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Covid Peacemaking for Latter-day Saint Families

Many Latter-day Saint congregations have experienced deep conflict over our varied perspectives on COVID-19. This presents a teaching opportunity for Latter-day Saint families; the healing of divides in our congregations begins in each of our homes.

The COVID pandemic has presented Latter-day Saint families with challenges that are unprecedented in this generation. With conflicting information in the news and on social media, church members are facing constant pressure to make decisions that affect our relationships in our families, wards, and even our relationship with the Church. COVID has shown us to ourselves, and some of what we are seeing is cause for concern: we are seeing just how easy it is to slip into patterns of contention, disunity, and murmuring. The bedrock decision for each Latter-day Saint family should be to seek peace and understanding, to respond to each other with charity, rather than reacting to our brothers and sisters with anger. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The choice to be peacemakers should be expressed and modeled in the home before we enter the doors of our church buildings.

What follows is a hypothetical exercise in family communication, with the aim of helping Latter-day Saint families to use the COVID pandemic as an opportunity to teach peacemaking in the home. The first half is a series of hypothetical questions from youth and answers from parents in a vaccine-hesitant home. The second half of questions and answers represents a family that embraces vaccine and mask guidance. Each set of answers attempts to represent how parents might answer in a way that invites empathy and understanding, rather than only stirring up anger. 

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Q: Mom, why aren’t we getting the vaccine?

A: For several reasons, but the main reason is that we just don’t trust the system that has produced them. In the U.S., the way we do health care has changed dramatically over the years. For instance, it used to be that we could go to a family doctor when we got sick, and going to the hospital was not something that would ruin a family financially. Yet over time, insurance and pharmaceutical companies have influenced the healthcare system to the point where it often does more damage to people than good. In fact, to call ours a “health care” system is not really accurate. Instead of facilitating actual healing and really addressing what is wrong, much of what the medical industry does is just “illness management,” throwing pills at people’s illnesses. We and other people we know have been really harmed by this system, so we try to participate in it as little as possible.

The choice to be peacemakers should be expressed and modeled in the home before we enter the doors of our church buildings.

We know a lot of good people in the medical system, but we also see outright dishonesty there. We saw this in the Spring of 2020 when we were being warned in the most severe language to lock down and avoid contact with others, but well-established medical professionals recommended totally different guidance for Black Lives Matter protests. Like, did they think it would be fine for those protesters to get COVID, but not the white people staying at home? It’s hard to trust a system that is blatantly dishonest.

Q: Why do other people seem to trust the system more than you do?

A: I can’t speak for other people, but maybe they just haven’t experienced some of the things we have experienced. I used to trust the medical system too until my cousin got sick a few years ago and saw how easily the system can ruin a family. I don’t fault anyone for making their own choices about the vaccine; there are a lot of good people who I love who are getting the vaccine, and that is a level of trust in the system that I just can’t say I have right now.

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Q: Dad, someone in Sunday School said that people who don’t get the vaccine aren’t following the prophet and that we’re putting everyone in danger. I didn’t know what to say.

A: I’m sorry they said that. I can see how they would feel that way, but we are really trying to follow the prophet. We have been counseled to do everything we can to reduce COVID in our area, so we are being careful and watching our health in order to make sure that if we get it, our bodies will be able to fight it off and achieve natural immunity. And if we get it, we will do everything we can to avoid spreading it.

If we do end up getting COVID, vaccinated people will not need to worry about us anyway, because they are vaccinated. We’re just trying to achieve the same effect in a natural way. Uncle Mike’s family all got COVID and recovered, so they have antibodies just like a vaccinated person. Why should they get vaccinated? 

Q: It makes me mad that they said that, though. And I hate wearing masks, but other people at church say it’s important.

A: I know, a lot of people feel it’s important. And it might help to reduce the chances of getting COVID to some extent. We try to avoid masking as much as possible because we think breathing normally is important. We also think that being able to see people’s facial expressions is important for communication. And there are a lot of people who need to be able to read lips as part of understanding what people are saying.

All that said, we do what we can to be good Christian neighbors—even if that sometimes means making a sacrifice to do something we’d usually prefer not to do. There’s a great passage in Romans 14 where the apostle Paul tells meat-eating church members that even though their meat-eating is okay, we should never do something that would cause someone to stumble. He tells them that if their meat-eating near another person would cause them to stumble in the faith, then they should have a vegetarian meal. So if my going unmasked to a church activity would cause another member to feel unsafe and they would avoid the activity as a result, the higher principle wins. Even if I don’t believe it’s all that helpful, I can still put on a mask, or maybe stay home so that my brother in Christ can benefit from the activity without being nervous around me.

Q: Yeah, but at some point doesn’t that person need to stop getting so freaked out about stuff? Do you always have to give way to other people’s fear?

A: No, but I share responsibility for my part in the situation. I can take responsibility to communicate with people in ways that let them know I am serious about not giving other people COVID. I can make an effort to put my brothers and sisters at ease.

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Q: Mom, how should I respond when people at church and school say negative things about our family’s choices?

A: The first thing to remember is that other people are not our moral compass.

Q: What does that mean?

A: It means that the way other people behave doesn’t determine how we behave. If other people can’t control their anger and frustration, that is their issue. We need to show the world something different. Christ said to be the salt of the earth, and that people will know we are His disciples by our love. The way the world is at each other’s throats over COVID and other issues, we have an opportunity in church to model a different way. If we can do that, it will be a miracle. 

The way the world is at each other’s throats over COVID and other issues, we have an opportunity in church to model a different way. If we can do that, it will be a miracle.

The world is in a reactive mindset—people just reacting to messages on the Internet, and reacting to other people’s behavior. To be the peacemakers that Christ wants us to be, we need to go to a deeper place than our quick, heated reactions to things. Those reactions are normal and natural, but being a peacemaker means recognizing that “normal” and “natural” are not the standard. We can take a deep breath and go to more generous and courageous places in our hearts, and really respond, instead of reacting. Those deeper, more generous, and courageous places in our hearts are where we hear Him.

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Q: Dad, I don’t get why people aren’t masked and vaccinated at church. Shouldn’t they obey what we have been told to do?

A: We always hope that people will obey guidance from our church leaders. But sometimes that can be a struggle. Most of us, at some point in life, find ourselves in the position of having received counsel that is really hard to accept. That’s a normal part of a life of faith. If you haven’t had that difficult experience yet, you probably will someday.

For our family, vaccination and masking are a no-brainer—and feel like an obvious good step. But I’ve also been in the situation where obeying guidance was a real test for me, so I know how much we all need grace as we work these things out.

Q: I sometimes wish church leaders would be tougher. Why don’t they make things required instead of encouraged

A: A big part of the test of our faithfulness is whether or not we are willing to follow counsel when it is in the form of steady, consistent prophetic encouragement. If we have to be commanded before we obey, then that is a sad indicator of our spiritual state.

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Q: Mom, in class today I heard a story about some bad side effects with someone’s vaccine. Why would church leaders tell us to do something that isn’t safe?

A: Church leaders are right—we still believe the vaccine is safe overall. When we say that a medical procedure is safe, we don’t mean that there are never complications or even deaths. Even really normal procedures like appendix removal can have dangerous complications.  But for many procedures, including these vaccines, most experts believe the risk is negligible compared to the danger of not doing the procedure. Most have concluded that the risk of long-term harm or death from COVID is greater than the risk of long-term harm or death from the vaccines. And we accept this conclusion—and believe vaccines continue to prove themselves effective at preventing long-term harm or death from COVID. It’s not fair to accuse church leaders of being ignorant or deceptive when by prevailing medical standards, they are correct.  Almost everyone who gets the vaccine is going to be just fine, and they will handle COVID infection way better than they would otherwise.

Q: Is there any good reason to not get the vaccine?

A: I can’t answer that for everyone, but I think people who are young and healthy, or people who have gotten COVID and handled it well, are in a different situation than people who are not healthy or have risk factors. For church members, I think there’s value in praying over this if they are worried about safety.

In this family, we do hard things. Let’s choose charity.

Q: Did you do that?

A: No—generally, when the First Presidency speaks repeatedly with a united voice, that’s my answer. As long as I am at peace in my own heart and mind, I don’t need anything more. But I also know what it’s like to not feel peace and to wrestle with prophetic guidance, so I have empathy for people who don’t feel the confidence I feel. I’ve been there, and I know how people in that space can benefit from the love and patience of other saints.

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Q: Dad, I’m sick of dealing with people who are making COVID go on and on. I want to get back to normal, and I feel like these people are being really selfish by not vaccinating and masking.

A: I understand. I get it. I really do. There are so many things I want us to do together that are on hold until we have a better COVID situation. I hate all these inconveniences and protocols. I hate masks.

But we have choices here. There are some things we can’t change, and the way COVID plays out over time is one of those. And there are some good analyses out there showing that even with all our data, we’re really bad at predicting what COVID is going to do, even in places where vaccination rates are high. So I think we should be really reluctant to accuse anyone of “making COVID go on and on.” We could all benefit from taking a step back and realizing that even with full vaccination, we would still have variants and breakthrough cases that make this impossible to control. “Herd immunity” was a really naïve fantasy in this pandemic.

So, no—we can’t control the pandemic or how others act. But what we can control is how we treat others. I think that what we are doing as a family is right, but the apostle Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 13 that being right is totally worthless if we don’t have charity. That means being long-suffering, and kind, and knowing that we always see others through a murky lens. Paul learned this by trying to help the early Christians, who were a community with a lot of conflict like we see among us.

The world is going to do whatever it’s going to do, and sometimes it’s hard to be different. But in this family, we do hard things. Let’s choose charity.

In closing. The kinds of conversations imagined here are conversations that take effort, and being a peacemaking family can cause us to feel different or even ostracized by people who are in a mindset of conflict. But the price is worth it.

I write as a fully vaccinated and masking Latter-day Saint, in a geographic area where not all church members have embraced this guidance. But recently we saw the blessings of peacemaking in our stake community Christmas concert. In response to COVID guidance we received, some members stayed away, thinking the guidance was too strict. Others stayed away thinking our guidance was too lenient. But many families gathered with members of our community in our building—despite harboring ongoing differences about these pandemic questions—and enjoyed a beautiful evening of music and togetherness centered in Christ. We consider it a miracle of peacemaking in the age of COVID.

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Some further reading:

https://maximumtruth.substack.com/p/deep-dive-covid-myths

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/30/opinion/coronavirus-polarization.html

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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