For those with allergies, some of the best things in church — like food and flowers — can be uncomfortable and even unhealthy.

Today, the Matriarchs offer their advice about allergies in the church.

Dear Matriarchs:

Our congregation is a very welcoming congregation. No, really. We have been open to, and affirming of, “all the people” for so many years that it’s as automatic as breathing.

And, speaking of breathing:  

Now we are wondering how inclusive we can practically be of people in our congregation who struggle with allergies. When the Christmas tree goes up in our small-ish sanctuary, a few people have asthma that can be triggered by evergreens. When the Easter flowers are placed, some are allergic to hyacinths and others are allergic to lilies. 

Perhaps not in the same category: A woman in our congregation is scent-averse and is always uncomfortable and vocal when she smells a hint of deodorant or perfume or cleaning scents.

And then there’s food! 

Communion bread: gluten free? egg free? peanut free? soy free?

Church pot luck dinners — a.k.a. “covered dish” or “carry in” dinners — can be a challenge for those allergic to eggs, shellfish, peanuts, or gluten as these ingredients might be hidden in the dish.

Help! What can we reasonably do to minimize exposure to things that can make people sick? Have any of your congregations made any changes in traditions or practices? Please share what has worked for you.

Allergies Everywhere

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Our Matriarchs offer some great suggestions:

Dear Allergies,

Thank you for your thoughtful question. I think this is an important issue because there are many people with different allergies. The answer to this question will be different for every congregation or ministry.

Within our congregation we have addressed allergy issues in several ways:

1) For our children and youth programs, parents fill out information forms and one of the questions is regarding their child’s allergies. With that information we buy food for the children and youth programs accordingly. 

2) Regarding Easter flowers and allergies, we have been purchasing less allergy-prone flowers and/or buying lilies with the pollen already removed

3) We have artificial trees and wreaths for Hanging of the Greens instead of live trees.

We have not had a request for gluten free bread for communion but we post an announcement in our bulletin for people to request gluten free if needed.

Blessings on your efforts to be welcoming for all. 

Rev. Kelley Wehmeyer Shin

Dear Welcoming Pastor-

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of listening to my father and his brother-in-law discuss the use of an inclusive language lectionary. (This was pre-NRSV.) After debating original languages and familiar translations, it finally came down to this comment by my dad, “We need to do this so that everyone feels cared about.”

It seems to me that although the situation is different, perhaps the logic is the same. In order to insure that everyone feels cared about, maybe it’s time to invest in a good quality artificial Christmas tree.  They’re fire retardant, allergen free and less likely to fall over.  If the Easter lilies are going to make some folks feel ill, why not choose fragrance free flowers? A few to consider:  tulips, anemones, poppies, ranunculus, calla lilies and amaryllis. Perfume and cleaning products are harder to control, but it can’t hurt to ask.

As to the bread question, I recently attended worship at a congregation that offered the following solution for indicating a gluten-free preference.  As you came forward there was a table with small 1 inch cubes in a dish.  If you wished to have gluten-free bread, you took a block and placed it on the communion rail so that the person sharing the bread would know your preference.

I know it isn’t possible to accommodate everyone’s needs, but if we can consider the possibilities of change within the framework of hospitality and care, maybe it won’t be as difficult as we imagine.  

Best wishes!

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath aka RevHRod

Allergies!!

So hard to deal with in the congregational context, because people’s allergies can be all over the place.   While the congregations I have served have kept fresh greens at Advent/Christmas in the sanctuary, and there are always Easter flowers (more tulips though, than anything), there are some things the places I have served to become more allergy-inclusive:

*At potlucks and bake sales, we ask people to label ingredients (Gluten Free, Dairy Free, tree nuts, shell fish, etc. )

*For Vacation Bible School snacks, I purchased all Gluten Free, nut-free snacks.

*In classrooms shared with the week-day school, we didn’t allow any food at all on Sundays. 

*Communion offers a gluten free choice.  We tried gluten free bread at one place, but that stuff just crumbles.  So does gluten free matzah, in case you are wondering. 

*One church I know of asks people to NOT wear perfume, after-shave, etc.  I think once people are sensitized, they are willing to accommodate.  Well, some, at least. 

I think the scent allergies are the hardest to work with, especially around the high holy days of Easter and Christmas (who doesn’t love a poinsettia, right?).  However, if there are people who just can’t handle these things, then I would bring that subject up with the Deacons (or the appropriate body in your context).   In one church I served, we decorated the sanctuary with balloons on Easter.  It’s a great alternative symbol for resurrection!   It’s also helpful if congregants let you know if they specific allergies that keep them away from worship or other functions.  That doesn’t always happen—some people don’t want to be a *bother*.    As a person of allergic reactions and faith, I know that I am ultimately the one responsible for keeping myself safe and not having to use the Epi-pen, but thoughtful awareness around me goes a long way, too—but the only way that will happen is if I let people know what is going on!

Hope this is helpful. 

Karla

@ www.revkarla.wordpress.com

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Thank you, Matriarchs, for your thoughtful and practical responses!

How about you, dear Revs? How have you responded to allergies in your congregation?  Let us know in the comments below.

Note: Please focus your comment on your congregation’s experience with, and responses to, allergies (etc.) &/or your own experience with navigating allergens in church life. Do not use this forum to question/criticize the legitimacy of any allergy or food sensitivity.

Questions! RevGal Matriarchs love questions!

Let us help you with a ministry dilemma that has popped up in your congregation. Send your question to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.

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7 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Allergy-Free Church?

  1. We have a child in our (small) congregation with gluten sensitivity. We now have two bowls of Communion wafers, one that contains gluten-free wafers and the other with “regular” wafers. In my invitation to the table, I mention the gluten free option (as well as the fact that we use unfermented grape juice, in case that is an issue for someone in recovery–we don’t use wine), and our Communion servers have the gluten-free bowl within easy reach if it is needed.

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  2. I am highly allergic to flowers and perfumes. Asthma is a pain to live with, but breathing isn’t optional. For flowers, we have moved to high quality silk flowers. It’s not just the pollen, btw, it’s the perfume/natural fragrance.

    We provide a gluten-free station (important since we use intinction!) That station is always nonalcoholic.

    For cleaning smells, the custodian cleans on Saturday afternoons which leaves time for cleanser odors to dissipate.

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    1. I was going to mention using silk flowers. It seems that either the fragrance or the pollen, or both, can be troublesome. Used to be that artificial flowers were almost universally tacky. That isn’t the case nowadays, so there’s no reason to avoid them, especially if you’ve got someone for whom church becomes impossible at certain times.

      (As a matter of fact, some time ago a very popular nurse at the local hospital died. The hospital staff ordered a gorgeous bouquet for the funeral. Afterward they took it back down to the florist and had her make precisely the same bouquet, out of silk flowers, and it is on display at the nurses’ station to this day.)

      We have a kid in our youth group who announced one day, as he came through the line on spaghetti-and-meatballs night, that he could not eat gluten. So I started picking up gluten-free alternatives and thinking through how to prepare them to avoid contamination. But he didn’t come back for several weeks. This past week when he was there, I had a gluten-free roll waiting for him, with his own pat of butter so he didn’t even have to use the communal butter dish on the table that might have crumbs of regular bread in it; but he said they had gone to a specialist at the bigger hospital not far from here and that doctor had said he didn’t have the sensitivity our local doctors had told him he had. But now I know that we can manage it, although I would guess a person with a more severe case–the sort where even a crumb of gluten can be deadly–might still need further accommodation. We can’t necessarily be ready for every possibility, but once we’re made aware of a need, it’s only right that we do what we can.

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  3. I have found a gluten free matzoh that doesn’t crumble and does actually taste good…it isn’t “suitable for passover” but it does work for communion. Next time I see it I’ll snap a photo and post the details. We also have a local (well…an hour away) bakery that makes gluten free bread that doesn’t crumble! Most of the time we have a gluten free station (with little cups even when we are doing intinction, to minimize any risk of cross-contamination), but a few times a year (Christmas, Maundy Thursday, the annual meeting, anytime we are worshipping around tables) we use all gluten free. I also, like others, announce that we use unfermented grape juice.

    I read somewhere a while ago about a recipe for communion bread free of the common allergens (gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy) but I never tried to make it–it required uncommon ingredients (obviously) and seemed too labor intensive for my little congregation. I’d love to be able to say we were out-of-the-way-uncommonly-hospitable, but that’s one step we just don’t have the energy or the gifts for, sadly.

    We’ve gone to artificial christmas trees (which look surprisingly good), and this year we got artificial poinsettias that look very realistic–so much so that someone asked why we had the christmas flowers already when they spotted them in the office the first week of November!

    A note on balloons: if you go that route, especially for a high holy day when there will likely be lots of visitors, get mylar. I know more than one person who has a latex allergy and has had trouble breathing in the sanctuary on days when we’ve used regular balloons.

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  4. Our member who has to eat gluten-free usually brings the bread for Communion, so we know it isn’t an issue – if the bread is not gluten-free, she just takes the wine (actually some disgusting non-alcoholic fluid that I find tastes really awful, making Communion a penance rather than a pleasure) and leaves the bread.

    We haven’t had any corporate meals since our last minister left, the present man not seeming to go in for them much; usually when we do, people who have specific needs (a lot of people don’t eat pork, and others are vegetarian) bring something they can eat, to be sure of having something! As I don’t tend to have such needs (but am very aware of gluten-free since two of my husband’s siblings have been diagnosed with coeliac), I do label what I am bringing, or tell people who I know need to know.

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  5. We offer gluten-free along with regular bread for communion, and have learned along the way that rice crackers, (unsalted, unflavored, no dairy) are the easiest thing to use. Also, we had new patens (communion plates) made for us, so that there is a separate but connected bowl for the gluten-free crackers, and the deacons have learned to keep the gluten-free side toward their bodies so that when the “regular” bread is taken it doesn’t get passed over the top of the gluten-free side of the plate. As for cup, we use grape juice, and have had no one ask for anything different.

    At all of our weekly social hours and other church suppers, we have enough folks with food allergies that there is always plenty of food in all categories.

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  6. I have horrible allergy issues myself. I feel blessed that my new congregation already used (very pretty, high quality) silk flowers for Christmas and Easter. We put notices in our newsletter to please not use perfumes and other smelly type things, and most people comply. For foods, I have asked for people to please label items with nuts, and that can be done for other items as well.
    I also know many people with severe allergies just won’t eat foods at pot-lucks and such. Asking people to label items isn’t horrible though.

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