The lack of trust in our nation over the H1N1 vaccine is significant, so much so it looks like a national crisis of disbelief: It appears we are doubtful of Health Canada's request that everyone needs to get a pandemic shot.
With our top health agency facing its largest test of confidence, enter the Church. Uninvited, but surprisingly welcomed, a Faith Emergency Preparedness Initiative in Calgary is helping churches teach followers why they need to get vaccinated, and what they can do to care for ailing neighbours.
Although I am an optimist, my indomitability doesn't ignore the Canadian Influenza Pandemic Plan forecast: If H1N1 reaches worst-case scenario, 4.5 to 10 million Canadians will be too sick to work. Do the math and you know we are going to need all the patience and kindness we can muster, especially if we realize too late that far fewer people would've been sick had we only believed we needed the vaccine.
What a dilemma our secular nation faces - the Church is moving where the State needs help. No need to panic, though, it's likely an isolated initiative owned by Calgary's Bible Belt, but it is a model that has churches across the nation talking about what their role should be in serving the country during pandemic.
Calgary's Faith Emergency Preparedness initiative began when Marg Pollon, a retired lab technician, pulled together a coalition of 19 leaders from public, private and faith groups to prepare for H1N1. The group created a finely tuned Church Community Co-ordination Centre, which squats on free space in the basement office of a Lutheran church. From here, Ms. Pollon oversees a wall of maps that shows how Calgary's four quadrants have had churches flagged for readiness, with a lead church selected for each subdivision. The group booked clergy into seminars with Alberta Health Services and medical experts in order to learn about the vaccine, and how to get church buildings and parishioners ready to help.
"Churches have facilities that might be available for childcare, or assessment clinics, for vaccination centres, a kitchen that's usually or often of a commercial standard so facilities can be available. But probably more important - people," said Wayne Elford, a retired University of Calgary epidemiologist who works with the coalition.
The coalition wants people to activate their understanding that faith prompts good deeds. Their plan spells it out: Should a flu victim need a grocery run, someone to walk the dog, or help to get the kids to hockey, that help will be as close as the phone number of the local church (which is posted on a door hanger that churches are distributing in their neighbourhoods). If you've had cancer and belong to a church, you know that such help is already available. But the H1N1 plan is to open up that sort of neighbourliness as a citywide resource.
Are you more likely to go out and get vaccinated if your pastor tells you to? Absolutely. If you're still in the pews after all these years of church decline in Canada, you're there because you've found the information from the pulpit is trustworthy for living. Clergy are the people who teach how to navigate what you can't see. Fear is unseen. So, too, is trust.
When a pastor does advise that H1N1 vaccine is needed, they use the same tools as when teaching on the spiritual dynamics of fear. They will have studied and listened to the best educated sources on H1N1, examined the experience and then counselled to trust. There also will be prayer, as those who do believe God cares for our lives would request wisdom and protection for the days ahead.
It's the first time Canada has had to launch a massive inoculation into a postfaith culture. When polls show at least half of us refuse to believe Health Canada is watching out for our best interests, it could be that the government is dealing with a virus of doubt that has no quick cure.
Lorna Dueck is executive producer of Listen Up TV.