A Mennonite pastor in Steinbach, Man. who is being barraged by angry e-mails, calls and social media posts for promoting COVID-19 vaccinations is trying to take a peaceful road in dealing with his critics.
“I’m trying to understand what is making them so angry, then practice compassion and grace,” said Kyle Penner, associate pastor of Grace Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation. “I’m hearing a lot of fear in their voices.”
Penner, 37, was part of the recent “Miss these seats?” video campaign sponsored by the provincial government to urge vaccine-hesitant Manitobans to get the shot in order to go back to concerts, sporting events, restaurants and worship services.
“We’ve missed hearing your voices raised in song together,” Penner said in his video, shot in his church. It ends with him saying if people want to take a seat in a pew again, they should get the vaccine.
He has received some positive responses, which he has appreciated. But they were overwhelmed by dozens of angry and hateful responses calling him a traitor to Christianity, being against freedom of religion, and accusing him of being part of a conspiracy to wipe out the human race.
“I think some of the response is based on misinformation,” he said, noting that some people think the government wants to tell people they can’t go to church unless they are vaccinated — not the message he was trying to communicate at all.
“I think some people heard it as an ultimatum,” he said.
Many of the responses seem to be coming from anti-vaccination social media groups or websites across Canada and the U.S., repeating the idea that getting vaccinated will lead to the deaths of everyone who got the vaccine in a few years.
“If I sincerely believed we are all going to die because of the vaccine, I guess I would be a bit hysterical, too,” Penner said, adding “that doesn’t excuse the boorish emails.”
Others are coming from people who identify as Christians, believing he is against the church, a threat to religious freedom, and questioning his commitment to his faith.
None of the responses appears to be coming from Steinbach, something that makes Penner wonder if Facebook’s algorithms might be pushing controversial content to anti-vaxxers, resulting in the spike in angry posts, emails and calls.
“Facebook knows that anger generates clicks,” he said. “I wonder if that’s how the ads are getting to anti-vaccination groups.”
One thing that makes him laugh is an accusation he was paid $20,000 to participate in the campaign.
“I got a gas card for $50 for my drive into the city,” he said of those who say he was bribed by the government.
In trying to understand and be empathetic towards his critics, Penner keeps in mind the times he let his own emotions get the better of him online.
“I’ve had my own meltdowns,” he said, noting it’s also easy for people who support vaccinations and public health restrictions to join a social media “mob” against those who oppose them.
“I try to remember to treat others the way I want to be treated, even in my worst moments,” he said.
To keep calm and find a sense of peace, Penner walks the prayer labyrinth at his church. Support from his congregation also helps, and so does blocking people online. He locked down his Facebook page and changed his online identity to prevent more people from leaving angry messages.
Despite the online vitriol, Penner has no regrets about participating in the campaign. “I did it to be helpful, to encourage people who want to go back to church to do their bit,” he said.
As for people who send him angry messages, “It’s been a bad couple of weeks for those who oppose vaccinations and restrictions,” he said, noting cases are coming down and more people are getting the vaccine.
“Everything they staked on this is turning out not to be true. They are lashing out, and I just happen to be their target. I just pray for them and ask God to bless them.”