Churches Tweak Tradition to Oblige Allergy Sufferers

COLUMBIA, Md. — The Rev. Bill Miller-Zurell was recently presiding over 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,” Miller-Zurell said. “His mom, who was standing behind him, made him. And he only took it after I assured him that there were no nuts.”

With more people realizing that things such as nuts and wheat and even certain pungent scents can make them sick, religious organizations are reconsidering time-honored traditions.

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

“I’ve just been amazed – there’s more and more and more,” said Miller-Zurell, who leads New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia. “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. 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, said that as more people are diagnosed with allergies, clergy must bend to meet their needs.

“The invitation to the Lord’s table is for everyone,” she said she likes to tell people, “even those with food allergies.”

Just a few years ago, national media attention turned to the Roman Catholic Church after two 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 and the other in New Jersey, would not consider using soy or rice wafers, insisting that only the traditional wheat host was legitimate.

Then Benedictine nuns in Missouri developed a wheat wafer with only trace levels of gluten – a wafer that’s passed muster with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and those with celiac disease.

When Bruce Watson told the leaders at Baltimore’s Cathedral of the Incarnation, which is Episcopalian, 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 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 the Rev. Jan Hamill, canon for Christian formation at the Watsons’ Episcopal church.

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; the heavy scents can cause people with perfume allergies to sneeze, itch or experience trouble breathing.

At Religious Supply Center in Davenport, Iowa, owner Mark Gould said he has noticed more requests from pastors for less-potent incense.

“We actually get calls where they ask for smokeless incense,” he said, “which is kind of a funny one, if you think about it, because it doesn’t exist. We do, however, have something where you can still visualize the smoke but it’s not – and I don’t know if ‘offensive’ is the word – it’s not as strong a smell.”

some alternatives

Some churches are offering Communion wafers made with rice or soy, or even using hypoallergenic incense, so parishioners with allergies can participate in services without the threat of allergic reaction.

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