A Steinbach pastor who was part of a provincial government ad campaign to promote COVID-19 vaccinations is taking the high road after a barrage of criticism from anti-vaxxers.

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A Steinbach pastor who was part of a provincial government ad campaign to promote COVID-19 vaccinations is taking the high road after a barrage of criticism from anti-vaxxers.

"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 in the southeastern Manitoba community.

Associate pastor of Grace Mennonite Church Kyle Penner

Associate pastor of Grace Mennonite Church Kyle Penner

"I’m hearing a lot of fear in their voices."

Penner, 37, was part of the recent "Miss these seats?" campaign, in which local community leaders promoted vaccinations as a way to get 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 phone calls, e-mails and social media posts 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 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.

"I think some people heard it as an ultimatum," he said.

Many of the responses seem to be coming from social media groups or websites 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 it "doesn’t excuse the boorish e-mails."

Others are coming from people who identify as Christians, believing he is against the church, a threat to religious freedom, and questioning the quality of his commitment to his faith.

None of the responses appear to be coming from Steinbach, something that makes Penner wonder if Facebook’s algorithms might be pushing controversial content to anti-vaxxers.

"Facebook knows that anger generates clicks," he said. "I wonder if that’s how the ads are getting to anti-vaccination groups."

"Facebook knows that anger generates clicks. I wonder if that’s how the ads are getting to anti–vaccination groups." – Kyle Penner, associate pastor of Grace Mennonite Church

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," Penner 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 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" of their own.

"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.

He’s also looking forward to a month of vacation, during which he will unplug from social media and e-mail.

Despite the online vitriol, Penner has no regrets about participating in the campaign and would do it again.

Despite the online vitriol, Penner has no regrets about participating in the campaign and would do it again.

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Despite the online vitriol, Penner has no regrets about participating in the campaign and would do it again.

"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."

faith@freepress.mb.ca

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.