Living where I did in the States, I often had the opportunity for fiery conversations with passionate people who wanted to see the world’s ills healed. Amidst their irritation about non-recyclers or others who weren’t living life correctly, someone would often exclaim, “and those anti-vaxxers! So stupid.”

Immediately, I felt myself withdraw and a gnawing fear crawled up my throat. You see, for most of my life, I belonged to the estimated five percent of children in the United States who had never received a single vaccine. The fact that I was more afraid to write that line than I was to receive vaccines speaks to the power of that fear.

Mondays through Saturdays of my childhood I grew up in isolating white suburbia. But I spent Sunday mornings in a tiny West African immigrant church. Most of these uncles and aunties, born on the eve of their countries’ independence, could point to few fulfilled promises from science, higher education, or the government. Instead, they held unshakeable faith in God—and his ability to heal them without any human intervention (a belief called faith-healing). From this perspective, vaccines were dangerous to our faith and maybe even a conspiracy to physically contaminate us. We were doing our best to follow God in twisted times, and rebukes from the outside world were dismissed or—better yet—taken as evidence that we were on the right path.

 I always knew that we were different. At the beginning of each school year, I arrived with a stack of opt-out waivers. If field trip forms asked about shots, scrawled lines of Bibles references:


were written in response. From a distance, they looked like an impenetrable black and white wall.

The summer before my freshman year of high school, I attended one of those traditional rites of passage events for teenagers in alternative communities. A medical sociologist from an Ivy League school showed up at church. He was conducting his dissertation on our anti-vaccination/faith-healing beliefs. Ironically, I was in the middle of reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story of the African-American woman whose stolen cells have fueled historic medical advances, including the development of the polio vaccine. After months of church picnics and research (including learning about children from similar churches who had died), the now-professor left and published his study.

The older I grew, the more dissatisfied I became with both my understanding of faith-healing and the outside world’s reactions of either academic indifference or ridiculing shame. I searched for answers. But even with greater access to information and the approaching independence of adulthood, fear was a more powerful motivator than public health benefits. You have to understand that changing my mind was exposing myself to the unprotected and unknown in more ways than one. I would be leaving the protection of the church where I’d grown up, leaving the protection of an unambiguous promise of divine health, leaving the protection of being a “good Christian,” a “good African,” a “good granddaughter.” And outside of this protection, I thought I would just be left with those who either thought we were freaks or that we were good research subjects. Who would catch me if I broke rank and fell into new, unknown ideas? Who would listen if I loosened my mouth and spoke?

I sat with all the tiring memories of how this type of otherness had threatened so many vivid dreams—of trying out for lacrosse in high school, of choosing a college, of picking a major that required me to study abroad. Fearing shame from all around, I opened myself up to the nuances in the black-and-white wall. I held out my arm to the unknown… and I was stunned when another hand grasped mine. I am where I am today because of all those who heard my story, offered practical help and saw me for more than just a faith-healing/anti-vaxxer’s daughter. 

I still walk with fears—I can’t stand medical dramas, and doing nothing about health often seems so much easier. But I continue to hold my arm out with the hope that all those so sure in their world-changing convictions will take a moment to stop talking and do the same.

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