How Do We Practice Gracious Dialogue When Talking about COVID-19 Vaccines?
Kendra Terpstra reflects on a recent conversation her son had with his friend, and how it reminded her of the importance of grace in our relationships with others who think differently than we do.
Recently my 13-year old son, Clive, had a challenging conversation with his friend, Conner (not his real name), about the COVID-19 vaccine and whether scientists can be trusted. They had spent the afternoon playing outside, doing what kids their age should be doing…having fun! However, while they were walking home from their afternoon of play, Conner asked Clive a question that led to their rather serious conversation topic.
Later that day, my son processed this conversation with me. We concluded that even though Clive and his friend didn’t change each other’s minds, it was a worthwhile engagement. They were both able to leave the conversation with their friendship still intact.
Here’s how their conversation unfolded:
Conner: Are you getting the COVID vaccine?
Clive: Yes. I already got it. So did my whole family.
Conner: Why did you get it?
Clive: I got it because we want to be safe, and it is a deadly virus.
Conner: More people have died from the vaccine than COVID.
Clive: Where did you learn that?
Conner: My mom.
Clive: Where did your mom get that information?
Conner: On Facebook and the internet.
Clive: So what makes you think the people on Facebook are more trustworthy than the scientists who worked on the vaccine?
Conner: You can’t trust the scientists. Rich, powerful people are saying the population needs to be decreased, and they want to kill off hundreds of thousands of people. I think the scientists are working with them to make something to kill people off. They created the virus, and now they have created the vaccine to kill more people.
Clive: Why would the scientists need to make the vaccine if the virus was already killing a lot of people off? You really shouldn’t be skeptical of the vaccine.
Conner: Oh, we aren’t just skeptical, we are absolutely not going to get it. Lots of people are getting myocarditis and dying from the vaccine (yes, he knew what myocarditis was and how to pronounce it). Like your grandma, she had a stroke because she got the vaccine.
Clive: There’s no proof that the vaccine caused her stroke.
Conner: Well, what caused it?
Clive: Well, I’m not sure, but I do know she has high blood pressure and other health issues. You shouldn’t immediately assume the vaccine was the cause. With the huge number of people around the world who are getting the vaccine every day, there are bound to be people who have strokes during that time. It seems to be more of a coincidence.
Conner: Those aren’t coincidences. The government and scientists are doing it. They are causing these deaths and manipulating the information about COVID just like they are manipulating the information about climate change.
Clive: Well, I want to be a scientist and study meteorology when I go to college. Would you trust me if I was a scientist?
Conner: (After a pause)…Probably not!
There was a moment of silence, and then both boys broke into laughter. They said their goodbyes and with that, Conner got on his bike, gave Clive a friendly wave, and rode away.
After my son shared this conversation with me, I wondered what I could learn from it. How could I, as an adult, have these important conversations with my friends and family who are on the opposite side of the fence, and maintain a thriving relationship despite our differences? How could I demonstrate grace in the midst of hard conversations?
Keep having conversations with those who think differently
When we are sure that we are on the right side of an issue, it is hard not to dismiss people who think differently. We are right, they are wrong. What else is there to discuss? Engaging with others on hot-button topics like evolution, the pandemic, and racial injustice might feel too risky or lead to conflict, so in order to keep the peace and lessen our stress, we avoid these conversations altogether.
And sometimes that is the wisest choice for that particular moment. Asking God for wisdom and discernment is crucial when deciding whether or not to talk to our friends and family about politics or the COVID-19 vaccine. But I believe the avoidance mindset can contribute to the “us versus them” narrative, nurturing our own form of tribalism and isolating us from those with whom we disagree.
Asking God for wisdom and discernment is crucial when deciding whether or not to talk to our friends and family about politics or the COVID-19 vaccine.
In my own life, I have had to learn to navigate some tricky waters within my social circles. Many of my friends and extended family are unvaccinated, and because I have been open about my views on vaccination and masks, they view me as a vaccine propagandist.
However, I am compelled to continue engaging. I have personally known too many people who have died of COVID-19, so speaking the truth in love could potentially be life-saving. But what I say and how I say it is crucial to keeping a foot in the door in these relationships. If I get riled up or my pride has been pricked, I know I need to take a step back. C.S. Lewis said, “For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (Mere Christianity). If my pride causes me to offend someone or insult their beliefs, I have lost my opportunity to have an influence in that person’s life.
Lately, I’ve been asking myself, is what I’m saying going to build this relationship up or tear it down? Am I motivated by love and concern, or am I trying to win an argument? At the end of the pandemic, do I still want to be friends with this person and are my words and actions demonstrating that desire?
Like my son and his friend made evident, it is not only possible to engage with someone who is on the opposite side of the fence, but sometimes necessary. And if we put our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ first and foremost, we can walk away with a friendly goodbye and the sincere desire to see each other again.
And if we put our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ first and foremost, we can walk away (from a difficult conversation) with a friendly goodbye and the sincere desire to see each other again.
Persevere and plant seeds
There are times when it feels like the COVID-19 pandemic is something that will never go away. It just keeps dragging on. It has demanded our attention and required significant adjustments in our day-to-day living. Many of us are experiencing some level of pandemic burnout and compassion fatigue, and the stressful effects of living through the COVID-19 era are taking their toll on our overall well-being. I know that I am not alone when I say I am weary of this pandemic and the complications it has brought into my family’s life.
So, for my family, this pandemic has been a call to persevere. Persevere in wearing masks when necessary. Persevere in being careful about our social gatherings. Persevere in carefully navigating hard conversations with people we disagree with. And persevere in caring.
Galatians 6: 9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good. For at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” But sometimes this is hard! Compassion fatigue is real and despite sharing solid evidence for vaccine and mask efficacy, people I know are dying of a preventable disease. Countering misinformation has brought a certain amount of alienation from friends who are deeply ingrained in pandemic skepticism and conspiracies. I am often left thinking, why bother?
But when my son shared with me what he and his friend had discussed, I knew that avoidance was not the answer. Clive didn’t shy away from engaging his friend. He trusted his intuition that some fruit could come. And even though neither convinced the other, I truly believe there was fruit from their dialogue. Clive gave his friend some food-for-thought that he might have never heard before. He persevered by asking good questions, planting some seeds of truth, and was able to leave the discussion with his friendship intact. Persevering provided him the opportunity to have gracious dialogue, even when things got a little heated!
Listen, ask questions, and seek understanding
James 1: 19 says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” When we are about to engage with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to remember these words from James. Not only does this verse reinforce a need for personal self-control when speaking to others, but it also addresses a deep need within our human nature: a desire to be heard.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t always listen well. I have a bad habit of only partially listening when someone is sharing with me, especially if it is related to pandemic propaganda. I am often tempted to interrupt so I can counter what they are saying. Instead of listening, I’m formulating my response. However, when I give someone my focused attention, I am showing them that I want to understand their point of view. It provides me the opportunity to give grace. This doesn’t mean I agree with what they are saying, rather it shows that I care about them, and am seeking to understand.
When I give someone my focused attention, I am showing them that I want to understand their point of view. It provides me the opportunity to give grace.
Asking questions is another part of the process of seeking understanding. According to the Harvard Business Review article, The Surprising Power of Asking Questions, asking open-ended questions provides many benefits in a conversation. The authors emphasize that follow-up questions “signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard.”
A number of months ago, I went on a walk with a friend who had not been vaccinated for COVID-19. She said she didn’t know enough about the vaccine to feel it was safe to get for her and her family. Some of the things she said made me quickly realize that her decision to not get vaccinated had been influenced by misinformation. By asking her a number of careful questions, she was able to articulate her concerns and reevaluate some of the beliefs she had about the vaccine. She concluded that it wasn’t that she would never get the vaccine, but that she just wasn’t sure “yet”. There was room in her mind to learn more and to make a more informed decision in the future. For someone who is vaccine-hesitant, this was a victory!
When Clive came home and told me about his time with Conner, he shared that he was focused on not offending his friend. That was a proud momma moment for me! Even though he was confident in the truth that he was sharing, I love that Clive cared more about his friend than defending his pro-science “tribe”. He engaged thoughtfully by keeping his cool, listening to his friend’s thoughts, and asking good questions that challenged his friend’s suppositions. And at the end of the day, they remained friends, despite their rather adult-like conversation. I am thankful that God provided these two young friends with the opportunity to be conversation partners, and I am thankful that he used these two boys to remind me that our conversations should always be sprinkled with grace.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.