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“Church Homelessness” — A Rising Epidemic

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.Matthew 25:23

Through no fault of their own, a rising number of people are no longer able to attend church functions due to unique barriers.
Thousands of people across the country who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), fibromyalgia, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic health conditions find themselves shut out of churches because of chemical exposures that make them ill. These people may react adversely to the chemicals found in scented products used by other church members, toxic cleaning products, pesticides, mold, and building materials used in the remodeling of church facilities. Symptoms people experience may include migraines, seizures, disorientation, asthma attacks, joint pain, and rashes.

I know it is not God’s perfect plan for members of the body of Christ to be isolated, unable to be part of their local church. The apostle Paul makes it clear that each person is a valuable member of the body of Christ. I Corinthians 12:21-23 says,

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” My prayer is that many churches will start learning how to minister effectively to those who are chemically sensitive.

I receive e-mails from people around the country who are chemically sensitive that are desperate for fellowship. Many become very depressed and some even suicidal as their plight is often ignored. As I read their letters, I think of the faces of the Hurricane Katrina victims whose pleas for help were not quickly heeded. Here are a few of the notes I have received:

  • I’ve not been able to attend church services since 1992. I am virtually ignored by my church. I’ve been trying to get them to acknowledge that I exist. I’m going to meet with the pastor. I asked her to refrain from any scents, although I do expect to detect scent on her since she does use scented dryer scents–that stuff is impossible to get rid of unless you hang all your clothes outside.
  • I have suffered from asthma all my life and in the past 10 years have developed severe reactions to a lot of chemicals. I have not had much support from my church or the pastors. Perhaps they think I am a bit lulu as they all wear fragrances so I am unable to attend services at all now. And no one has ever asked how I am doing or offered to provide a safe fragrance/chemical free zone for me. I used to be so active in all areas of ministry (from teaching pre-school up to college courses, leading women’s groups, prayer groups) but that has had to cease too. I am told I need to let God heal me to which I reply, “YES, LORD”! But in the meantime I just try to stay well.
  • For ten years, I’ve been unable to leave the house for more than short excursions and not to church where everyone “dresses up” as smelly as possible. On Dec. 9th, 2005, I will reach my fourth anniversary of total incarceration. You have it exactly right…that MCS can be a tool for spiritual growth. I have done so and am reaping the benefits of a wonderful relationship with the Lord. But how sad that my church community couldn’t bother to use it for their growth. They choose to stay inside enjoying all the good things of life while ignoring those of us too disabled to pass through the gate. We are not burdens to the community, but gifts from God Himself.
  • This disease is very isolating which, I’m sure you know is about the worst kind of torture for a human. Having a safe church does much to ease the burden, but it requires help from the community. This was help I had great difficulty getting. I once asked my pastor to print a line in the bulletin requesting people use less perfume at Sunday services. I told him a friend of mine in another church had this done for her and it really helped. Most people don’t want to hurt us. They just don’t know they’re doing it. But he said he “couldn’t.” Never knew why not. I set up my own “fragrance free zone” in the cry room, leaving a $250 air filter in there set on low. If no one smelly was using the cry room for the service, I could attend but not receive communion unless someone who was “clean” brought it to me. I needed the filter left on, but the pastor kept turning it off because it “used electricity.” I checked with the manufacturer and they said it used about as much as a 25w bulb, pennies a month. He still turned it off on me. One Christmas, I spent the Sunday service outside the front doors, standing in the snow. These stories could go on and on.

How would Jesus respond to the chemically sensitive if He were on earth? Ignore them, shun them, or welcome them? As a church body, let’s take the needs of these precious children of God seriously, and do what we can to accommodate their unique needs. Isaiah 58:10 says, “and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

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