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People with Chemical Sensitivities Speak Out on Communal Worship

In its April and May issues, the Chemical Injury Information Network's newsletter, "Our Toxic Times," invited readers to respond to the following questions:

  1. Are you able to worship God communally? (For example, in a church; together with a minister or friend; via telephone or internet?) If so, tell us what you do.
  2. What accessibility problems have you encountered at your place of worship? Were you able to resolve them? If so, how?

Here's what they had to say!

 

"No church or parish hall or classroom has been accessible to me for the last seventeen years. All of the pesticides, cleaning products, molds, perfumes, new construction/renovation materials, and so on form the invisible chemical barrier that has allowed me to'see' that the place of worship is no longer the building, but rather one's own heart."

 

"I used to attend a local Episcopal church, not only Sundays but also weekdays, and even after I could no longer do so, I still received the parish newsletter. A while back I noticed a request for submissions to the newsletter, so I contacted the editor and we agreed that I'd write an article on one of my favorite passages, 2 Cr 12:7-10—you know, the one about the thorn in the flesh, and God's grace being sufficient...

"I wrote the article and sent it to the editor. She really liked it, but the pastor, who has final say on all submissions, refused to allow it to be printed, not because it was theologically unsound,* but rather because I was not an attending member of the church. Yet, he made no effort to contact me to find out why I was not attending or to offer any kind of accessibility accommodation, which is really ironic because when he was appointed the Bishop told him that his 'number one job' was to increase both church membership and attendance."

 

"Although most of my worship is solitary, I do sometimes worship communally vicariously by watching The Hour of Power, The Gaither Gospel Hour, or the Daily Mass on TV, even taking part in communion sometimes, using water and rice cakes instead of wine and wafer/bread."

 

"I am a member of an e-mail chapel group for persons with MCS. We share Scripture, hymns and prayers, and contribute reflections, poetry and puzzles as we are able.

"Before I got really ill with MCS, I coordinated a Christian Health Support group, first in my home, and later in a local church. We shared experiences, prayed and sang hymns."

 

"I used to be a Sunday school teacher, a certified Lay Speaker, and an organist in at our United Methodist church. Now that I'm no longer able to teach, preach, or play the organ because of chemical-induced brain fog, I feel like a spectator instead of a participant at our worship services."

 

"Unable to attend church, I have sought other ways to meet my worship needs. Over ten years ago I asked an MCS friend if she would like to share the elements with me. Since then, we've spent the first Sunday morning of each month in worship together by phone (she lives in another state). We sing a few worship choruses, take Communion and pray (both for our own needs and those of others), and then sing a few more hymns. We've come to cherish this time together and would not want to be without it."  

 

"For many years now, Pastor Bill McConkey from Sutter Evangelical Presbyterian Church in St. Louis has been sending me letters of encouragement and tapes of his church's worship services. He also sends the church bulletin so that I can follow each service and sing the choruses and hymns. Then three years ago he invited me to join the church. Each week I received materials from the New Member Class to study and fill out. The class that year happened to be all teenagers who would sometimes call during their Friday evening meetings and talked to me individually. I sent a taped message which was played on the Sunday new members were received into the church. Three members, two ministers and the organist stood in place for me."

 

"I think the main reason why churches are not meeting the needs of those with MCS is that they don't know we exist—'out of sight, out of mind.' And if they do know we exist, they seem unwilling to accommodate us because they don't know what to do. So, it's up to us. We have to promote awareness of MCS, and grace-fully educate our faith communities as what they can do to help us."

 

"For many of us, churches present a great challenge because of the pesticide residues, high VOC cleaning product residues, high VOC candle smoke, perfumed anointing oils and incense, gas heat and poor ventilation in cold weather, and of course, the fragranced worshipers.

"And this list does not even begin to include all the VOC's emitted by new building materials in the newer churches."

 

"Both of us having MCS, we are no longer able to worship in a conventional setting. We have no church, no faith community, no pastor whom we can call for spiritual guidance, and no one ever thinks to bring us Communion. We do have each other, however, and any other like-minded persons who cannot worship in the time-honored fashion.  We have developed a routine of daily devotions, and if another MCS friend happens to be in the area or on the phone we invite them to join us in our daily "liturgy." 

 

"One time when I was too ill to attend my church I phoned my pastor and asked if someone could bring Communion to my home. A few days later, a woman deacon arrived, dressed fit-to-kill (literally) in brand new, strongly off-gassing leather—coat, boots, and handbag. 'Christmas presents,' she proudly told me. Needless to say, I had to ask her to leave as quickly as possible. I never heard from her again."

 

"No communal worship for over fifteen years. I tried many times and even different denominations, to have the hand of fellowship extended to me, but found no church that had the fortitude or the resources of people required for any long-term spiritual care, be it in the form of home visits, bible study, pastoral care, or even making a phone friend. The attitude I encountered most often was 'It's psychological, so let's get her spiritually healed! Then when their well-meant attempts failed I would be left alone, feeling abandoned, rejected, and angry all over again."

 

"My family, husband and three sons, has become my worship community. We pray the rosary together every day, and walk the Stations of the Cross every Friday. We set up pictures of the fourteen Stations around the living room, and then proceed from one to the next with one person holding the crucifix. We stop at each Station picture, pray and reflect just as one does at church."

 

"I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and the Kingdom Hall where I have worshiped for many years has a direct phone hook-up for people who are too ill to attend Meetings so that we can listen in to what's going on and even ask questions or offer our comments if we want to. In addition, we get typewritten copies of the Meeting, phone calls and home visits from members, and even Communion if we wish it. And, what's really great is that the phone system is set up so that not only can we participate in the worship Meeting, but we homebound folks can also talk to one another—we're like a little sub-community of the larger community!"

 

Sometimes the faith community's leaders are willing, but the
members resist—

"Aware that some members of his flock are chemically sensitive, the rabbi of a small synagogue in Santa Rosa, California, has designated the Friday evening worship service as 'fragrance-free'. A Jewish friend who also has MCS heard about this special service and invited me to go there with her one Friday. This I did, and, what an interesting experience it was! Just as the service was to begin, a heavily perfumed woman walked in. Within a few minutes, one by one, the chemically sensitive folks left the building, Concerned, the rabbi stopped praying to 'follow his sheep' outside. Curious as to what was going on, the rest of congregation followed the rabbi. When all were outside and the cause of the problem was established, the rabbi politely asked the scented woman to leave. Perhaps embarrassed, she reacted very badly and left in a huff. Because the inside of the synagogue was now too smelly for us to tolerate, the rabbi held the rest of the service outside. Taking his cue from the evening's events he gave a rousing sermon on the importance of hospitality in Jewish Tradition, and the ethics of wearing fragranced products in public places."

 

"Last August, Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle, Washington, created a "fragrance free" seating area in the church's south transept for the 7:30, 9:00 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday Masses. It's a dream come true. Now I no longer EXPECT to get sick from going to Mass, and don't have to stand by the door in case I need to duck outside for a breath of fresh air."**

 

And, good news for at least some of those among us who cannot
tolerate wheat gluten—

"The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri have after much experimentation developed a "true low-gluten" altar bread that is both Vatican approved and tolerated by some gluten-sensitive individuals. Made of additive-free unleavened wheat and water, the bread's total gluten content is only 0.01%."***

 

"My thought about community is that persons with MCS form a community of their own, a special form of community that provides solidarity in suffering and hope, as well as prophetic witness to the world.  Another thought that comes to mind is that the MCS experience provides an opportunity for the rest of the faith community to examine how welcoming and inclusive it is. I don't mean to blame the "healthy" people for being bad, but to invite them to something more."

 

"I am really the 'wrong' person to have MCS, as I love corporate worship and the liturgy of the solemn mass.  However I am hopeful that churches can make great strides in accommodating us with very little expense or inconvenience if they are willing to listen to us.

"For example, votive candles are a problem because many churches like a live flame, and I know of no commercial votive candles safe for our use. The church candle manufacturers that I have investigated use fire retardant in the wicks of 100% beeswax candles, and this makes them even more toxic than paraffin candles. 

"100% soy votive candles with 100% cotton wicks may be available, but I haven't found any yet. The healthiest churches use only imitation candles which burn UltraPure lamp oil. Although labeled as 'paraffin oil,' it has been refined so as to remove toxic compounds."

 

"For twenty-three years now I've worshipped at a one-hundred-twenty-eight year old traditionalist Anglican Catholic church in downtown Washington, D.C. Fortunately for me, attendance is so low that on most Sundays, I can find a seat away from scented people, although from time to time I have had to move once or twice at the beginning of a service. Enjoy our worshipful website.

"The fact that the nave is 6 stories high means that candle fumes in the front of the church rise to the ceiling before they waft to the rear. Although we use incense at solemn mass weekly, it is a completely natural frankincense and myrrh mixture, which I can tolerate.  And, no dangerous pesticides have ever been used there as the managers have good sense. Perhaps other chemically sensitive suburbanites may find that a big, empty old downtown parish or pro-cathedral can become a beautiful and tolerable worship community for them."

 

"I have been unable to participate in regular church worship services for years now due to the overwhelming profusion of perfumes as well as the effects of new construction materials in church buildings. However, I have been particularly blessed to have found two groups willing to accommodate my needs, willing to not use anything toxic to me in order for me to participate. In one group, I assisted the leader in instructing a Disciple Course in a small church hall. In the other, a course on Christian beliefs, six of us agreed to take turns meeting in our homes These were wonderful examples of Christian fellowship at its best, for which I am most grateful."

 

"On rare occasions, I can attend, but even then only with use of a mask and oxygen, and by sitting in an area of the church, for example, the narthex, that is unpopulated.  The risks always have to be weighed, and only for special services and family events such as weddings, funerals or christenings am I willing to subject myself to the almost certain dangers."

 

"One of our biggest challenges is to educate the other members of the congregation. They don't comprehend the needs of a person who has MCS and fail to see the broader picture—it would be funny if it weren't so awful for us!

"For example, people may tell us that they haven't put on any perfume, thinking they have done us a big favor. But what they don't understand is that if they used perfume the last time they wore the clothes they're wearing now, the fragrance is still clinging to them.  Or, their clothing may have absorbed fragrances from hanging in a closet along with other clothing that contains perfume.  Or, that their entire home and wardrobe are permeated with the scents of the products that they use regularly.  Or, that their shampoo, hairspray, lotions, even laundry detergent, give off fragrance, and so on....

"They just do not 'get it!'  In fact sometimes when someone makes an attempt to accommodate the needs of the person with MCS, they choose an alternative that is even more hazardous. One time shortly before Easter, a woman told me that in consideration of my sensitivities, she had confined the pollen of the Easter lilies by spraying them with hairspray!!!"

 

"When I get exposed to fragrances or chemicals, it makes me ill for three or four days afterwards so that I can't function the way I need to. If the effects of the exposures at my church lasted for a shorter period of time, (perhaps the remainder of that day or extending only into the following day), I would try to tough it out in order to be able to experience the worship service.  But since I don't have anyone to help me when I'm non-functional, I just can't."

 

"In February 2004, Calvary Chapel Eastside in Bellevue, Washington, helped bridge the gap between the church and the MCS community by opening its doors to the Aroma of Christ MCS Ministry. A room next to the main auditorium has been set aside to be a "Fragrance Free Zone," and only those who abide by a strict fragrance free policy are allowed to enter. People who sit in this room can view the service through glass panels and/or a TV monitor without being exposed to the fragrances in the main auditorium. Having a room like this available has allowed people who haven't been able to attend church in years, once again feel connected to the Body of Christ."****

 

Some encouraging news from Canada—

"For seven years now, thanks to the pastor who just happens to my husband, Cumberland United Church on British Columbia's Vancouver Island has been designated a 'fragrance free building.' We have a framed statement that people see as they enter; we place a reminder in each worship bulletin; our newspaper ad includes, 'Out of compassion for others, please come fragrance free;' and, we ask any groups using the church to honor our fragrance free policy.  

"Not long ago, my husband met with a couple planning their wedding who told him they were requesting right on their invitations that those attending refrain from wearing scented products. The obituary for the recently deceased mother of Cumberland's mayor ended with the following words: 'In consideration of others, please remember that Cumberland United church is a fragrance free area' And, over the past year, two other churches on Vancouver Island have followed our lead and become fragrance free buildings.

"Meanwhile at the other end of the country, St. Philip's Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ontario, has responded to the requests of its chemically sensitive members by embarking on a full-scale program designed to not only declare the building 'fragrance-free,' but also educate parishioners as to the dangers of using potentially toxic chemicals and the wide range of safer alternatives available."

 

And finally, this reply probably sums up how many if not all of us
feel—

"It is my opinion that God deserves that we make our churches a clean and holy place where the spirit may soar without being dumbfounded by petrochemical residues.  All of the products which pollute our churches are modern substitutes for the natural products which the church used until the rise of the petrochemical industry in the 19th century." 

Endnotes

*On the contrary, according to the editor, the pastor commented that "this fellow should be teaching our adult Bible Class!"

**For details see Parishioners breathe easier in Seattle church's 'fragrance-free' zone, Catholic News Service, or Dominican Fathers: Blessed Sacrament Church

***For more information, contact the Sisters at (800) 223-2772 or altarbreads @ benedictinesisters.org

****For information: Calvary Chapel Eastside, Aroma of Christ MCS Ministry

*****The sign posted at the door says:

"We Are A Fragrance Free Community, caring about the health of 1 in 4 British Columbians with respiratory problems and 1 in 3 people with chemical sensitivities.

Please do not enter wearing perfumes, aftershaves, or other scented products that might affect the health of those who come to worship.  We appreciate your compassion.

'Whatever you did for one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me'  Matthew 25:40."

And here is the wording used in the bulletin:

"Please be considerate of all those who are sensitive to fragrances and abstain on Sunday mornings from perfumes, aftershaves, etc.  Thank you for your thoughtfulness."

See also Whispers in the Wind

For more information contact access @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.

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