Pastors Try to Ease Vaccine Skepticism and Anxiety, Open Clinics in Churches

Several Lutheran pastors across Germany's Saxony state are attempting to combat lingering COVID-19 vaccine skepticism by opening clinics inside their churches and encouraging churchgoers to get the shot.

Saxony has the lowest vaccination rate out of the nation's 16 federal states, with just 60.1 percent of residents fully inoculated by Christmas compared to the nationwide average of 70.8 percent. Local hospitals in Saxony were forced to transfer patients to other states at some points in the pandemic because all the intensive care beds were taken.

Reverend Christoph Herbst, from St. Petri Church in the city of Chemnitz in Saxony, is among the pastors who have been trying to combat the below-average vaccination rates by promoting the shots during sermons. He also opened up the church to hold a vaccine clinic, a move aimed at further encouraging some skeptics to get the shot in a familiar environment without having to register in advance.

"We believe that we have a responsibility that goes beyond ourselves, and that we should do something for society with the resources we have," Reverend Herbst explained. "We're not doctors, and we're not professionals. But we have the space and we have volunteers who can organize something like this."

Pastors Encourage Vaccination
Lutheran pastors in Germany's Saxony state are attempting to combat lingering COVID-19 vaccine skepticism and anxiety by opening clinics inside their churches and encouraging churchgoers to get the shot. Above, a doctor vaccinates a man against coronavirus inside the St. Petri church in the center of Chemnitz, Germany, on Sunday, December 12. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo

Together with the parish council, Herbst had invited in a relief organization and volunteer doctors to conduct a Sunday vaccination clinic at the Lutheran church. The act of community outreach, the pastor knew, might not go over well in a part of Germany prone to vaccine resistance, including sometimes violent protests.

"I was very insecure about how people would react to our offer," Herbst said as he welcomed the waiting crowd into his neo-Gothic house of prayer. "In our region, there are very different and very polarized views about the coronavirus measures in general, about how to fight the pandemic, and especially about the vaccinations."

Chemnitz, a city of about 247,000 residents, was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt when it and the rest of Saxony were part of the formerly communist East Germany. Many of the local vaccine refusers cite concerns of possible side effects but are also feeling overwhelmed by what they see as too much pressure from authorities or general opposition to any measures endorsed by the government, according to Herbst.

Among those who patiently sat in a pew waiting to roll up their sleeves at Herbst's church were Hannelore and Bernd Hilbert, a retired couple from the nearby village of Amtsberg. They came to get booster shots because some of their five grandchildren are too young to be vaccinated, and the Hilberts hoped to see them for Christmas.

"Last year's Christmas was really sad. We were all alone," said Hannelore Hilbert, 70.

"We're grateful for the church to offer these shots," added her 72-year-old husband, who said they had waited unsuccessfully for shots at a hospital a few days earlier.

The vast majority of the church's vaccine recipients on a recent Sunday turned out to have more in common with the booster-seeking couple than the skeptical or frightened community members Saxony's pastors are trying to reach.

Of the 251 vaccines administered during St. Petri's daylong clinic, 18 went to individuals receiving their first dose. None of them wanted to speak with the Associated Press about why they'd changed their minds and decided to get shots almost one year into Germany's mass immunization campaign.

A loud minority in Germany has opposed any kind of anti-virus measures since the start of the pandemic. The resistance grew angrier and more aggressive in recent weeks after the national parliament this month passed a vaccine mandate for some professions, and most of the country's regions resumed some form of restrictions in response to the latest wave of infections.

With mass demonstrations banned in several parts of the country due to the pandemic, vaccine opponents have gathered for protest "walks"—unauthorized marches organized quickly via social media. Around 30 protesters showed up with torches outside the home of Saxony state Health Minister Petra Koepping one night, shouting slurs until police arrived.

The protests have swelled in recent days, sometimes drawing thousands of people. Police detained several participants for attacking officers and journalists. Some Lutheran pastors received criticism and personal threats for their efforts to encourage vaccination.

Herbst said he thinks the majority of Saxons back the country's immunization campaign and that far-right groups intent on undermining democracy have co-opted anti-vaccine sentiment, fueling an already present sense among residents of Germany's east of feeling left behind 30 years after the country's reunification.

When parishioners confront him with their opposition to vaccines, the pastor says he tries to listen instead of judge.

"And I listen to things that are sometimes difficult to hear," he said. "I also listen to things that I think belong in the realm of conspiracy theories. I don't confirm those. But it's important that there's a space where we listen to each other without immediately lapsing into condemnation."

However, the pastor wonders if at this point all the arguments for and against vaccination have been exchanged and the decision of whether or not to get immunized no longer should be left as a matter of personal choice.

"There are people who say what is needed now is a democratically legitimized decision by parliament on a general vaccine mandate," Herbst said. "That would be a decision that does not work on moral pressure, but rather on the basis of a set of rules that applies to everyone."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Germany Vaccines
The vaccination rate in the eastern German state of Saxony is the lowest in the entire country, and anti-COVID protests here have been very vocal and sometimes even violent. Above, people line up for vaccination in front of the St. Petri church, where vaccinations against coronavirus were being offered on Sunday, December 12. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo