When the province wanted to reach out to the faith community in southern Manitoba about COVID-19 vaccinations, it needed someone from its ranks who not only grew up in the region but was a person of faith, as well.
It found the perfect candidate in Cordella Friesen.
Friesen, assistant deputy minister in the department of conservation and climate, was born in Altona and raised in Niverville, where she was a member of a Mennonite church.
A graduate of Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Sask., and Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, the 41-year-old has been a member of the Manitoba vaccine implementation task force for the past five months.
"When I heard the government wanted to do this outreach, I was immediately interested," said Friesen, who lives in Winnipeg. "I said I was willing to help."
Since starting in the role last month, Friesen has had three meetings with southern Manitoba Mennonite pastors, and also with leaders at Providence University College and Seminary in Otterburne.
"I see myself as a bridge between government and the faith community in southern Manitoba," she said of the meetings, which she described as "listening exercises."
So far, she has met with about 30 church leaders, including representatives of the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church Manitoba conferences, as well as a group of Mennonite pastors from various churches in Steinbach, with more to come.
“I see myself as a bridge between government and the faith community in southern Manitoba." — Cordella Friesen
In addition to being knowledgeable about southern Manitoba, Friesen, a member of Winnipeg’s Bethel Mennonite Church, also understands the differences between the various Mennonite groups.
"Mennonites, like the rest of southern Manitoba, are not homogenous," she said, noting its important to know who the various leaders are and how the different conferences organize themselves.
This includes understanding the congregational model favoured by Mennonites, where each church is autonomous and can make its own decisions.
"There is no one person who can get every church to go in one direction, so you have to have multiple conversations," she said. "Since I know how the conferences structure themselves, I could enter the conversations knowledgably and respectfully."
What Friesen heard during the meetings was the importance of utilizing trusted, local community leaders to make the case for vaccinations.
"There was a clear sense of respect for local leadership in the faith, political and economic areas," she said.
Another part of the message: opinions about vaccination vary not only from group to group, but within churches, too, and anti-vaccination sentiment is not widespread among churchgoers.
"There are pockets of hesitancy, for a variety of reasons, but, for the most part, people are supportive of getting vaccinated," she said.
The church leaders also indicated communication from the government could be clearer about issues such as herd immunity and public health orders.
“There is no one person who can get every church to go in one direction, so you have to have multiple conversations." — Cordella Friesen
"Questions were also raised about the role of the church during a pandemic," Friesen said, noting it isn’t something modern pastors have had to preach on before.
Pastors also shared ideas for encouraging more people to get vaccinated, such as enlisting support from physicians in their congregations to offer advice and information, along with helping members make vaccine bookings and driving them to the appointment, if needed.
One interesting and unexpected experience, Friesen said, are all the Mennonites in the provincial government who "are coming out of the woodwork" to offer advice and connections.
Beyond the pandemic, Friesen views the meetings as the start of conversation about future of faith, health and wellness, and how government and churches can work together.
"I love it," she said. "It’s a privilege to be able to use my role in government, my background in southern Manitoba and my faith in this way."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.