Manitoba

Steinbach pastor says he's been flooded with angry messages after being featured in vaccine campaign

Pastor Kyle Penner says he’s been getting abusive phone calls, emails and Facebook messages since becoming part of a provincial campaign encouraging Manitobans to get vaccinated. 

'People would call ... and say I'm going to hell,' says Kyle Penner after hearing from anti-vaccine crowd

Kyle Penner is the associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach. After being featured in an ad campaign encouraging Manitobans to get vaccinated, Penner says he's been dealing with dozens of angry messages from anti-vaccine people. (Gabrielle Touchette Photography/Province of Manitoba)

A Steinbach pastor says he's been getting abusive phone calls, emails and Facebook messages since becoming part of a provincial campaign encouraging Manitobans to get vaccinated. 

Kyle Penner, an associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, is one of the faces of the Manitoba government's Take a Seat ad campaign, which features various community members talking about the importance of getting vaccinated so Manitobans can get back to the shared experiences they love. 

Penner also wrote an article for the campaign's website about his decision to get vaccinated and his experience doing so. 

After the ads went live on social media last week, people started commenting on his public Facebook posts, questioning his faith and accusing him of taking money to be part of the campaign, which he says isn't true. 

He made the posts private, but then the Facebook messages started pouring in, so he changed his profile name as well and changed his privacy settings. 

Penner said he thought he'd seen the last of the nasty messages, until he showed up for work on Monday, where he was welcomed with dozens of angry voicemails and emails. 

"Then my phone rang a bunch today [Tuesday] and they just really wanted to tell me I was wrong," he said. 

A print ad for the province's Take a Seat ad featuring Kyle Penner. (Submitted by Kyle Penner)

"I did my best to correct lies when I could, but this wasn't exactly a medium for a fruitful, healthy conversation."

He says he's also seen his photo in the ad campaign shared in anti-vaccine groups. 

While he was prepared for some criticism, Penner says he underestimated how much anger is out there. 

"I was shocked, I would say, I was surprised that some people would call a stranger and say I'm going to hell. Like, thanks," he said 

He says he's been unsure of how to handle these types of situations. He doesn't want to return the anger, because he thinks it's counterproductive, but he said it's also been difficult to find common ground with people when they're so angry. 

Amid all of the vitriol that's been directed at him for promoting vaccines, Penner says he was encouraged by a single message of thanks from a nurse. (Submitted by Kyle Penner)

"I don't know what to do. Like, I don't want to be the person who hangs up on these people who are calling me because that doesn't help anything. But I don't know what else to do. I had some conversations with them and they didn't really help. So I don't know what to do there either," he said. 

Though rates in Steinbach have been slowly climbing, as of Tuesday, just under 51 per cent of people in the health district had received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 73 per cent provincially. 

In neighbouring Hanover, only 37.1 per cent of people have been vaccinated. 

Despite the vitriol, Penner says he's going to continue to encourage people to get their shot. 

In the pile of hateful emails, he says he got one from a nurse thanking him for putting himself out there. 

"So that email, that was enough affirmation for me to do this."

With files from Cory Funk

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