Central to every faith community is the obligation to care for one another. And as a person of faith, my heart is breaking over the needless suffering caused by the refusal of far too many Tennesseans to be vaccinated and to wear masks. Too often in our state, the refusal is led by religious leaders who have put love of self over love of neighbor. While these religious and political leaders are amplified in the media, they do not reflect the intentions of the faithful masses whose decision to prioritize public health is not in spite of their faith, but because of it.

People who practice faith in God put love of neighbor and the collective good first in their way of living. They understand that the majority of our neighbors cannot afford the medical leave and care that is required when COVID-19 is contracted.

By contrast, the Tennessee faith leaders who continue to rail against masks and vaccines despite having contracted COVID-19 themselves were often afforded the best that medical science had to offer. Whether it was a kidney transplant or other cutting-edge solutions that were needed, they had critical health care access that most other Tennesseans do not have. Yet they still promote personal “liberty” over communal well-being.

We work in service of the most vulnerable

Let me be clear: anyone who takes seriously the love of God knows that central to our core beliefs is working in service of the most vulnerable.

As a result of these officials’ selfish leadership, medical professionals in our community have been persecuted publicly and in private. Those who seek to save our lives are suffering through physical threats and personal harassment. All the while, these same leaders are using the COVID-19 crisis to further their political interests at the expense of the American people and the health care professionals who are risking their lives on the frontlines of this pandemic.

Tennessee is only the latest state to consider introducing legislation that allows students to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private institutions if they or their parents do not want to comply with mask mandates.

Public schools are a cornerstone of our communities. Taking money from public schools and allocating it toward private, often religious institutions has been a longtime goal of the “religious right.” Last year, the Trump administration authorized government funding for private and parochial schools under the guise of COVID-19 relief — and now, we are seeing these efforts replicated in our own state with anti-mask vouchers.

So not only are public officials — and all too often, religious leaders — endangering public health in their opposition to common-sense public health measures. They’re also working to take away money from students and families, then put it toward their own political interests.

Faith communities are powerful agents for social change. In this phase of the pandemic and beyond, we can set an example of true leadership. Religious leaders must come together to promote vaccinations and mask-wearing as part of our faith in God, who has helped us understand the sacred nature of life itself. We see science as God’s good gift that has helped us overcome other public health crises such as typhoid, malaria, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. We understand that we will not be well until all are well.

“Without knowledge my people perish,” so says Hosea 4:1. The application of medically accurate knowledge paired with love of neighbor can bring healing and health to our collective communities. Now is the time for people of faith to use their prophetic voice to save lives.

As people of faith, we have a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable, including our children. That means following public health guidelines, whether masking, social distancing or getting vaccinated. And as defenders of true religious freedom, we must be vigilant in ensuring taxpayer dollars go where they are most needed, and not toward institutions that aren’t held accountable to nondiscrimination protections.

We can rise above this point in history to be known as those who spoke the truth and saved lives. May we do it with passion.

Rev. Neelley Hicks is a pastor at Glencliff United Methodist Church and executive director of Harper Hill Global. She has responded to public health crises in the United States and throughout Africa through education and communications for the collective good.