By: Karla Hovde
Lea este artículo en español. (Read this article in Spanish.)
As many Minnesotans wait with anticipation for access to the COVID-19 vaccine, one Minnesota United Methodist pastor is helping to remove barriers that might otherwise prevent some populations from gaining access—thus finding a unique way to live out his call and heal a broken world.
Rev. Samuel López is a bi-vocational pastor, leading La Puerta Abierta UMC in St. Paul and working as a community health worker for WellShare International—a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that aims to reduce health disparities by reaching underserved communities to promote health, prevent disease, and increase access to health services.
WellShare is partnering with the Minnesota Department of Health to ensure that immigrant and non-English-speaking residents have equitable access to the coronavirus vaccine. López works with Spanish-speaking communities to both educate people on COVID-19 testing and provide accurate and reliable information about the vaccine.
López is among more than 200 people who work in WellShare’s COVID-19 program. In addition to the Hispanic community, the program’s hotlines work with Somali- and Afaan Oromoo-speaking communities. Written resources are provided in even more languages— Arabic, Hmong, Karen, Kiswahili, Oromo, Somali, and Spanish.
Breaking down barriers
There are a variety of barriers that Hispanic communities in Minnesota may face when it comes to getting a vaccine, testing, or medical care.
“Trust is a huge part of this effort,” said López. He explained that many immigrants have lost trust in the health care system or the state government.
People who are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented are often fearful that contact with any governmental institution will put them at risk of deportation or jeopardize their legal status—and some are concerned that any personal information they share with a health care worker might be passed on to other governmental agencies. Neither of these is accurate, and part of López’s job is to correct this misinformation.
Separately, many people López works with are over 65 years old and lack access to a computer and/or the tech skills required to figure out how to register for a vaccine appointment online. In addition, resources and official websites sometimes aren’t translated into Spanish, or the Spanish translations can hard to find. Spanish speakers may also need access to interpreters at appointments.
Even finding time to schedule an appointment or securing transportation to get to a vaccination or testing site can be barriers. A lack of health insurance and limited financial resources can make the whole process even more difficult.
López’s work involves closing the information gap that exists and making it as easy as possible for underserved communities to receive the assistance they need.
This includes answering WellShare’s COVID-19 hotline and explaining the process of getting vaccinated, filling out application paperwork for individuals, and following up to make sure they have transportation and are able to be vaccinated.
The conversations López has often turn to faith and prayer, and even though he does not do any proselytizing in his work, “I have a lot of freedom to share Jesus in a different way,” he said.
For example, he is able to let people know that there are food giveaways and distributions of personal protective equipment at La Puerta Abierta. He gets to know Hispanic people in his own community and connects them to resources they may need, like rental assistance or free diapers.
López sees this work as not only a way to serve his people, but also as an issue of justice.
“It’s about the Wesleyan idea of doing good,” he said.
How you can help
López sees a huge disparity in the number of COVID-19 vaccinations given to Hispanic people relative to the general population. In fact, there are vaccines reserved for Hispanic residents over 65 that aren’t being used because the message is not getting to the people who are eligible.
“The church is a trusted source for information, and I firmly believe that our pastors, leaders, and congregations can have a decisive impact in mitigating the barriers Hispanics face to receiving COVID-19 vaccines and resources,” López said.
He believes that hearing factual information and encouragement from a person they know is more likely to help someone in the Hispanic community decide to seek vaccination than information shared by organizations.
López encourages all Minnesota United Methodists to share the WellShare COVID-19 hotline number with any Spanish-speaking individuals they know. The Spanish hotline number is 651-318-0051 and is available daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Spanish-speaking staff will connect callers with resources like COVID-19 testing centers, vaccination availability, help with vaccine registration, and factual vaccine information. Learn about COVID-19 hotlines for other languages.
Another way to help spread the word is to share WellShare’s multi-lingual resources on church websites and online platforms.
López would also like to connect with any congregation willing to be a sponsoring organization for this effort, which involves hosting a workshop for WellShare staff to talk about COVID-19 vaccination with your community. López’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Many thanks to Rev. Samuel López for translating this article into Spanish.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church