The Rev. Celester Webb walked between pews that have been empty since March, toward the vials of vaccine waiting at the front of his church.
The nurses brought enough for 150 people to get their first COVID-19 vaccination under the roof of United Church of God in Christ in St. Paul. The first shot was going in the pastor's arm, so the congregation could see, so the congregation would know, that it was safe.
"I think it's a smart move to do it in churches, where you see familiar faces," said Webb, who can address his congregation's concerns about the vaccine because he shared them. "I'm going to get it. I'm not crazy about it, but I don't want to get sick and die and I don't want my loved ones to get sick and die."
Sometimes the people who need health care most are the ones who trust the health care system least. Long before COVID-19, a dedicated group of nurses, community leaders and public health officials was working to rebuild that faith, church by church, flu shot by flu shot.
For years, a dedicated network of health care workers, nonprofits and faith communities have been running free flu shot clinics wherever they might do the most good. They put shots in arms in homeless shelters, in parks, in any space where people were ready and willing.
"We have vaccinated everywhere from your church gymnasium to, literally, in a cornfield," said nurse Ingrid Johansen, manager of clinical care and outreach for M Health Fairview and director of the health system's Minnesota Immunization Networking Initiative. "We go anywhere and everywhere."
Anywhere and everywhere is exactly where people need the COVID-19 vaccine right now, and MINI and its community partners were uniquely positioned to get thousands of doses to people at risk of being missed by mass vaccination events.
As the first people entered the church for their appointments, they met navigators from the StairStep Foundation in Minneapolis. Larcina Bryant and Brian Bogan were there to help with paperwork, direct people to the right nurse's station and answer the biggest questions on people's minds: Is it safe? Will it hurt? What's it like to get the vaccine?
"It's the community serving the community," said Bryant, a social worker and vaccine site manager. "It's better sometimes, coming from the community we come from. It builds trust."
Both of them have been vaccinated, and both of them felt the same hesitancy they see on the faces of people arriving — nervous, excited, hopeful — for their first shot. People remember the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which Black men were lied to and went untreated. They know how often race determines the quality of health care in America.
"We both got the shot, so we can tell people, 'It's OK, it's fine,' " Bogan said. "The vaccine isn't going to kill you. COVID's going to kill you."
COVID-19 shortened the average American life span by a year last year. It cut almost three years off the average life expectancy of Black Americans.
Trusting your life to the place you entrust your soul is nothing new for the Black community.
"For African Americans, the institution that has served us historically has been the African American church," said Alfred Babington-Johnson, president and CEO of the Stairstep Foundation, a network that includes as many as 140 congregations working together. "In many ways, it was all we had. It was all we were allowed."
For the past decade, Johansen watched people struggle to get access to flu shots. Not everyone can get off work before the clinic closes. Not everyone had insurance or the $40 it would cost to pay for a flu shot for every member of the family.
There's not enough COVID vaccine, not yet. Some people have the time, resources and internet savvy to hunt doses down. Some do not.
At every MINI vaccine event — the ones they advertised only in Spanish-language media, the ones they set up for elders at a specific Black church, the ones just for front-line health care workers — the vaccine hunters descend. Thousands of Minnesotans scour social media, swap tips on Facebook or drive their grandparents across state lines in search of vaccine.
More vaccine is coming.
But for now, the nurses and their allies would like to reserve a few shots of hope for people who can't drive to a drugstore in North Dakota or spend hours refreshing the state's vaccine page.
At the United Church of God in Christ, Webb looked away from the needle and around his church.
"If this is what we have to do to get back to normal," he said, "I think it's just another way to serve the community."
A moment later, he straightened in relief, turning to see the nurse plastering a Band-Aid on his biceps.
"That wasn't bad at all," he said. You could almost hear the smile under his mask. "That didn't even hurt."
For more information about COVID vaccination in Minnesota visit: mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/find-vaccine/index.jsp.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks