Church minister Suiva’aia Te’o says proactive communication, compassion and clear information have led to a fully vaccinated congregation.
Like most churches operating under level three and four rules, Sāmoan Methodist Māngere Central Church broadcasts services live on Facebook and conducts Bible studies and prayer meetings through Zoom.
To keep the youngsters engaged, they run Kahoot! online talent shows and competitions.
But when the lockdown rules are lifted, the congregation will be able to confidently worship in person, because all 120 are already doubly vaccinated.
The church’s Reverend Suiva’aia Te’o says that neither she nor anyone else imposed any edict or mandate. Rather, he made sure everyone received clear and relevant information, and then members of the congregation were vaccinated of their own free will.
“One Sunday I gave a short talk about why they should take it. My thinking was that if everyone understood why, then they could make a decision for themselves,” he says.
Te’o was motivated to promote the vaccine after attending a talk hosted by Pacific healthcare provider South Seas for church ministers in South Auckland. She says the crux of her message to the congregation was to do it out of “love of family.”
“We all live in the same world and breathe the same air,” he says. “The Delta variant can be so easily propagated, so I reminded them that it was about the safety of their families, the safety of the community, and the safety of the church.”
He also enlisted the support of his church’s youth group leaders, including Māngere College student Gardinea Lemoa. “We have youth meetings every Friday, so I’ve been encouraging them to get vaccinated and to get their friends and family vaccinated as well,” says Lemoa.
“We have also been making up memes so they could post things on their social media accounts.”
Te’o is well aware that some Christian leaders are calling the Covid-19 vaccine the “mark of the beast” and a sign of the end of time, but he has no time for such attempts to stoke fear.
“I know they say that’s what they think, but I don’t agree. I think it’s just an excuse and they need to get vaccinated.
“We have this remedy and I am convinced that it has been developed by professionals with the wisdom and knowledge given by God so that we can be safe.”
Before this weekend, 86 percent of the eligible Pacific population had received their first dose, compared to 89 percent of Europeans and close to 100 percent of the Asian population.
About 50,000 county Manukau District Board of Health residents still need their second dose to reach the 90 percent double vaccination threshold. It is a marker that the Auckland and Waitematā DHB populations need about 15,000 and 40,000 doses respectively to reach.
Given the lower vaccination rates for Pacific peoples, Auckland University Associate Professor of Public Health Dr Colin Tukuitonga says it is still a source of frustration that the Ministry of Health has decided on a centralized approach to Vaccine launch started and has not ‘Lean more on churches to support the immunization program.
“It’s encouraging to see so many community-led initiatives happening now. But these should have been funded from the beginning,” he says.
“Instead, the first major mass vaccination event took place in [higher learning institution] MIT. It was great that they managed to vaccinate 16,000 people then, but it actually made things worse in a way, because they barely vaccinated any Maori or Pacific people. “
He says that when local organizations like churches have the power to take initiative, mistrust and misinformation become fewer obstacles to overcome.
“Now that the Pacific providers are taking over, we are finally seeing greater acceptance and acceptance of the vaccine.”
Te’o says that although his congregation was quick to come together with the vaccine launch, many still find the confinement challenging.
“I thought that with this lockdown it would be silent for us, but it is not. There are more and more Zoom meetings and more work. It has been a difficult time, the world is changing a lot for many of us and there is a lot of uncertainty.
“We have been providing food packages for some families and some have needed small monetary grants to help pay for electricity or other bills.”
But one thing she is confident in, given that her entire congregation is vaccinated, is that when they return to services in person, everyone will have that extra layer of protection.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the Association of News Publishers, and NZ On Air.