The pastor opened the wrought-iron doors of St. Petri Church in the German city of Chemnitz and sighed with relief when he saw the long line of people waiting in the cold for shots against the coronavirus.
Together with the parish council, the Rev. Christoph Herbst had invited in a relief organisation and volunteer doctors to conduct a Sunday vaccination clinic at the Lutheran church. The act of community outreach, the pastor knew, might not go over well in a part of Germany prone to vaccine resistance, including sometimes violent protests.
“I was very insecure about how people would react to our offer,” Herbst said as he welcomed the waiting crowd into his neo-Gothic house of prayer. “In our region, there are very different and very polarised views about the coronavirus measures in general, about how to fight the pandemic, and especially about the vaccinations.”
Saxony state, where Chemnitz and the city of Dresden are located, has the lowest vaccination rate among Germany’s 16 federal states, and one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases. Only 60.1% of residents were fully vaccinated by Christmas, compared to the nationwide average of 70.8%. At some points in the pandemic, local hospitals had to transfer patients out of state because all the intensive care beds were full.
Lutheran pastors across Saxony have used their sermons to promote vaccines as the most efficient way to prevent severe illness and to end the pandemic. Like Herbst, many opened their churches for clinics this month, hoping that offering jabs in a familiar environment and without advance registration might persuade some holdouts.
“We believe that we have a responsibility that goes beyond ourselves, and that we should do something for society with the resources we have,” Herbst explained. “We’re not doctors and we’re not professionals. But we have the space and we have volunteers who can organise something like this.”
Chemnitz, a city of about 247,000 residents, was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt when it and the rest of Saxony were part of the former communist East Germany. Many of the local vaccine refusers cite concerns of possible side effects, but also feeling overwhelmed by what they see as too much pressure from authorities or general opposition to any measures endorsed by the government, according to Herbst.
Among those who patiently sat in a pew waiting to roll up their sleeves at Herbst's church were Hannelore and Bernd Hilbert, a retired couple from the nearby village of Amtsberg. They came to get booster shots because some of their five grandchildren are too young to be vaccinated, and the Hilberts hoped to see them for Christmas.
“Last year's Christmas was really sad. We were all alone,” Hannelore Hilbert, 70. said.
“We're grateful for the church to offer these shots,” added her 72-year-old husband, who said they had waited unsuccessfully for shots at a hospital a few days earlier.
The vast majority of the church's vaccine recipients on a recent Sunday turned out to have more in common with the booster-seeking couple than the skeptical or frightened community members Saxony's pastors are trying to reach.
Of the 251 vaccines administered during St. Petri's daylong clinic, 18 went to individuals receiving their first dose. None of them wanted to speak with The Associated Press about why they’d changed their minds and decided to get shots almost one year into Germany's mass immunisation campaign.
A loud minority in Germany has opposed any kind of anti-virus measures since the start of the pandemic. The resistance grew angrier and more aggressive in recent weeks after the national parliament this month passed a vaccine mandate for some professions and most of the country's regions resumed some form of restrictions in response to the latest wave of infections.
With mass demonstrations banned in several parts of the country due to the pandemic, vaccine opponents have gathered for protest “walks” - unauthorised marches organised quickly via social media. Around 30 protesters showed up with torches outside the home of Saxony state Health Minister Petra Koepping one night, shouting slurs until police arrived.
The protests swelled in recent days, sometimes drawing thousands of people. Police detained several participants for attacking officers and journalists. Some Lutheran pastors received criticism and personal threats for their efforts to encourage vaccination.
Herbst said he thinks the majority of Saxons back the country's immunisation campaign and that far-right groups intent on undermining democracy have coopted anti-vaccine sentiment, fueling an already present sense among residents of Germany's east of feeling left behind 30 years after the country's reunification.
When parishioners confront him with their opposition to vaccines, the pastor says he tries to listen instead of judge.
“And I listen to things that are sometimes difficult to hear," he said. "I also listen to things that I think belong in the realm of conspiracy theories. I don’t confirm those. But it’s important that there’s a space where we listen to each other without immediately lapsing into condemnation.”
However, the pastor wonders if at this point all the arguments for and against vaccination have been exchanged and the decision of whether or not to get immunised no longer should be left as a matter of personal choice.
“There are people who say what is needed now is a democratically legitimised decision by parliament on a general vaccine mandate," Herbst said. "That would be a decision that does not work on moral pressure, but rather on the basis of a set of rules that applies to everyone.”