One of the most important communities Medical Teams International works with is faith communities. That’s because in many places in the world, faith leaders have unparalleled influence in their community. A December 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life* showed that 85% of the people in the world associate themselves with a particular religion. In Africa, 74% trust their religious leaders the most in society. Among faith leaders’ spheres of influence is how their community responds to different health issues.

When it comes to health messaging, pastors and other faith leaders play a crucial gate-keeping role in the community. They can either block or allow health messages to be distributed within the community. In some cases, they might even be obstructive to messages when they feel the messages are in opposition to their faith. In the 2020 Summit on Strategic Religious Engagement, the humanitarian arm of the US government (USAID) concluded working with religious leaders in development programming is “a best practice.”

International Faith Communities and Channels of Hope

Recognizing the importance of engaging faith leaders to improve health, in 2019, we initiated a program called Channels of Hope in a refugee camp in Tanzania. The goal of Channels of Hope is to engage pastors and other faith leaders, their churches and faith communities to improve maternal, newborn, and child health and address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Channels of Hope engages the head with basic health education, touches the heart by showing how culture and religious practice can affect health outcomes, and equips the hands by developing congregational health action teams to partner with Medical Teams in promoting the health of people in the community.

Pastor Emack Jackson, a Congolese refugee living in Tanzania, pastors a church of 500 people in the camp. Here, he puts Channels of Hope into practice by distributing supplies to women refugees.

Working with Faith Communities in the U.S.

One of the challenges we encounter in health – both locally and globally – is vaccine acceptance. The COVID-19 vaccine is no different. Misinformation and hesitancy due to a distrust of the U.S. health care system by minority populations keep many people from getting the vaccine that will help end this pandemic. As a health organization, not only do we want to help provide vaccines, but we want to share information and build trust with local communities. We also want to ensure we’re reaching people who might not otherwise have easy access to vaccines.

Just as in Africa, faith leaders are influential in their communities in the United States. In fact, in the same Pew Research Center survey, it showed that 50% of the people in the United States trust their religious leaders most, and 40% would give them even more power.

Recognizing the importance of faith leaders in the U.S., we began asking whether what works in Africa would work in the United States. Would engaging with churches and faith communities assist in getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19, particularly those in BIPOC communities?

To address these questions, we partnered with Providence/St. Joseph Health, the Oregon Health Authority, and local churches located in African American and Latinx communities to conduct COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church Hosts COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic

On April 7, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in North Portland – a church whose members are predominately African American – hosted our first clinic. The church sent out announcements about the vaccination clinic not only to their church members, but to the entire community. In settings like Mt. Olivet, there is an opportunity to reach people who may have a harder time accessing vaccines and to build trust where there might be doubt.

After being one of the first in line to get the vaccine, one of Mt. Olivet’s pastors, Wendell Robinson, commented, “You can’t teach what you don’t know, and you can’t lead where you’re not first willing to go. So, I wanted to be one of the first to go as an example.”

A nurse provides a COVID-19 vaccine during a Medical Teams vaccination clinic at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in North Portland.

I had the privilege of serving as a chaplain at the Mt. Olivet clinic where Pastor Robinson’s example was so powerful. In speaking with people after getting the vaccine, I heard over and over how good it was to get the vaccine in their home church building or in their own community.

“This church is my home. I feel comfortable here. Even though I don’t like getting shots, I am here because my pastor encouraged me to get vaccinated. It was also so easy and convenient to simply walk to church to get it. Thank you so much.”

Working with Mt. Olivet Baptist Church demonstrated the importance of engaging the faith community in sharing health messages and linking people to services like vaccine clinics. When we work closely with community leaders, we can love like Jesus by reaching the people on the margins to provide healing and hope.

Improving Health in a Diverse World

We live in a world with an endless amount of diversity. Diversity in cultures, in norms and beliefs, in resources and challenges. Working in communities around the globe, we, at Medical Teams, have a deep appreciation and respect for the diversity of humanity. We value the communities we serve, and we believe it is vital to partner with community members when working to improve health. Community leaders are the ones who most deeply understand their barriers to health. They know what solutions will work and which ones will fall flat. They are integral in developing and implementing long-lasting change.

Joe Dicarlo


Joe DiCarlo
Medical Teams Global Ambassador


*Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life – Global Religious Landscape, December 2012. T.M. Johnson & B.J. Grim, The world’s religions in figures, 2013.

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