visit friends again.
Burnett lives close to Shorter Community AME in north Denver and was excited to get his vaccine in his neighborhood.
“It meant a lot of me. I don’t want to die. Nobody wants to die,” Burnett said.
Losses among many Black families have been devastating over the past year since the coronavirus arrived in the U.S.
Vickie Wilhite’s dad died in September. He got sick and was hospitalized in North Carolina. He was released but died days later of a heart attack. He also had signs of pneumonia and COVID-19 might have contributed to his death. Other older relatives also have died over the last year and an uncle is fighting for his life now in a Virginia hospital, Vickie said.
“It’s felt like once a month,” she said of the pandemic’s toll on her family.
‘This is my own church’
Vickie and her husband, Michael Wilhite, brought his mom, Joan Hooker, to the clinic for her first vaccine dose. She turns 90 in July.
“This is my own church. We’ve always been AME,” Hooker said proudly.
Vickie and Michael rolled Hooker into the church Fellowship Hall in a wheelchair. She enjoyed the outing and loved being back at a place she has missed deeply since the pandemic forced all services to go online last spring.
Hooker wasn’t hesitant in the least to get her vaccine.
“I’m glad I got it. I’ve been through a lot,” Hooker said.
She has survived cancer as well as some heart issues that have required two pacemakers.
Hooker loved being vaccinated in her church.
Michael was thrilled, too, to see his mom get her first dose and appreciated the medical team coming to the community.
“I’m happy to see the outreach. I pray that we’ll get as many people vaccinated as fast as possible. I’m hoping this has an impact. Our community has been so affected,” he said.
Vickie acknowledged that some in the Black community have been hesitant to get their vaccines. But, she and Michael can’t wait to get theirs. And, Vickie, who is a community organizer for Together Colorado and part of Shorter’s social justice ministry, is urging all people of color to get vaccines.
“We’ve got to protect our community,” Vickie said.
Enduring racist slights throughout life, but grateful nonetheless
Hooker lives nearby and has spent her life strengthening her church and her neighborhood. She helped raise funds to build a church school and advocated for the cleanup of a Superfund site nearby.
Hooker was born in Kansas where she was just one of a handful of children allowed to attend a predominantly white school. She had good teachers but wasn’t allowed to participate in activities outside of classes.
“I wanted to be Snow White in the school play,” Hooker said.
Sadly, she didn’t get the part and had to endure racism later in life. Hooker is a talented seamstress and was hired to run the alterations department at the old Daniels & Fisher Department Store in downtown Denver only to have the offer rescinded when workers refused to work for a Black woman. Hooker later spent years working as a fitter at Parish’s Dress Shop.
She has three children and 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She no longer babysits for them but looks forward to more gatherings once the pandemic eases.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Hooker said.
Editor’s Note: During the pandemic, the Colorado Times Recorder will occasionally post articles from UCHealth Today, which is published by UCHeatlh, the hospital associated with the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Our goal is to provide as many people as possible with accurate information about the virus and related topics.