Every day, I read another story about someone who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and later regretted their choice. Or I read about spikes in cases and the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” which has now become the pandemic for all of us again as mask mandates take effect in my hometown of New Orleans.
And every day, I marvel at the way we manage to mismatch our vaccine messaging to the audience for which it is intended.
The top-down, doom-and-gloom messaging is not going to make a huge dent in the minds of those who are vaccine-hesitant or downright recalcitrant. Here’s why: Humans are exquisitely gifted at distancing ourselves from bad news. We all know how to implement the defense mechanism of “it can’t happen to me.”
Before you tell me that the vaccine-hesitant person in your life cannot be reasoned with and that it’s not even worth trying, listen up. There is something that we haven’t tried yet, and I think it could work.
We don’t need better vaccine messaging on social media. We need a grassroots movement of vaccine evangelists — people who lovingly share the gospel of Pfizer and Moderna.
I know because I am a former fundamentalist, the daughter of a Baptist minister who could preach the socks off any book in the Bible. He was that good.
What my father taught me about evangelism applies to the current problem: how to proselytize the unvaccinated, many of whom are evangelicals and whose hesitancy stems from their fundamentalist take on COVID-19.
As a former fundamentalist, I have an inside window into how the “Jesus will get me a parking space and protect me from COVID (if it even exists)” mindset. But the approach I am recommending is not limited to right-wing anti-vaxxers. We have enough published research about COVID vaccine hesitancy to understand that no single barrier to vaccination exists.
In the case of the current problem ― viral spread ― we have a very good handle on both the problem and the good news. We know that people are being damned to early death, long-term suffering, and loss of loved ones.
And, we know the gospel. We also likely know at least one person we love who could be “saved.” Or, sadly, we don’t, because we have disengaged from everyone who doesn’t play on our COVID team.
Here’s a truth my dad knew about persuasion that any aspiring vaccine evangelist should heed: In order to get people to listen, you have to foster a relationship with them.
Because my dad loved the people he served, he listened to them. He spent time with them. He called strangers “friend.”
Whether witnessing on the street or visiting parishioners in homes or caring for his flock, my dad was warm, caring. He connected with people and was as interested in their dramas and plights and physical needs as much as he was in their eternal state.
Here are the problems with our current vaccine messaging at the individual and societal levels. In our personal and public conversations, we shame: “If that’s what you believe, then you deserve to get COVID.” We demand: “Wear the damn mask.” We fearmonger: “If you think vaccine side effects are uncomfortable, try being ventilated.” And perhaps, above all, we have become exquisite at blaming mightily. Recently, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) heralded from the mic what many have been thinking: “It’s time to blame the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks.”
We, the vaccine “saved,” are guilty of othering and ostracizing because we have science on our side.
At a societal level, being a vaccine evangelist means that those who have a platform in a group where vaccine hesitancy is prevalent need to speak up. Evangelical Christian Les Steele did exactly that in this piece called “My fellow evangelicals, please accept the gift God has given us in the Gift of the COVID-19 vaccine.” (My daddy, who is vaccinated by the way, could have written the piece.)
It also means that government and public health officials can take a cue from Jimmy Swaggarts and Pat Roberstons of the world and allow some emotion into their appeals. Data are needed. But dispassionate appeals don’t move people. Love does.
On a person-to-person level, here’s what it looks like to bring an evangelist mindset to some of the most important conversations of your life.
First, we need to have a concrete way to call people to mind who we want to reach. When I was a Southern Baptist, I carried prayer cards with me everywhere I went. On those cards were written the names of people with whom I wanted to share the gospel.
Write down the names of those you care about. Spend some time sending love and compassion to them. Doing so helps you get right with yourself so that you can approach them without being on the offense.
Next, tend to the relationship you have with your loved one. It is only out of relationship that your words can land. Even if you think that vaccine refusal is the biggest sin someone can commit right now (arguably, it is), embrace the “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach. It’s not about you. It’s about something much bigger than you.
Next, when in conversation, open with a question, not a list of myth-busting vaccine facts. Try opening with “I’m curious what you think about the vaccines for COVID-19.” Even if you already think you know, listen. And listen to what is underneath the words of your loved one.
You might have two or three conversations like this where you actively listen and reflect back what you are hearing. You can simply say something like, “I care about that. Thank you for sharing.” Then leave the conversation alone and talk about anything else for a while.
When it is time to share the vaccine gospel, ask if it’s OK to do so. This question is so important. Never once did my dad barge into a room and begin barking about sinners in the hand of an angry God. Instead, he would ask, “May I ask you a very important question?” If the person answered yes, he had a series of follow-up questions that would lead the person toward the big ask of praying the prayer of salvation.
Once you’ve shared what you want for that day, ask if you can talk more about this another time. Change is not a one-and-done proposition. You might need to share this gospel many times before you can say, “May I schedule you an appointment and go with you to get your vaccine?”
At its core, vaccine evangelism at every level is really a call to embrace radical compassion.
It’s saying, “I don’t care who you voted for. I don’t care how you feel about who I voted for, or if you think the election was rigged by genetically engineered QAnon elves who were bred by Barack Obama and the not-really-dead Osama bin Laden in Hilary Clinton’s basement. The problem we are facing is bigger than our political differences. I won’t let those differences keep me from talking to you about this. Why? because I love you, and that love is propelling me to help you.”
That’s what a missionary does. Nothing less is called for now.
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