20th September 2021

Westgate Baptist arms Karen Community against Covid

Last Saturday, Westgate Baptist Community in Yarraville became a pop-up vaccination hub for the Karen community.

Several thousand Karen live in Melbourne’s western suburbs in local government areas heavily impacted by COVID. Like many other refugee and migrant communities, the Karen are more likely to live in large, multigenerational households and be essential workers – factors that increase their risk of being infected. At the same time, language and cultural barriers have made it a struggle for the Karen community to be vaccinated.

The pop-up vaccination hub was organised by Dr Lester Mascarenhas and Say Htoo Eh. Dr Lester Mascarenhas is founder of Utopia Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health, and a passionate advocate of overcoming language and cultural barriers to making health care accessible. Say Htoo Eh is a settlement worker with Wyndham Community Education Centre, and Church Secretary at Westgate Baptist Karen Community Church.

Two online information sessions were held to promote the pop-up vaccination hub. The first was organised by Laverton P-12 College, a government school where more than a quarter of the students are Karen Christians and Buddhists. Supported by a Karen interpreter, Dr Lester explained the benefits of COVID vaccination, dispelled a few myths, and answered questions. Also speaking at the information session were Pastor Gail Moe Dweh from Werribee Karen Baptist Church and Venerable Moonieinda from the Karen Buddhist community in Bendigo. Pastor Gail Moe affirmed there are no objections to Christians receiving the COVID vaccination, and said he had himself received one dose of the vaccine himself with no ill effects. Venerable Moonieinda said that in Bendigo more than a thousand Karen have already been vaccinated including 400 Karen who were vaccinated at a pop-up hub at the Karen Buddhist monastery. In communities where faith is central, the support of faith leaders is as important as accurate medical information.

Dr Lester also spoke at a second information session organised by Westgate Karen Baptist Community Church. The Department of Health supported the sessions with health information translated into Karen.

The information sessions achieved their goal, and 183 Karen were vaccinated at Westgate Baptist Community by a team of doctors and nurses supported by Karen church volunteers. Many older or recently arrived Karen have limited English and support from volunteer interpreters was crucial. Rev. Neville Taylor, senior pastor of Westgate’s English-language congregation, also came as a volunteer. Buddhists as well as Christians were vaccinated, and it was an opportunity to bring the two communities together.

The pop-up vaccination hub at Westgate Baptist Community did more than just get vaccines into people’s arms. When the church became the vaccination hub the Karen changed from being recipients of vaccines, to having ownership of COVID vaccination. Healing the sick – sometimes in synagogues – was a major part of Jesus’ ministry and it is hard to imagine Jesus wouldn’t approve of protecting people against COVID, especially in a church. But Jesus always asked people what they wanted before he healed them, and it is equally likely Jesus would have approved of the Karen being partners in their healthcare and COVID vaccinations.


Article by Martin West

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