Churches open doors to vaccinate communities

People getting COVID vaccines
A healthcare worker receives a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at St. Stephen in-the-Fields on Dec. 19, 2021. Right: People line up to get their vaccination. St. Stephen in-the-Fields is part of the City of Toronto’s COVID-19 Vaccine Engagement Team for the Downtown West area. The program was set up to provide grants to non-profits, community organisations and faith-based groups that could help ensure access to vaccines in areas disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. Through running seven vaccination clinics, St. Stephen in-the-Fields has been able to reach vulnerable populations including those who are unhoused or marginally housed. “There’s a lot of institutional mistrust,” says the Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig, incumbent at St. Stephen in-the-Fields. “There’s lack of access to phones and computers. Many are refugees who are anxious about interacting with institutions. We are coming to them and there’s a level of trust.
 on March 1, 2022
Courtesy Maggie Helwig

When the East Toronto Chinese Baptist Church approached the Rev. Canon Greg Carpenter, incumbent at St. Jude, Wexford, about partnering to run a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic, he said it seemed like a “no-brainer.”

“We were walking into the unknown, but I thought, of course we’ll try this.” Setting up the clinic turned out to be much simpler than Canon Carpenter had imagined. The Baptist church had already run a clinic and was able to connect him with Toronto Public Health. “It really was as simple as sending an email. Our pitch was that we’re centrally located, we have two elementary schools nearby, people walk through our car park all day and we also run a food bank.” 

Toronto Public Health set a date for the pop-up clinic, Nov. 17, 2021, which would run from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., overlapping with the church’s food bank. However, the clinic didn’t gain much traction. “We vaccinated about five people, so we were disappointed. But we did get one or two boosters in arms, and we stayed open right until the end of the day, until four, and in the last half hour we had a father come in asking if we could vaccinate his two high schoolers. So, because we stayed open, we were able to vaccinate them.” 

Canon Carpenter says Toronto Public Health was happy with the clinic, but the church decided to approach them about running another clinic and a new date was set for Dec. 30. This time, more people would be eligible for boosters and vaccines for younger children had also been approved. However, says Canon Carpenter, “It was like trying to hit a moving target. You just don’t know what if any traction you’re going to get.”

Again, the clinic was set to run from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Two hours before the clinic was due to open, there were already people lining up outside the church and by the time it opened there were around 140 people waiting. Because of the church’s experience with running the food bank and because the church building is a large space, the staff and volunteers on hand were able to invite those waiting inside, while maintaining social distancing. They also handed out numbers so that those waiting knew they would be seen. 

By the time the clinic closed, 290 doses had been administered. “It was very cool,” says Canon Carpenter. “It was great. Toronto Public Health were very easy to deal with and we were able to use the church space, which was very intentional. This wasn’t in any way separate from the church, it wasn’t in a church hall or another building.

“From a practical standpoint, this meant everything was on one level and accessible. We already have the church space set up for social distancing. Our food bank is based in the church. So, it made sense to use the church as far as moving people in and out. 

“But on a more faith-based side, it strikes to the heart of what the church is here to do — to be open, to be available. To open our church doors, it was a sign of great hope during a time of great closure. At that time, we still had the Christmas decorations up, the creche was still up, and it was incarnational, it was the church at work. We are not here to proselytize; we are here to help.”


  • Naomi Racz

    Naomi Racz is a freelance writer and the editor of Faith Tides, the newspaper of the Diocese of Islands and Inlets (BC).

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