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Featured Researchers Profile: Rev. Dr. Shirley Fleming and Rev. Dr. Kirsten Peachey

Exploration of the Self-Perceived Roles of Trusted Faith Leaders in the Promotion of Flu Vaccination in a Disadvantaged African-American Community


Vaccination rates for seasonal influenza or the flu are low in African-American (AA) communities locally and nationally. Low rates of flu vaccine are associated with increased risk of illness and death for preventable diseases.  Public health leaders often view faith leaders as trusted messengers for health promotion activities, such as vaccines.  Published data that support this view is hard to find.  This exploratory study sought to answer the following questions:  1) How do faith leaders view themselves in relationship to being trusted messengers for health promotion and flu vaccines? 2) What experiences and views of the health care system might contribute to their views; and 3) What are faith leader recommendations for building partnerships between faith and health that are effective in promoting health and flu vaccines? This study is part of the Interfaith Health Program’s (IHP) 14 state, multi-sector project that focuses on strengthening partnerships between faith and public health. We hope this study will contribute to 1) the IHP’s Model Practices Framework, a graphic description of the groundwork, processes and foundations that contribute to strong faith and public health partnerships; and 2) local understanding of how faith-public health relationships can support their shared goal—promotion of health equity.


The team selected Austin, a predominately African-American community with low rates of immunizations and a partner with pre-existing relationships with faith leaders serving predominately-AA residents.  Participants’ level of trust in the health system was determined through surveys. Faith leader views and experiences regarding being a trusted messenger for flu and health promotion was assessed through focus groups with open-ended questions. Key study findings are as follows.  1) Faith leaders viewed the promotion of health as a matter of faith and part of their responsibility.  2) They saw their role as one who makes health information available, so that people can make their own decisions. They strongly objected to the role of “influencers”.   3) Health leaders welcomed partnerships with health organizations and health professionals whom they trusted because of long-term relationships and commitments.  Faith leaders expressed some hesitancy regarding the promotion of flu vaccination and being a personal recipient of the flu vaccine. The hesitancy seemed to be connected to the negative historical experiences (Tuskegee Research, community stories) of AA people, and personal and family illnesses that they associated with the flu vaccination. The Mistrust Index also revealed that faith leaders had feelings of being unsure regarding the trustworthiness of the health care system.

Recommendations/Next Steps

Faith leaders recommended that

  • Educational messages be holistic and connected with their faith beliefs.
  • Health organizations work to create long-term relationships with faith communities based on a shared value of health.

The results of this exploratory study indicate the need for

  • Replication of this study with a larger sample size;
  • Additional studies that focus on identifying effective strategies for building trust between faith and health leaders; and
  • Designing and testing holistic approaches to health messaging for the flu.

About Our Researchers

Shirley Fleming is the Director of Faith Health Promotion for UIC Office of Community Engagement and Neighborhood Health Partnerships (OCEAN-HP) and Co-Director of the Center for Faith and Community Health Transformation, a joint initiative between Advocate Health Care and UIC’s OCEAN-HP.  She received her Master in Nursing Science from the UIC College of Nursing, a Doctorate of Public Health from UIC SPH and a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary.  Her current work focuses on improving and transforming personal and community health by utilizing evidenced-based science, community wisdom, faith beliefs and practices to heal those who live on the margins, liberate their gifts and engage them in the work of creating just and loving relationships and systems of care.  You can contact her at sfleming@uic.edu.

Kirsten Peachey is the director for Congregational Health Partnerships at Advocate Health Care. She co-directs The Center for Faith and Community Health Transformation, a joint initiative of Advocate Health Care and the Office for Community Engagement and Neighborhood Health Partnerships at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is especially interested in how faith communities act as agents of Loving Community, which is the heart of what creates health for our own bodies and for our communities. You can contact her at Kirsten.peachey@advocatehealth.com.

Sharing What We Have Learned is sponsored by the Office of Community Engagement and Neighborhood Health Partnerships, Healthy City Collaborative, and the Office of Health Literacy, Prevention and Engagement.  We are pleased to highlight research and community engagement activities of UIC researchers. Each month we feature a researcher and important findings from their work. This information is shared in a ready to use format suitable for widespread distribution to those who would most benefit from the research findings. If you would like more information about our efforts to share what we have learned, visit our website at http://oceanhp.uic.edu or email sabrina1@uic.edu.

The mission of the Center for Health Equity Research Chicago (CHER Chicago) is to make transformative contributions toward the elimination of structural violence through collaborative community partnerships, innovative research, and development and growth of researchers. We are enthusiastic to present Featured Profiles in hopes of advancing community-researcher relationships within and beyond CHER Chicago. To learn more, visit www.cherchicago.org and email cherchicago@uic.edu