When living with Celiac Disease, food allergies or other food intolerances, social situations can be difficult. This includes worship. When our faith and food allergies collide, what can church leaders do to help?
Sanctuary & Belonging
When you have Celiac Disease or a food allergy, navigating life can be stressful. We’re always second guessing, asking questions, and the day to day can feel like a burden. We are grateful when we find a place of refuge.
But sometimes church feels less like a sanctuary when your faith and food allergies collide. Sometimes our local church sanctuary feels nothing like a place of rest for those who are weary. It has been said that food unites us, brings our communities together. But when you have a food allergy or intolerance, more often it makes you feel like an outsider.
Sometimes it makes me feel like an outsider.
Deep down we know it’s often unintentional. When you don’t live with food sensitivities, you don’t see the way it can become a stumbling block to someone’s faith walk. Below are four key areas that are a hindrance with faith and food allergies . Maybe they impact you as well. Hopefully with a little conversation, we can open the eyes and ears of others and make it possible for all to come to the table.
To this day, I am still moved by a friend’s story. She was newly diagnosed with Celiac Disease, learning how to navigate life. Upon going to church, she realized that her disease kept her from communion. She recounted how she sat in the pew and wept deeply. An illness, not of her own doing, kept her from participating with others with whom she identified.
It makes me think of the lepers in the Old Testament, separated from their community, unable to worship God with others because of their disease. When communion is no longer available to me or those I care about because of food allergies, I want to stand and shout, “We are not lepers!” Please don’t exclude us.
I’m very blessed that my church offers gluten-free and allergen-friendly communion for all believers. When we first started attending our church, I would bring my own cracker and partake it on my own. But I still felt like an outsider, as I wasn’t really partaking with everyone else. Once I sat down with my pastor and explained how my faith and food allergies were causing a disconnect, we were able to create a solution together.
There are many ways churches can help others to worship safely through communion. Some may offer allergen-friendly communion stations. While the Catholic Church believe the host must contain wheat, they offer a low-gluten host, made from pre-gelatinized wheat starch that tests below 20 ppm of gluten. No matter our denomination, we can arrange for food-allergy safe communion practices.
“Let the little children come unto me,” Jesus says. It is so vital that churches offer a safe place for children with food allergies. If they don’t, it harms not just the child, but the whole family.
My friend’s son has Celiac Disease and is allergic to nuts. Her family had been active in their church for a long time. She took her child to Vacation Bible School, assured that they would be attentive of his food allergy needs. Imagine the mother’s horrific shock to see snack time involved Honey Nut Cheerios, peanut butter M&M’s and trail mix.
The mother was so shaken, she and her children left the venue immediately. The church didn’t handle the follow-up well, and the family didn’t attend church for months. If this can happen to someone who has been attending a church for years, my concerns are raised for food-allergy families attending a place of worship for the first time.
FARE, the Food allergy and Research and Education network, states that 8% of children have a food allergy. That breaks down to 1 in 13 children. Peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and fish are allergens that most commonly cause anaphylaxis, which can cause a person to stop breathing and lead to death.
Because of this, it might be wise to simply not serve snacks that contain these allergens. Craft supplies must also be evaluated, especially as very young children tend to put things in their mouth. I’ve been told by church groups that they’ll worry about food allergies when they finally have a food-allergic child come to their class. By then, it may be too late.
I live in a poverty stricken community. Our congregation has seen this need and started to offer community meals through our after-school program called Intersection. It is such a joy to work with these kids, to feel their joy when an adult cares about them. By offering family meals, we’re now connecting with their parents and building relationships.
But sometimes it’s hard for me to do that. Most weeks the meal is not safe for someone with Celiac Disease to eat. I again feel like an outsider. Sometimes it’s mentioned “At least there’s salad.” Once I had a community member try to joke with me, asking if the church food wasn’t good enough for me, because I brought my own meal. It stung. I should have been able to shrug it off. I’m an adult, but these issues are sometimes still hard to handle.
While it is impossible to anticipate every food allergy, steps can be taken to make the practice of faith and food allergies a little easier. The first is education. Learn about which food allergies are common and learn how to substitute ingredients. Having ingredient lists next to prepared foods alleviates the anxiety of asking someone how something was prepared. Making simple dishes with minimal ingredients may allow more to eat a dish. While simple chicken, potatoes and green beans may not be fancy, it will go a long way towards feeding those who are are hungry.
Faith and food allergies collide most notably at potlucks. If you have a food-allergy, going to a potluck can be enough to induce a panic attack. Truth be told, most people I know with allergies avoid them all together. I will usually attend, but I will bring a main dish that I can eat and usually a side as well. We bring our own serving utensils and label our spoons and dishes gluten-free.
My husband is usually great in insisting that I get towards the front of the line, not because I’m “special” but because there is less chance of crumb-dropping or spoon-swapping. I am also blessed with a friend and fellow worshiper who takes my Celiac Disease to heart and makes gluten-free dishes that I can eat. To me, that is the greatest example of what being Christ-like is all about.
Inevitably, there’s always a dish that “looks safe” to me, but without knowing for sure I will pass. A simple solution for this would be to ask all people to bring a copy of their recipe and lay it next to their dish. This allows those with allergies to verify a dish is free of allergens. It can also help to build relationship, as people ask for copies of recipes and cooking practices.
Discussing Our Concerns Allows Others to Come to the Table
Life is more than food and drink, and there are times when we train ourselves to enjoy those who are present instead of focusing on the food in front of us. For me personally, it can feel like I’m being a bit of a nag if I bring up my food allergies. After all, I’m only one person, and why should others go to the trouble to meet my needs? My anxieties of how others will react also play a role. Maybe they think I’m being to picky or asking too much.
Then my heart breaks to think that other food allergy families feel the same anxiety. I’ve come to realize that by voicing my concerns about the difficulties between faith and food allergies, I may be straightening the path for those who are to come. Maybe through bringing about awareness, I’ll be safeguarding a child from anaphylaxis or a visitor from feeling alienated. After all, aren’t we to be like our Heavenly Father, who defends those without representation, loves the foreigner, and supplies for their needs? With a little intentional planning, we can make our communal table welcoming and open to all with food allergies and intolerances.
**Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease, and not an allergy, but the food safety practices are the same for those withfood allergies. To show the universal issues involving us, the word food allergy is used throughout this article. **
What have been your experiences with worship and church? Does your church accommodate your needs? Have you felt the need to leave a church due to their lack of understanding? Please feel free to share your experiences, below.