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COVID-19 vaccine refusal rates may be high among white evangelical Christians, but the International Mission Board – which deploys thousands of missionaries – isn’t shy about firing.
The global agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical Protestant denomination in the United States, announced this month that it is requiring vaccinations for missionaries they send to the field amid the pandemic.
IMB may be the first known U.S. missionary agency to have such a mandate, according to leaders on the ground, as other faith groups are approaching the issue in a variety of ways, including limiting where people can serve. and taking into account unequal global access to vaccines.
“It is a common sense decision,” said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist who is dean of mission, ministry, and leadership at Wheaton College. “US sending agencies have a real opportunity to get immunized, and they’re going to places around the world that don’t. “
IMB policy applies to current and future missionaries as well as some staff. Reasons cited for this measure include health concerns and the fact that a growing number of countries are implementing their own vaccine requirements – some field staff said they need to show proof to board planes and subways or enter restaurants and malls.
In a statement announcing the policy, IMB leaders acknowledged that this could be a breakup for some people considering missionary work or currently serving with the organization.
Allen Nelson IV, a pastor who heads a Southern Baptist congregation in Arkansas, said he was not against vaccines but was completely against missionary mandates.
“It is something that should be left to a person’s conscience, to research and discussions with a doctor, as well as the particular context of his ministry,” Nelson told The Associated Press.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church, is one of the religious groups that have not issued vaccination warrants, which assigns missions to unvaccinated missionaries in their area. native country.
The United Methodist Church, for its part, strongly encourages missionaries to be immunized but does not require it. Part of that is because availability is not constant around the world, according to Judy Chung, executive director of missionary services for denominational world ministries.
“We discussed how to promote vaccination without imposing a mandatory requirement,” Chung said, “because some may not yet have access.”
The denomination currently has about 240 full-time missionaries serving in 70 countries, and the most recently deployed cohort of about 40 has an immunization rate of about 80 percent.
“We want to make sure that our missionary population is safe so that they can focus on the missionary work entrusted to them,” said Chung. “We want to make sure we don’t cause harm when we go into the mission. “
A key question for U.S.-based mission groups is whether they will fall under the rule recently announced by the Biden administration that companies with more than 100 employees must require workers to be vaccinated against coronavirus or are tested weekly.
If they do, Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus, an association that includes hundreds of missionary agencies in the United States and Canada, said about 30% of those agencies could be affected. He believes they would comply with the federal mandate, but said the issue is not currently eliciting much discussion.
Ultimately, he noted, the internal rules of organizations can be rendered irrelevant by the vaccine entry requirements that many countries have instituted for visitors.
“Whether you have a policy or not,” Esler said, “if you’re going to serve cross-culturally in another country, you’re going to face government regulation.”
A survey conducted in June by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that reluctance to the COVID-19 vaccine was decreasing and acceptance was increasing, but refusal rates remained stable. He also found a significant difference of opinion between people of different religious traditions.
White Evangelical Protestants had the highest vaccine refusal rate at 24 percent and among the lowest acceptance rates at 56 percent. In comparison, acceptance rates were 56% for Hispanic Protestants, 65% for Latter-day Saints, 66% for black Protestants, 69% for other Protestants of color, and 74% for white Protestants. .
The IMB has had vaccine requirements for other diseases since the 1980s, and it says some have chosen to skip international service because of it.
Esler, who served as a missionary in Bosnia in the 1990s with the Pioneers organization, said he needed to be vaccinated against diseases like diphtheria, polio, tetanus and typhoid before he could leave.
Esler was not eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine and hesitates to advise others to roll up their sleeves. But he was vaccinated because he continues to travel.
“From my perspective, this is more of a problem due to the fact that it’s related to COVID than to the vaccine,” Esler said.
“It is unfortunate that the COVID vaccine here is controversial and rejected by some,” he added, “while in other places it would be coveted and highly sought after and they cannot get it . “