Meet the Latina priest leading a pro-vaccine ‘evangelization’ campaign

The Rev. Irma Guerra (center), shown at Super Mercado Jalisco supermarket in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, hands out a COVID-19 vaccine pamphlet to encourage people in the Hispanic community to get the vaccine. Guerra, who leads the Hispanic ministry at Christ Church Episcopal, has become very involved in vaccine activism. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
The Rev. Irma Guerra (center), shown at Super Mercado Jalisco supermarket in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, hands out a COVID-19 vaccine pamphlet to encourage people in the Hispanic community to get the vaccine. Guerra, who leads the Hispanic ministry at Christ Church Episcopal, has become very involved in vaccine activism. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Rev. Irma Guerra is working to boost COVID-19 vaccine uptake and battle misinformation

On a recent Wednesday, as storm clouds gathered ahead of an afternoon shower, the Rev. Irma “Mimi” Guerra could be found not inside her church, but by the checkout counter of a Super Mercado Jalisco in Norcross. As customers moved toward the exit with their bagged groceries, she walked up to them with a question: “Se ha vacunado?” “Have you gotten vaccinated?” Later, she stood in the middle of the supermarket’s in-house food court and told diners about an upcoming COVID-19 vaccination clinic she had helped organize at her church. “You won’t be asked to show any papers.”

During the 10-minute car ride that separates the Mexican grocery store from Christ Church Episcopal — where Guerra has led the Hispanic ministry since 2018 — the reverend explained that her supermarket visit was part of a monthslong pro-vaccine “evangelization” campaign. The goal, she explained, is to help boost inoculation rates among Gwinnett County’s Hispanic community. A Mexican immigrant herself, Guerra says she was moved to hands-on action because she registered notable anxiety among her congregation around the topic of vaccines. Some were scared their lack of legal status could be an issue at vaccination clinics. Others were unsettled by conspiracy theories claiming vaccines were dangerous.

“Any chance I can, I bring up vaccines and remind the community that it’s important for us to get our shots,” Guerra said.

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As a COVID-19 survivor, the reverend understands from experience how high the stakes are. In July 2020, Guerra contracted the disease and was bedridden for weeks, with “every symptom in the book.” Memories of that time convinced Guerra’s 22-year-old son, who was initially vaccine hesitant, to get the shot.

“He had gotten really scared that I was going to die,” she said. “So this year, he told me, ‘I’m getting vaccinated, mami. I’m doing it for you.’”

Combined ShapeCaption
The Rev. Irma Guerra, holding COVID-19 vaccine pamphlets, encourages members of the Hispanic community to get the vaccine. She's making her appeal at the food court of Super Mercado Jalisco supermarket in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Rev. Irma Guerra, holding COVID-19 vaccine pamphlets, encourages members of the Hispanic community to get the vaccine. She's making her appeal at the food court of Super Mercado Jalisco supermarket in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
The Rev. Irma Guerra, holding COVID-19 vaccine pamphlets, encourages members of the Hispanic community to get the vaccine. She's making her appeal at the food court of Super Mercado Jalisco supermarket in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Guerra began her broader pro-vaccine mobilization on the same platform she says is exposing many of her congregants to Spanish-language COVID-19 misinformation: Facebook. Six days a week, she starts the day with a livestreamed morning prayer, many of which include appeals for viewers to get vaccinated. On Sundays, she relays that message from the pulpit at church.

In recent weeks, Guerra has also gone door-knocking to talk about vaccination, and visited stores and Department of Driver Services waiting rooms, with her clerical collar sometimes sparking confusion and even anger (a plurality of Latinos in the U.S. belong to the Catholic Church, which bars women from becoming deacons or priests).

“It’s just another battle for us to take on,” said Letty Guevara, a deacon at Christ Church Episcopal, also a woman. On that Wednesday, Guevara and two volunteers from the church accompanied Guerra to the Super Mercado Jalisco. The group also visited the heavily Hispanic Bloom at Meadowood apartment complex in Norcross, where they put up flyers in the common laundry room and mail area advertising an upcoming vaccination clinic.

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The clergy of Christ Church’s Hispanic ministry is part of a slow but deliberate on-the-ground effort in the Atlanta area to get immigrants and communities of color vaccinated, bridging gaps in knowledge about and access to the vaccine. It’s the type of approach — direct, targeted and culturally competent — that public health experts say should define this current, toughest phase of the state’s flagging vaccination rollout.

Aracely Hernandez is a resident at Bloom at Meadowood and a member of Christ Church. She says many of her neighbors have been unable to get the shot for a variety of reasons: grueling work schedules, inability to get rides to vaccination clinics, and limited understanding of how the vaccination process works.

“We are working people,” she said.

The backdrop of the Christ Church clergy‘s COVID-19 activism is a surge of new cases among the unvaccinated, which recently broke the state’s previous hospitalizations record, set in January.

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The Rev. Irma Guerra (right) and Aracely Hernandez put up COVID-19 vaccine pamphlets in a laundry room at Bloom at Meadowood Apartment Homes in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Hernandez is a resident there and a member of Christ Church Episcopal. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Rev. Irma Guerra (right) and Aracely Hernandez put up COVID-19 vaccine pamphlets in a laundry room at Bloom at Meadowood Apartment Homes in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Hernandez is a resident there and a member of Christ Church Episcopal. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
The Rev. Irma Guerra (right) and Aracely Hernandez put up COVID-19 vaccine pamphlets in a laundry room at Bloom at Meadowood Apartment Homes in Norcross on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Hernandez is a resident there and a member of Christ Church Episcopal. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Vaccine messaging

Guerra and Guevara say that, in their conversations with the community about vaccines, they feel forced to address and rebut conspiracy theories disseminated on social media and popular messaging platforms like WhatsApp. They say they’ve interacted with people who believe vaccines are unsafe, or that they contain tracking microchips.

“One of the big enemies that we have is social media. Some people believe everything they see,” said Guevara, who is originally from Venezuela. “Every Sunday, I tell them, ‘Has anyone found the chip? The day that one of you finds a chip that is sufficiently small to fit inside a needle, you’ll have to show it to me.’”

The church leaders are also open about the side effects they personally faced post-vaccine and, in Guerra’s case, her debilitating battle with COVID-19 last year.

“We tell them, ‘Look how long it’s been since we got our shots,’” Guevara said. “And here we still are. Alive and kicking.”

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A strategy Guevara says is not worth deploying: rhetoric about loving your neighbor as yourself.

“I used to stand up every Sunday at Mass and tell people about how important it is to look out for others by getting vaccinated. I didn’t get through to folks at all with that,” she said.

There’s no one-size-fits-all message or conversation templates they can resort to when engaging people on the topic of vaccines, Guerra and Guevara explain. It’s about listening to people’s concerns in one-on-one interactions, and then deciding on a fitting response, and on a way to deliver it, to make folks more likely to seek out the shot.

In August, Guevara remembers coming across a young mother at the church who was reluctant to getting vaccinated. The deacon was unsure at first of the approach she should take to try to change the woman’s mind.

“I was thinking, ‘Lord, throw an idea my way. Just put it in my head and I’ll spit it out exactly as you tell me.’”

Guevara ended up swaying the woman by pointing out that her two young daughters, one of whom she was holding close to her chest, could be adversely impacted if she didn’t get the shot.

“I told her, ‘In a moment like that when you are holding her so close to you, if you become infected, you could pass it on to her.’ She said OK, she was going to get vaccinated. So, you see, you have to try to home in on what really matters to each person.”

Combined ShapeCaption
The Rev. Irma Guerra, who leads the Hispanic ministry at Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross, had her own debilitating, weekslong battle with COVID-19 last year. She's working to help get people in the Hispanic community vaccinated. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Rev. Irma Guerra, who leads the Hispanic ministry at Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross, had her own debilitating, weekslong battle with COVID-19 last year. She's working to help get people in the Hispanic community vaccinated. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
The Rev. Irma Guerra, who leads the Hispanic ministry at Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross, had her own debilitating, weekslong battle with COVID-19 last year. She's working to help get people in the Hispanic community vaccinated. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Over the summer, Guerra realized that simply talking about the vaccine at church wasn’t sufficient. After leaving Sunday Mass, congregants could once again become exposed to misinformation, or get too busy to seek out the shot.

“It wasn’t going as well as we wanted, and I thought there must be more I could do,” she said. “Our Latinos need for us to bring the vaccines to places where they can see our people there. That’s how we build trust.”

In partnership with Emergent Testing, a community initiative that aims to make the COVID-19 vaccines more accessible, Guerra’s church hosted two on-site vaccination drives on Aug. 1 and Aug. 22, which resulted in over 80 vaccine doses being administered. The 1,500-person church offered rides to families with limited transportation so they could take advantage of the clinics. Additional vaccination events will be held in the fall.

“Folks being able to see us there, it worked. I remember one family came up to me and asked if I could pray for them before getting the shot. Claro que sí. Of course,” Guerra said. “We prayed together and then the entire family got vaccinated.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.