“Welcome to our special dialogue today,” Carlton P. Byrd, Breath of Life TV Ministries speaker/director, said at the beginning of the North American Division (NAD) COVID-19 vaccine symposium that aired on May 15, 2021.
“Our goal during our time together is to help find answers to some of the questions that have arisen about the COVID vaccine, and help you make an informed decision on [whether] the vaccine is right for you and your loved ones,” Byrd added.
The special symposium, titled “Is the COVID Vaccine Trustworthy? — A Biblical Conversation About Science,” included health-care professionals, communication experts, and church theologians dialoguing about the interconnectedness of the Bible and science, sharing tips on how to provide appropriate messaging to others, and providing information so viewers can make well-informed decisions about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Presenters also took questions from emails sent in for the question-and-answer portion of the event.
The symposium, a combination of live and pre-recorded segments, aired on Hope Channel, the NAD Facebook page, and the NAD YouTube channel. Close to 1,300 watched live on Facebook and YouTube combined; thousands more watched on Hope Channel. Several thousand additional viewers have watched on all those platforms since the broadcast, with the number increasing daily.
Hosts Byrd and Roy Ice, Faith for Today TV Ministries speaker/director, guided viewers through the conversation, while Mylon Medley, an assistant director of communication for the NAD, facilitated each of the five sessions of the symposium and the concluding Q&A.
Presenters included noted evangelist Mark Finley; church historian Merlin Burt; doctors Peter Landless and David Williams; communication experts Garrett Caldwell and Costin Jordache; vice president/CNO India Medley, Howard University Hospital; and several scientists, doctors, public health professionals, and pastors. NAD president G. Alexander Bryant offered a devotional thought at the symposium’s conclusion.
“We knew, at the start of this work, that we’d need to take a collaborative approach to discussions about the COVID-19 vaccines,” Angeline Brauer, NAD Health Ministries director and member of the organizing team, said. “Numerous complex and contentious issues surrounding the vaccines have been debated in society, and sometimes used as weapons. We wanted to come to the table with a different approach — one that brings hope and wholeness.”
Before the first session got underway, Jaquenette Prillman, a nurse and an Adventist church member, shared glimpses of her harrowing experience with the novel coronavirus disease, explaining that one year earlier, on Mother’s Day, she was finally released from the hospital, with oxygen, after weeks of battling the disease. “I kept saying that I was air hungry and I could not breathe,” Prillman said, as her symptoms developed in April 2020. She described suffering with fever, chills, and hallucinations. In addition to breathing difficulties, Prillman said, during her illness she lost the ability to speak as her organs began to shut down.
She believes it was a miracle that saved her — and the excellent medical care she received. But this illness has a lasting effect, she said. “I believe we should be fostering authentic, open conversations on mental health and wellness. We need to be deliberate,” Prillman said. “The mental health burden was real and present for me. But I was also very blessed to be surrounded by a spouse and friends who understood and prioritized my emotional well-being.
“As I reflect on my experience and the events of the past year, in our country, around the world, and what is currently happening in India, the numerous loss of lives as a result of the virus, how grateful I am to God for sparing me, and I have no doubt He is still working in me and through me.”
The first session, themed “Spiritual Foundation and Respect for Individual Choice,” focused on Adventist Church history on vaccines, the current position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on vaccines, how to respect individual choice and recognize legitimate concerns, what the Adventist health message means — and the balance between maintaining a healthful lifestyle and accepting the benefits of modern medicine.
“Ellen White called the question of vaccines ‘perplexing,’ ” Burt, Ellen G. White Estate director, said in answer to a question about early Adventists and their thoughts on medicine. “She didn’t have clear, divine revelation on vaccines. She was watching it, and [the people] were kind of negative about it for a while. But later, as the vaccines had fewer complications and there was more safety connected with them, other staff members again thought it would be good to get a vaccine for smallpox. And so they did do that, with Ellen White’s support.”
Burt described a conversation in which White was asked if it would’ve been a sin to give quinine to a person suffering from malaria. She supported the administering of medicine in light of the information she had learned about it being more dangerous to have the disease.
“Ellen White replied, ‘No, we are expected to do the best we can,’ ” Burt said. “This principle of using ‘sanctified common sense,’ and being aware of circumstances, is an important factor that we learn from history.”
When asked about the Adventist health message and current church policies regarding vaccination, Landless, Adventist Health Ministries director for the General Conference, said, “Our health message is founded on the Bible. It’s informed by the Spirit of Prophecy and is consonant, to a large extent, with a robust amount of peer-reviewed, evidence-based health science.”
Landless went on to explain that the Adventist Church does have a statement in favor of “responsible immunization.” “If you look at what has prolonged life, it’s healthful living. It’s sanitation; it’s clean water. And what is added to the longevity of those basic factors has been immunization,” he said. “We encourage responsible immunization and have no religious- or faith-based reason not to encourage it. We encourage community immunity, but it’s very much the individual's choice — we are not the conscience of the church member.”
The Process and the Public
The second and third sessions included conversations on the basic science of vaccines; why vaccines are essential for public health measures; the process of developing vaccines, and the role of the government in regulating this process; dispelling myths while recognizing legitimate concerns about vaccines — and the COVID-19 vaccines in particular; and recognizing specific population needs. Participants included Cassandra McNulty, Steven Smith, Vincent Hsu, David Williams, Andrew Cantanzaro, and India Medley.
Hsu, an internal medicine specialist for AdventHealth, explained that vaccines are used to prevent disease and save lives. He talked about how it’s important that people know how vaccines were and are made. “This is a very personal decision for all of us; we all need to make an informed decision,” Hsu said.
“We’ve all heard people talk about how they think there were shortcuts in [making the vaccines]; and that the process by which these were developed was somehow rushed,” said Smith, vice president and chief scientific officer of AdventHealth, and principal investigator of the Janssen Pharmaceuticals COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial, after comparing how vaccines were made in the past with current technologies.
“I can say this: we have a scientific review committee that has looked at all of the different vaccines we've talked about here this afternoon. And the vaccine was made quickly because the technology allows it to be made quickly. The trials were, in many ways, larger and longer than some of the flu vaccine trials that have been conducted in the past.”
In addressing the connection between science and helping to share information with the public, McNulty, a public health professional, said, “We need to be prepared: know the information and feel comfortable communicating it to the patients.” She also noted that medical experts need to communicate clearly that, because this is a novel virus, they don't have it all figured out.
“That doesn’t mean that science and medicine don’t know what they’re talking about. We must communicate where our knowledge ends and where we’re still learning,” McNulty stated. “Getting the vaccine is a hard decision for families. It’s helpful to come with a posture of empathy and curiosity — asking questions and trying to understand why someone is making the decision that they are and creating an environment that’s safe to ask questions.”
“We’re only going to get through this together. We need to be able to have those conversations that play a key role in helping patients navigate this,” McNulty added.
“Vaccines are important to the health of a community,” Williams, chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said. “If you get vaccinated, you’ve protected yourself. And you no longer spread it to others, so you are benefiting the community.”
The fourth session centered on good practices in finding and communicating information about COVID-19 and vaccines. Jordache and Caldwell spoke on how to politely disagree with others, recognize different perspectives, and respect personal health information when talking about vaccines. They also touched on how to navigate conspiracy theories — and the importance of using credible sources of information.
“Our words matter. The way that we deliver our words, the way that we speak to each other, matters,” Jordache, Adventist HealthCare vice president of public relations and marketing, said. He shared Proverbs 15:1, 4 from the Bible.
“As Christians, we have a responsibility to communicate wisely and gently about any topic, especially ones that are sensitive. When we don’t communicate gently and respectfully and responsibly with each other, the result is that it polarizes our communities and pulls us apart,” he added.
Extending the conversation further, Caldwell, director of stakeholder communications at AdventHealth, talked about following God’s instructions to take care of our bodies, described as temples in 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20. “Stewardship extends beyond our own body,” Caldwell said. “It extends to the relationships we have with other people in the care we exercise toward [them]. This is an important reason why we should prayerfully and thoughtfully consider a vaccine — not just your care for your own body, but your care for the vulnerable people you encounter.”
Mental Health Challenges
The final session, themed “A Time for Mission & Healing,” focused on addressing mental health challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic; recognizing the impact this disease has had on children, teens, adults, and families; and giving practical tips for rebounding after those challenges. Participants included Ingrid Slikkers, social worker and professor at Andrews University, and Armando Miranda Jr., NAD Youth and Young Adult Ministries associate director. Miranda spoke about the young people he knows who have been impacted by the months of quarantine and how staying in touch with friends, even online, has helped.
“Secular social scientists are saying it, but we've known this from Scripture: we are better together. Resilience is a big word that we use a lot now — and we know that the number-one thing for resiliency is relationship,” Slikkers said.
“God models that for us in our vertical relationship with Him, but He expects that we do this with each other,” she added. “This is about ‘the golden rule.’ Pause and think about where we are with others. Are we helping each other walk home?”
Slikkers said calling people on the phone and having respectful conversations is one important way to maintain the connections people need. “We know that healing from trauma cannot happen unless you’re in a relationship and you’re in community. And what a privilege and an honor that we have our Adventist community. How many more can we bring into our community?” she asked.
Where Does Faith Fit?
Several people sent in questions about faith and the vaccine for the final Q&A portion.
Landless specifically addressed this query: “Am I demonstrating a lack of faith by taking the vaccinations? And what is the importance of our health message, our lifestyle, our beliefs in helping to prevent disease?”
“I have no question [in my mind] that by living this amazing health message that God has entrusted to this church as a gift of grace that we do have increased quality of life, even in our broken state,” Landless replied. “And sometimes, often, we may even have increased length of life. But we are not going to have eternal life on this earth until Jesus comes. And so, what are we really trying to do?”
Landless continued, “Never forget, the reason this church was given a health message was not so that we could be long-lived sinners. It’s because our work is not yet finished. When asked that question, Ellen White was very clear. We were given this message because our work is not yet done. So whatever means God entrusts to us, gives to us — if it’s helpful, if it’s sensible, if it stands the tests of evidence-based, peer-reviewed health science and is carefully and responsibly done — I do not believe that [using] this is a denial of our faith.”
He brought up the biblical example of Naaman, who was told to bathe in the river for healing. He shared the story of Jesus healing the blind man with His saliva. God didn't have to ask them to do that. But there was an intermediary. Said Landless, “I don’t believe it's a question of lack of faith. Viewing the Bible and science in the right way should give us an increased encouragement that we do not deny faith. In fact, we are utilizing an instrument He has placed in our hands.”
Pressing Together, Living for Christ
“It’s been so heartening to see the varied perspectives, experiences, and expertise come together for this program,” Brauer said. “As we’ve seen, the choices we each make do have an impact on the lives of those around us. I believe that respectful dialogue, earnest seeking for truth, and prayers for the unity that comes through the graces of the Holy Spirit will help us all come through this crisis. We will be stronger if we press together and press towards Christ.”
Melissa Reid, associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the NAD, and an organizer of the event, said, “The NAD vaccine taskforce’s main goal for the symposium was to provide information to address the concerns of those hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine so they would feel equipped and at peace with their decision.
“We additionally wanted to emphasize the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s commitment to whole-person health and its respect for individual choice. I was blessed by the presentations and pray that others were as well. May we continue to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we seek to live for Christ.”