Allergies lead churches to new practices

January 06, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

The Rev. Bill Miller-Zurell was recently presiding at Communion, moving from congregant to congregant, offering the body, offering the blood, until he got to a little boy who, seeing the piece of bread, stopped the pastor short.

"He asked me if there were any nuts in it," said Miller-Zurell, who leads New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia. "His mom, who was standing behind him, made him. And he only took it after I assured him that there were no nuts."

In an increasingly susceptible world, where more and more people are realizing that things like nuts and wheat and even certain pungent scents can make them quite sick, religious organizations are reconsidering the most time-honored of traditions.

Communion wafers are now available in rice and soy. Religious supply stores are offering hypo-allergenic incense. Churches are banning cologne and cutting way back on Easter lilies. Fresh pine boughs for the holidays are often out. A group of nuns in Missouri have invented a host with only a trace of wheat so that the gluten-sensitive could digest it.

"I've just been amazed - there's more and more and more," Miller-Zurrell said. "I suspect it's an increase in allergies, and certainly an awareness on my part."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 8 percent of children suffer from a food allergy. And every year, the organization reports, allergic reactions are responsible for 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths.

The Rev. Sue Montgomery, a Pennsylvania pastor who works on a national level to help the Presbyterian Church become more accessible for disabled parishioners, insists that as more people get diagnoses of allergies, the clergy must bend to meet their needs. "The invitation to the Lord's Table is for everyone," she likes to tell people, "even those with food allergies."

Montgomery says religious organizations must provide for worshipers with certain dietary needs, just as they build ramps for those in wheelchairs or offer Braille Bibles for the blind.

"We're moving toward seeing disabilities as diversity rather than an aberration or something abnormal that needs to be cured or fixed," she said. "The church is just beginning to wake up to that."

Just a few years ago, national media attention turned to the Roman Catholic Church after a couple of dioceses refused to offer First Communion to girls suffering from celiac disease - an inability to tolerate wheat. Under orders from the Vatican, the churches, one in Massachusetts, the other in New Jersey, would not consider using soy or rice wafers, insisting that only the traditional wheat host was legitimate.

The problem seemed solved when Benedictine nuns in Missouri developed a wheat wafer with only trace levels of gluten - a wafer that has passed muster with both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and those with celiac disease.

But even with the new wafer, Catholics with food allergies still feel somewhat ostracized, according to Chris Spreitzer, who founded the Catholic Celiac Society.

The New York woman, whose husband and three daughters have celiac disease, said during a holiday service in Orange County, Calif., last month, the priest stopped the ceremony to reprimand her husband and the girls for joining the line for wine without having taken the bread.

"My husband had to stand there and explain," she said. The priest only relented when they explained that they had celiac. "It kind of made a small uproar. You don't want to always be the person standing out in the crowd and making a small scene."

Because Spreitzer has spent considerable time teaching her girls that no gluten is safe, she doesn't like the idea of a low-gluten wafer exception.

"I tried to teach them that no gluten is safe, and I have the church on the other hand saying you can have this wheat," she said. "We've chosen not to use them because it sends a mixed message to the children."

When Bruce Watson told the leaders at Baltimore's Cathedral of the Incarnation, which is Episcopal, that his daughter, Rosemary, will swell up and wheeze if she eats wheat, they had no problem allowing her to take a rice wafer for communion. The church, which notes the availability of the alternative wafers in its bulletin, has since discovered other parishioners with the same problem.

"We're trying to figure out what would make sense for her, to make sure she's fully included," said Jan Hamill, who is canon for Christian formation at the cathedral.

The Cathedral of the Incarnation has also all but eliminated incense from services - only bringing it out for major holidays. And then, she says, the sensitive worshipers know better than to sit anywhere near the center aisle.

In some churches, the institutional memory is scented with candles, oils and the heady aromas of frankincense and myrrh. But they're having to make changes because the heavy scents can cause people with perfume allergies to sneeze, itch and even experience trouble breathing.

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