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Finding Compassion for the Unvaccinated

September 9, 2021

Healthy and in their 30s, Christina and Josh, parents of three, figured they were low-risk for COVID-19. With conflicting viewpoints about whether to get vaccinated filling their social media feeds and social circles, they decided to wait.  On July 20, Josh came home from work with a slight cough initially thought to be sinus trouble. On Aug. 11, he died of COVID-19.

“It’s just a fight out there. This side and that side, and political garbage. … You don’t know who to believe,” Christina said.  Now, their family members are getting their COVID-19 vaccinations, and she wants to share her husband’s story to help people — as Josh would have wanted.  “I have lots of feelings and lots of regret and lots of what ifs.  You don’t want to do that. You don’t.”[1]

We have all heard many stories like this.  Shortly after I read this narrative about a family in Alabama, another friend posted of a similar story in Texas.[2]  In that case, the father had been an active leader in his community’s anti-masking movement.  I have heard people express the sentiment, “It’s sad, but if this is what it takes to get those people to wake up and get vaccinated, then so be it.”  I know—because I have felt that sentiment myself.

“Those people.”  No phrase more clearly warns us of a dangerous lack of compassion.  As if we needed more flash points for polarization, vaccination status has emerged as our latest division into “them” and “us.”  I fear it is even more inflammatory than the flash points that preceded it, as deaths in the U.S. are now exceeding 1,500 a day for the first time since March, when vaccines were just becoming available.  The science is clear that our current health crisis is largely preventable, leading the governor of Alabama to proclaim, “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks.”[3]

There it is again: unvaccinated people and regular people.  Them and us.  And again, I have to own up to resonating with this sentiment on many occasions.  I want to do better, but it’s hard when you and the people you care for are suffering from the impact of this latest COVID surge.

This concern has come into sharper focus for me over the last few weeks, as I’ve been preparing myself to begin a second chaplaincy internship at the end of this month.  My supervisor just wrote:  “I cannot properly put into words the atmosphere you shall find.  Staffing is paper-thin, staff stress and weariness is high, and includes staff rage and cynicism due to most sick COVID patients being unvaccinated (including some outspoken anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers).  It shall be an extraordinary experience.”

May be an image of indoor and hospital
COVID overflow unit in a parking garage at University of Mississippi Medical Center

The plan for now is to keep chaplaincy interns out of COVID-positive patient rooms, but I still find myself visualizing encounters with COVID patients and their families.  In situations like the father of three that I described at the beginning, where confusion has now turned to regret, it’s hard to imagine myself not feeling compassion.  But what of the patients and families who remain defiant, if not belligerent?  How will I find my place of compassion with them?

Chaplaincy is the lens I am using to focus my own feelings on this topic, but everyone I know is struggling with this right now.  I have felt led to contemplate a statement attributed to Jesus on the cross—“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  But I have to restrain my condescending impulse to put myself on the side of Jesus, rather than include myself among those who “do not know what they are doing.”  Ignorance regarding science and medicine, compounded by misinformation, is a key factor in this crisis, but there are others:  a legacy of racism in U.S. health care; barriers in accessing vaccines among many low-income workers (e.g., farm laborers); and the pressure to conform to family, cultural, religious, and political norms.  Many who have chosen vaccination view their decisions as a simple matter of science and reason.  But the vaccinated, too, are strongly influenced by the norms of the company they keep, and many have the privileges of easy access to vaccines and never experiencing racism.  Neither group has a monopoly on intelligence or correctness.  When I listen to the story of Christina and Josh, I hear people trying to make sense out of the confusing information they received and the conflicting norms they perceived—and not knowing what to do.  What they did—remain unvaccinated—led to tragic death, but I don’t at all believe this was their intention.  I am angry at the forces that led to their inaction, but I still feel compassion for them.

What about those patients and families who remain defiant?  When I step back from my anger, I see it as a different verse of the same song— people trying to make sense out of what they hear and read, and the norms they feel pressure to conform to, and reaching a different conclusion than their caregivers.  I feel anger at them and at the forces leading to their defiance, but I still feel compassion for the situation they find themselves in—their worldview is colliding head-on with a reality that contradicts it.  Some of us respond to such collisions with brokenness and contrition, others respond with defiance.  Most of us have done both at different times.  My own experiences in this regard serve as a helpful call to humility.

Beyond the hospital walls, we encounter stories of people whose behavior we feel justified to condemn.  Friends and family members who still refuse vaccination despite mounting evidence of the risks, even deaths of loved ones.  An unvaccinated, unmasked California teacher who gave the coronavirus to half of her students in May.[4]  An unvaccinated worker at an Oregon assisted living facility who initiated a COVID-19 outbreak that infected 64 people in July, killing five thus far.[5]  Politicians, especially governors, who continue to fight mask mandates even as their citizens suffer and succumb in unprecedented numbers.  Charlatans who peddle fear and misinformation for profit.[6][7]  Do I really believe “they do not know what they are doing,” and thus are deserving of my compassion?

Returning to the statement of Jesus—“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”—I wondered who Jesus was including in the “they” whom he was forgiving?  Was it just the soldiers at his feet, or also the mob demanding his execution?  How about the religious leaders who incited the mob, or the Roman authorities who let the religious leaders have their way?  How about Caesar back in Rome, presiding over a government that systematically crucified anyone threatening its authority?

I researched this question and discovered—no surprise—that scholars have debated this verse at length. The consensus seems to be that the scope of this prayer includes all who had any involvement in Jesus’s death, for the simple reason that its radical forgiveness is so consistent with his teaching and moral example throughout the gospels.

I want to try to follow Jesus’s model of compassion, even toward those whose behavior I consider harmful—even, or especially, if it is someone I am close to.  I’m not laying down my opposition to the forces against vaccination, masking, and other science-based public health measures—far from it.  Jesus battled every day of his ministry against forces he believed were harming humankind.  Yet he did so without forgetting that we are all flawed humans, deserving of compassion even at our worst.

How will I do this?  I’m still working on that, but I don’t see it as optional.  I don’t want this issue to drive a wedge between me and people I love—something I see happening all around me.  And I don’t want to carry the burden of living with disdain for my fellow citizens, even if I am angry and frustrated with their actions.  They, too, are part of my community, and they, too, are suffering, even though I may see their wounds as self-inflicted.  We all know what it means to care for a loved one with self-inflicted wounds.

With the chaplain’s lens, I note that, unlike other caregivers, whose job is providing medical care—with compassion if possible—compassion is the care a chaplain provides to patients, families, and staff.  And compassion includes understanding and accepting that at times it may not be possible for someone to feel compassion for those who disagree with them on this issue.

For me, a central part of engaging others with compassion is finding common ground—those shared experiences and emotions that make our commonality as human beings feel larger than our differences.  It strikes me that, at this moment, for better or worse, fear is an important part of the common ground we all share.  I see fear within those who are resisting vaccination and masking:  fear of being harmed by the vaccine, fear of the disapproval of others close to them, fear of electoral retribution by “the base.”  Fear also permeates many caregivers and others promoting vaccination:  fear of contracting COVID, fear of further disruption to their lives by the pandemic, fear of losing loved ones.  I feel that fear, too.  But as I see it, a lot of the current strife boils down to one side trying to convince the other that their own fears are more valid than the other’s, and in my experience, that rarely works.

My goal is to offer a safe space for any person to share their fears—whether a friend or someone I visit as a chaplain—and to respond with love.  I need to do so while remembering that it’s not my work to fix anything, nor win any arguments, nor change any minds.  It is to listen compassionately, and to respond with love.  It is my hope that if I do that well, it can help diminish fear.

I discussed my work on finding compassion with a friend recently, and she asked, “Do you think you will get there? I don’t know if I could right now.”  I said I thought I did, but that it would take a lot of prayer and preparation.  My ability to offer compassion will surely be tested in the months to come, but my plan is to keep trying …








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  1. I felt deeply blessed to read this, Greg. Thank you for posting a link to it on the ESR Community Life Page. Thank you for the chaplaincy work you’re doing, and for the example you’re setting of compassion for both sides of our cultural divides. I wish all chaplains, seminarians, health care workers, public servants of all kinds, schoolteachers, parents — everyone in this country, in fact, could read this blog post and take it to heart.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments on my blog post, John. This felt like the work the Spirit was leading me to do in preparing to return to chaplaincy in this turbulent time, but I’m grateful that you felt it as a blessing to you. Wishing you much peace!

  2. It’s sometime hard to have compassion for non-vaxxed people, but i then remember that its ultimately a personal choice. I’m vaxxed but i cannot MAKE someone else get vaxxed

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