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African American Churches Will Form A New Front Line In Kansas City's Fight Against The Coronavirus

Jannette Berkley-Patton stands outside Calvary Temple Baptist Church where her NIH-funded grant will be used early next year to provide COVID-19 testing.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jannette Berkley-Patton stands outside Calvary Temple Baptist Church where her NIH-funded grant will be used early next year to provide COVID-19 testing.

A group of area researchers, faith leaders and health agencies will receive $1.9 million to expand COVID-19 testing and education efforts at African American churches.

As the National Institutes of Health looks to expand coronavirus testing across the country, some African American churches in Kansas City will become a new front line for coronavirus education and testing.

UMKC health researcher and psychologist Jannette Berkley-Patton has teamed up with area faith leaders and the Kansas City Health Department to expand coronavirus testing into more than a dozen Black churches in Kansas City.

"We know the work of the church goes beyond the pews and into the community, and many times that's reaching people who are some of the most underserved and marginalized populations in our urban communities," says Berkley-Patton.

The NIH announced that it awarded $1.9 million to the effort, as part of an initiative to speed up the development and distribution of COVID-19 tests among groups disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

The two-year grant is the latest reward to come from years of collaboration between Berkley-Patton, who directsUMKC's Health Equity Institute, and local faith leaders like Rev. Eric Williams, who heads up the Calvary Community Outreach Network.

"We want to arm congregations and clergy with tools that they can use to spread the gospel of health," he says.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, African Americans nationwide are dying from the virus at two times the rate of white Americans. In Missouri and Kansas, Black people are more likely than white people to be infected and die.

"Communities of color, populations of color, have not been involved in research because of all of the horrible past historical research experiences," says Berkley-Patton.

One example is the 1932 Tuskegee study, in which doctors let Black men die of syphilis by not informing the patients of their illness and intentionally withholding treatment. The study had an initial timeline of six months but lasted 40 years. Unethical medical research involving Black Americans has been conducted by highly esteemed academic institutions as recently as the 1990s.

"Even today, studies continue to show that African Americans get lesser quality of care, experience racism and discrimination in health care settings and tend to have worse patient provider communication because of the lack of mutual respect from health providers," she says.

Berkley-Patton and Williams, along with the Kansas City Health Department's Deputy Director Frank Thompson, hope to use the power of the pulpit to help overcome that mistrust.

"Our studies here locally have shown that, on any given Sunday, over 50% of African Americans are sitting in somebody's pews, and now with COVID-19 are tuning in virtually," says Berkley-Patton. "(And) the one thing that we've learned from our past studies, if nothing else, is that if the pastor says to do it, people more than likely follow suit."

Many local congregations have been involved in health initiatives and outreach for decades. Williams' history goes back to the early 90s.

"Depending on how you count it, this is at least our second pandemic," he says, "the first one being HIV."

Paul Andrews
Rev. Eric Williams' work in health initiatives and outreach dates back to the early 1990s and the AIDS epidemic.

Williams, who is pastor of the Calvary Temple Baptist Church, first founded the CCON in 1994 to help respond to the AIDS crisis — which also revolved around a previously-unknown virus that affected African Americans disproportionately. Much of that work was done hand-in-hand with Berkley-Patton and the city health department.

Since then, he says, "the same things we found with HIV, we found in heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and on and on and on and on."

Those years of work helped prepare him for today's COVID-19 challenge.

"This one, it would appear, would be easier for congregations to find palatable, because it shouldn't carry the same types of stigma that HIV carried," he says.

Beyond the church doors

Through the course of the study, faith leaders will serve as church health workers, Berkley-Patton says. They'll receive training on how to include COVID-19 testing messages in their sermons, and how to use the church's social networks to spread the word.

"So whether it's the church services that go out on a Sunday ... the Wednesday night Bible study, whether it's the Sunday school or women's ministry or men's ministry or the choir meeting — all of those provide many opportunities to communicate the importance of COVID-19 testing and preventative behaviors," she says.

Churches will also serve as testing sites themselves, which mirrors a change in strategy by the Kansas City Health Department away from drive-thru testing and toward walk-up, indoor testing sites, says deputy director Frank Thompson. His department will provide the church-based COVID-19 testing services through the grant.

Conducting tests safely in a church setting is mostly an issue of managing traffic flow through the site, he says. "The actual process, it's no different than than it would be if it's done at the clinic."

Thompson says participating churches will also be equipped to help with some of the follow-up work that's required when a test comes back positive; contact tracing, food or rent assistance, and even finding temporary placement for people who have no place to quarantine.

"Those ministries get to community members who may not be their church members, but they're showing up on the church doorsteps because they're using their social services," says Berkley-Patton. "They are using things like food pantries and clothing pantries, maybe there's a utility assistance program or recovery program."

Berkley-Patton, who Williams calls a "research guru," stresses that churches and their congregations won't just be on the receiving end of these services. Church leaders will be intimately involved in the design and planning phase of the research.

"That includes not only the procedures for collecting data, but also designing the materials to ensure that they're going to be culturally-appropriate and, even more so, religiously appropriate for the church context," she says.

Berkley-Patton expects the study to begin in early spring, which is a quick turnaround for medical research studies — "it's going to take a little bit more time for preparation to get things ready to roll," she says.

Once it does launch, churches will be sorted randomly into two groups. One group will receive standard COVID-19 testing and prevention information like the kind offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The other group, Berkley-Patton says, will get "culturally-, religiously-tailored intervention that will train church leaders to implement it."

Regardless of the group, churches will receive money to participate in the study, and church leaders and participants will get a stipend or reimbursement for their time.

While the diagnostic and prevention work they'll soon be engrossed in is critically important, everyone involved in the local effort is keen to point out the elephant in the room.

"Everything we're doing in testing right now, we've got an eye toward (and) this is setting up for vaccine distribution," says Thompson.

Berkley-Patton compares it to building a pipeline for when the vaccine is ready. The whole system, though, is based on mutual trust and effective outreach.

"Our churches are really invested in ensuring that they can play an important role in the health of our African American community," she says. "They've done it for years before we even came along doing this kind of research, and they'll do it for years afterwards."

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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