East Ohio Church Joins Mission to Vaccinate the Globe

By Brett Hetherington*

First United Methodist Church of Boise, Idaho, and Church of the Saviour UMC of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, are separated by 2,030 miles but through the connection of The United Methodist Church they are working side-by-side to combat the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Near the end of 2021, First UMC launched an initiative to raise funds for the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. What started as one person’s idea has grown exponentially.

“I got an email from Duane Anders, senior pastor at FUMC, who has a lot of ties here to let us know about this initiative,” said the Rev. Andy Call, lead pastor of Church of the Saviour UMC (North Coast District). “They had a layperson in his congregation by the name of David Boan who kept hearing that we would be stuck in the pandemic until more people around the globe were vaccinated so he had an idea to raise $1 million to help do just that.”

The idea berthed in Boise has become the Love Beyond Borders campaign (UMC Advance #3022671) which Global Missions of The United Methodist Church describes as an initiative “to engage The United Methodist Church in supporting COVID-19 vaccinations alongside UNICEF, the key vaccine delivery partner.”

The initiative resonated with the Church of the Saviour congregation, which, in addition to incorporating social distancing, mask wearing, and surface sanitizing into the life of its ministries also partnered with Signature Health to vaccinate approximately 1,700 people over an eight- to 12-week period during onsite clinics at the church.

“This congregation takes science very seriously,” said Call. “We trust the science and the medicine behind this and do our part to not only keep our congregation safe but build up the community around us.”

Church leadership doesn’t have to go far to get the expert medical advice it relies on to safeguard God’s children because there are three epidemiologists in the congregation. “I never would imagine the church would need that skill but here we are,” Call said.

Dr. Kurt Strange, a Family Public Health physician, is one of those epidemiologists. During the pandemic, he has worn his County Board of Health hat, been involved in doing testing at a couple of churches, and has given vaccine shots at group homes, juvenile detention centers, and other sites.

“Vaccines give you a baseline of protection from the infection. People tend to get caught up and only think of themselves, but there is another aspect of it that what you are doing for others. Anything we do to help reduce our own risk of getting the infection or transmitting it to others can be seen as an act of love for our fellow man,” he shared.

Love for the community – both local and global – was on Call’s heart when he had an idea for how the church could be an agent of transformation during a time of need. He proposed redirecting the annual Christmas Eve offering so that it could benefit the Love Beyond Borders Advance.

“We normally set aside our Christmas offering for local missions, but we were in a place where we were set [for those projects] and put this in front of our congregation and said, ‘let’s see where it goes,’” he said. “So often we’re caught up in budgets and what we are doing as a denomination, we worry about ‘Is there going to be enough,’ We should have the mindset of coming from abundance rather than coming from scarcity.”

“We had a decent amount in the metro missions fund, looked at the need overall and decided it was a worthy idea, and I certainly think it was,” said Bob Dunn, chair of the church’s Global Missions Committee.

According to Dunn, Church of the Saviour has many global mission connections, including partnerships with missionaries in Zimbabwe and Cambodia, supporting United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) disaster relief, and recent work with the refugee relocation organization Us Together. “It’s just a very generous congregation and people are very responsive to needs,” he shared.

Generous is indeed an accurate word for the congregation. Financial Administrator Loretta Dahlstrom shared that while most people were used to giving to the Christmas Eve offering, a lot of people responded more generously this year than they had in the past.

“One woman of modest means sent in a generous check with a note which said she was really moved by what the church was doing. Her mother had died from COVID several months prior and it had impacted her life so much, she was excited because this gave her a chance to be a part of solving this to get us to a place of health where someone else won’t have to lose a parent because of what we’ve done,” Dahlstrom shared.

Dahlstrom was also moved by an unexpected donation from another family. “They have four children who are international adoptions, and this really struck a chord with them. This family alone donated $4,500. It was kind of neat to see how this has impacted people.”

The Christmas Eve offering totaled $27,000 and holds the record for being the largest that Dahlstrom has seen in her time serving as financial administrator. “As I understand for every $37 raised, we are able to fully vaccinate [two shots] 10 people,” she said. “That is approximately 7,300 people! That is a lot of folks! It is amazing!”

Good news like that has been hard to find during the pandemic, which has altered many aspects of our daily lives. Many of those changes have been instituted by others, but not all. The Church of the Saviour congregation reminds us that we still have control of our actions and behaviors, and as Christians we are called to love our neighbors.

“I think we are living in an age of anger and people are getting tired and angry,” Strange said. “People are getting frustrated with the other side, they are feeling like they are not listened to. It boils down to an argument of ’I’m right,’ ‘No! I’m right’ and no one feels listened to or respected. What we can do is listen to people and try and hear what their viewpoints are and what their information sources are and that tends to lead to understanding on why people have such different viewpoints on this. The anger and mistrust we have toward each other is also infectious and contagious. If we can slow that infection down, understand first and then be able to share a point or two to think differently about, not change someone right now, that is another act of love that is good for our society right now.”

Loving our neighbor takes on many forms, some big and some small.

“I think the thing that is so miraculous about David’s vision is he didn’t worry about the feasibility of some well-intentioned church people to actually respond to a global vaccine need. He just had this vision ‘What if we just dream big?’” Call said. “Our small part in this is about people who don’t worry about what’s going to happen if we give our Christmas offering away to the global vaccine effort, not worrying about, ‘are we going to make our budget?’ ‘What are we going to lose if we do this?’ We saw something God is calling us to, we’ve been put in a position to do it and it is just exciting to see how those blessings multiply when we put our faith behind it.”

Read about the formation of the Love Beyond Borders campaign here: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/boise-church-pushes-for-global-covid-shots.

The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at wolcott@eocumc.com.

* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.