Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of the nation’s most renowned Black clergy led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III hosted the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Conclave. The event brought together over 100 of the nation’s leading Black clergy who are stepping into the breach to address COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the Black community. The virtual conclave took place from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. EST.
“Today’s event signals the Black clergy’s continued resolve to create a strong, sustainable and concerted effort on the national and local level to combat the devastation that COVID-19 has inflicted on the Black community. Testing, preventative health measures and vaccine education are major keys to saving lives and stopping the destruction this virus leaves in its wake,” said civil rights leader and President of National Action Network (NAN) Rev. Al Sharpton.
The Conclave convened over 100 Black clergy, America’s leading public health officials, nonprofit leaders and corporate leaders for panels and Q&As on COVID-19 in the Black community. The Conclave also briefed leaders on the Choose Healthy Life Action Plan announced in November – a sustainable, scalable and transferable approach to address health disparities by providing services such as COVID testing and vaccine education in five major US cities. Choose Healthy Life previously hosted a Black Clergy Summit in December, featuring Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“I want to thank Rev. Sharpton, Rev. Butts and Debra Fraser-Howze, my old and dear good friend, for giving me the opportunity to be here with you,” said Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, responding to a question from Rev. Horace Sheffield. “Putting vaccines aside for a moment, if you have symptoms, there is the possibility that you are in fact infected. You should get tested, assume you’re infected and do the social distancing until you get a result.”
A historic partnership with the Black church, medical and public health experts and United Way of New York City along with respective local agencies, the Action Plan will aim to build greater access to COVID-19 testing, vaccine awareness and preventative health education. Working in collaboration with implementation partner the United Way of New York City and affiliated local agencies, the Action Plan will initially launch in five cities – New York, N.Y., Newark, N.J., Detroit, Mich., Atlanta, Ga. and Washington, D.C. The program aims to expand to additional cities throughout the year and also to expand its scope to address broadly racial health disparities.
“The Choose Healthy Life Action Plan will provide support to Black neighborhoods across the U.S. to begin addressing health disparities in a way that hasn’t yet been done – through the Black church, a sacred institution that has been a bastion of trust for Black communities for centuries,” said Rev. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
This Action Plan is being led by the Choose Healthy Life National Black Clergy Health Leadership Council, co-chaired by Rev. Sharpton (National Action Network, New York, N.Y.) and Rev. Butts (Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York, N.Y.), and includes council members Rev. Jacques DeGraff (Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, New York, N.Y.); Rev. David Jefferson (Metropolitan Baptist Church, Newark, N.J.); Rev. Horace Sheffield (New Destiny Christian Fellowship, Detroit, Mich.); Rev. Frank Tucker (First Baptist Church, Washington D.C.); and Rev. Raphael Warnock (Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Ga.). The Council has among its medical advisors, Dr. Louis Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Tom Frieden and former U.S. Congresswoman Dr. Donna Christensen.
“I’m grateful for your prayers and know that the work that we have tried to do from the outside we will continue to do on the inside to translate our protests into public policy, our activism, advocacy and agitation into legislation. I’m grateful to be a part of this Choose Healthy Life work on COVID-19. I’m grateful that I’ve been a part of this effort from its inception, as we’re focused on longstanding disparities in healthcare,” said Senator-Elect Rev. Warnock.
High-profile panelists and speakers from the public health community included Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, co-chair of President-Elect Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, Dr. Nancy Messionier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, and Dr. Tom Frieden, former Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) director and president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, among others.
“I’m deeply honored to work with Black clergy and the Choose Healthy Life initiative to promote services to the most vulnerable affected by the pandemic. It’s important to be even more vigilant as the vaccine is rolled out and ensure that we limit the spread through increased mask use, minimizing indoor contacts with people outside our household, testing and community education. The 3Ws remain central: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands,” said Dr. Frieden.
“United Way of New York City is honored to partner with Choose Healthy Life and continue our commitment to address disparities in communities of color – namely health disparities through wider COVID-19 testing and public health education,” said Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City.
Funding support for Choose Healthy Life has been made possible through grants from founding sponsors, Quest Diagnostics (NYSE: DGX), the Quest Diagnostics Foundation and Resolve to Save Lives.
“We are proud to work together with Choose Healthy Life and the Black clergy members to help stop the disproportionate devastation of COVID-19 in the Black community,” said Steve Rusckowski, Chairman, CEO and President of Quest Diagnostics. “Testing and education are critical to addressing health disparities in underserved communities, which is the mission of our company’s Quest for Health Equity initiative.”
Academy Award-winning actor and director Sean Penn, Co-Founder and Chairperson of the Board of Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), also addressed the Conclave.
“The access to COVID-19 testing and the equitable distribution of the vaccine are the focus of CORE’s current mission,” said Sean Penn, Co-Founder and Chairperson of the Board of Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE). “We are paying attention to hospital capacity with patients and health care workers, who are coming here in Los Angeles largely from the Black and Brown community and largely from multigenerational housing; there is a cultural demand and a scientific demand, as well as a moral and human prerogative, to address this quickly. We’ve seen the importance of trusted messengers within communities of color, and Choose Healthy Life is a vital initiative.”
Penn’s organization CORE is currently committed to an integrated approach for the COVID-19 relief effort across the United States, which is inclusive of distributing vaccines, streamlining testing with results returned within 48 hours, comprehensive and timely contact tracing programs, and supported quarantine and isolation services that provide shelter, food, and wage replacement. The organization has been operating free COVID-19 testing sites across the United States since March, with a focus on serving vulnerable and underserved communities, targeting low-income groups, communities of color, first responders, and essential workers, and is currently expanding access to vaccines across the country to ensure safe and equitable distribution of the vaccine.
The successful model behind the Choose Healthy Life Black Clergy Action Plan was initially created and developed by Debra Fraser-Howze, founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, to successfully combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community.
“As in past crises, our churches and clergy are instrumental in leading the Black community through this current health crisis. Today’s Conclave and the Action Plan’s efforts throughout the year will help stifle COVID-19’s rampage in the Black community so we can finally heal and move forward,” said Fraser-Howze, who advised two U.S. Presidents as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS from 1998 to 2003.