This photographic essay was published in partnership with Scalawag, a nonprofit journalism and storytelling organization that disrupts mainstream narratives about the southern United States. The Scalawag Breaking Through Covid Series is a collection of stories aimed at illuminating the ways the Covid-19 pandemic realigned communities and highlighted the crises the south was already facing.
At Bethesda Worship and Healing Missionary Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Reverend Kenneth B Thomas Sr. preaches the gospel of “Mask it, Vax it, or Choose the Casket.” The choice is yours. “
In Craighead County, where Jonesboro is located, only about 34% of all eligible people are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. This figure is about 10% lower than the state as a whole and 20% lower than the national average.
On a recent Sunday, the Reverend urged his predominantly black congregation to get vaccinated. âThe virus might not get you out, but it’s serious,â he said in his booming bass voice. “Just because you haven’t been sick doesn’t mean you won’t get sick.”
At the right time, the choir sang We’ve Come This Far by Faith, as if it bore witness to the past 18 months and the burdens to come as new variants cause more illness and death across the country.
Thomas saw how the pandemic and the vaccination efforts played out in his community. In addition to serving as a pastor, Thomas owns Daddy’s Choice Barber Shop; he is also a sports coach and teaches math and social studies at a local high school.
In each of these spaces he has seen the victims of a pandemic that is complicated, multi-faceted, and has no clear beginning and end. Jonesboro represents 78,394 of the county’s population of 111,000, which recently ranked second in the state in new cases of Covid-19.
Thomas recognizes that schools, hair salons, beauty salons, and places of worship function as both shelters and information centers in many black communities. He also knows that everyone who sits on his pew or in his barber chair is not vaccinated, so he uses each meeting as a teaching moment.
The reasons he hears for not getting the shot are as varied and nuanced as the haircuts he gives. Andre Jones – a client who has an appointment every two weeks or so for beard, face and line up treatments – is still hesitant about the vaccine. He arrived at the store without a mask.
âI don’t feel like I need the vaccine, but I think about it. I am open to it. But I’ve never had the flu shot either, âsaid Jones, who has a 10-year-old daughter.
Still, he acknowledges that the virus is not a hoax.
âIt’s real and it’s deadly. A lot of friends have been close to death and some have been on oxygen, âhe said.
Latoshia Woods, who was recently at the barber to have her 13-year-old son’s hair cut for the first day of school, says she is “pro-vaccine,” in part because of her eldest child’s kidney disease. . While she, her husband and one son have been fully vaccinated, two other sons are still too young to be vaccinated.
âWe shouldn’t have to lose millions more to the virus while they wait for the longevity of vaccine research,â Woods said. “And by killing people from the virus, we are diminishing our representation in the African American community across the country,” she said, watching her eldest son have their hair cut. âWe have to think about children who cannot get vaccinated. It is more dangerous not to vaccinate than to vaccinate.
Earlier this year, Thomas received the Pfizer vaccine; he wears a mask and gloves when in contact with people outside his family.
âI wanted to be the guinea pig for my family, my church family, my clients and everyone,â Thomas said. âI told them, ‘I’m going to get the vaccine and you see how I’m doing.’ I had no side effects.
Thomas’ decision to get the shot gave Rose Robinson, Bethesda’s financial secretary, reassurance that she needed to get the shot. âWhen he started talking about the coup he tried to put people at ease. We kind of made a joke about it, but we know it’s serious, âsaid Robinson, 68. âIt made me feel a bit at ease. And he also talked about how God put these scientists in these positions and we should listen to them. “
Like many pastors, Thomas praised some members. Others have not returned to the church since it reopened in June 2020 for fear of exposure.
The congregation, which once numbered 150 members, has shrunk to about 35 in Sunday service.
When the church first reopened after being closed from March to June 2020, Thomas said a family had walked out because they did not want to wear masks, while another member who had lost their mother because of Covid-19 would not leave her home, let alone come to church.
At Jonesboro, Thomas is an important voice in the ongoing vaccine conversation. âI see myself in a position of trust,â and in the Bible that comes with responsibility.
While the roles he plays in his community are unique, his experience is one that countless other leaders face nationally. Thomas doesn’t know how effective his efforts are, he just knows how people have – or haven’t – reacted.
âIf every preacher and every leader said the same thing about the virus, more people would be ready for the vaccine. “
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