By Vivian Shipe
KNOXVILLE, TN — They never stopped. Every Thursday for the last three years with the exception of holidays, three women have faithfully meet via zoom from 5pm to 6 pm with faith leaders and subject matter experts from across the country.
Being the leaders of three prominent organizations doesn’t deter them. They use a tag team method when their leadership duties calls them away ensuring one of them is always at the helm of one of the most lifesaving information meetings held in the country.
From the moment they stepped to the front lines as the founders of the Faith Leaders Initiative, Cynthia Finch, Gwen McKenzie, and Keira Wyatt have been fearless and unrelenting in their quest to educate and vaccinate thousands in the marginalized communities of Knoxville and surrounding counties against the ravages of COVID-19.
That quest began in May of 2020 with meetings to inform the churches of the dangers of opening their doors too soon. Over time the initiative grew. Soon there were partnerships developed with organizations donating thermometers and filtering systems to the churches and schools. Subject matter experts were recruited and brought on the zoom meetings resulting in the latest information, covid numbers and resources being provided on a weekly basis.
Mayors, senators, doctors from around the country, even representatives from the CDC joined the calls. As time marched on, the numbers on the calls began to swell with weekly attendance sometimes topping over one hundred. The women were always looking out for the community; always looking for innovative ways to help save the most vulnerable.
There was “Cynthia’s List”. A black notebook always in the pocket of Finch with the names of elders and other immune compromised people who called the CONNECT Ministries office, and Vice Mayor McKenzie and Cynthia’s personal cell phones; desperately looking for help to get the vaccine. Cynthia Finch made sure they got that shot.
When the news across the county spoke of the disparities in the vaccine distribution to Black communities and the elderly, the women moved with a quickness. On a bitter cold snowy day, Finch, McKenzie, and Wyatt stood on the steps of the Jacob’s Building at Chilhowee Park declaring “We will NOT be left behind!” Standing behind them on that infamous day were representatives from many Black organizations from across the city, all determined to make that statement a reality. That declaration was followed by the first of hundreds of popup vaccine clinics across the city and county.
Vaccine first came into the inner city through the black churches when the trio first began working with Dr. Keith Gray, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of UT Regional Medical Center who provided vaccine and the nurses to distribute the shots. Following his example, other pharmacies, hospitals, and health agencies began to work with the Initiative providing, vaccine and nurses. The numbers of shots in arms grew, and lives were being saved.
Then came survival kits as the women rented out buildings and brought in tractor trailer loads of sanitizing supplies and sent out a call to the citizens of Knoxville, “ Come, get all you need.” Come they did.
As the pandemic intensified, the women created drive thru clinics with nurses lined up on both sides of the cars that lined the streets; so many cars they sometimes backed onto the highway. You didn’t have to get out your car. They even devised ways to get groceries for the attendees, just pop your trunk and boom, you got food too.
The founders do not work from afar. Oh no, they are true soldiers in the field. Over the years you would find them working alongside the hundreds of volunteers that have stepped up to work with the Initiative. Finch in her white coat, zipping around making things happen, Wyatt, a mighty prayer warrior, praying and constantly on the lookout for resources to give away which she lovingly packs and loads alongside her army of volunteers, and McKenzie, born to serve, raised in a family of trailblazers who serve others, directing traffic into events, clipboards in her hands registering people for their vaccines.
High Heels in the trunk, boots on the ground. That’s how they roll.
For three years, this work, along with the weekly zoom meetings has continued. Now on the horizon looms another battle and the founders are preparing once again to stand shoulder to shoulder as the federal mandate of COVID-19 as a public health emergency will expire at the end of the day on May 11th, once again bringing unknown changes to a community already at a disadvantage.
Ending the mandate means there will be changes in cost and availability of COVID vaccine and testing. Funding will end for many services, and other areas of health care will be affected. It is these and other areas of concern that will affect the vulnerable that the Faith Leaders Initiative wants to get ahead of.
In order to reach the masses and prepare them for the changes ahead; they have planned a Mega Clinic to be held once again at the Jacob’s Building on April 19th from 10am to 7 pm. Other partners and organizations have joined in the effort to spread as much information and resources into the community as possible.
During the clinic there will be vaccines available and resource information tables about the coming changes.
Changes that will continue to be revealed on the weekly zoom meetings held by a bold and courageous trio.
Ironically, the day the pandemic mandate expires on May 11th is a Thursday.
Finch, McKenzie, and Wyatt will be on the zoom at 5 pm EST. Just as they have been every Thursday since May of 2020.