I’ve identified with Mary and Joseph in a variety of ways throughout the years. Four times in my life I moved during the Christmas season, and in one late December I gave birth to a ten pound baby. (I was GREAT with child.) More recently, the part of the nativity story that resonates most deeply with me is the fact that the couple were shut out of their desired place of rest. Luke 2:7 tells us that “there was no place for them.” (ESV)
There was no place for them. There doesn’t appear to be a place for me, either, or for others like me, who suffer with chemical illness. Where do we shop? How do we access medical care? How can we be part of a church community? We knock on doors and are turned away again and again.
Earlier this year, an online friend put together a survey about church experiences. Although it was open to anyone, it was widely circulated among people with chemical sensitivities, and many of the responses reflect that. Of the people who said it was difficult for them to attend church, 78% mentioned fragrance and chemical exposures as significant barriers. Many people also mentioned mold, and some mentioned electromagnetic fields. There’s plenty to say about the survey, but I think I’ll just let people speak for themselves.
Encouragingly, the news wasn’t all bad. There were a few notable and hopeful success stories. Respondents said this about their churches:
They avoid cleaning the room where our low fragrance Bible study meets on our meeting day.
They made a section designated for people who are sensitive to fragrances. Although, it did not work for everyone since people have different levels of sensitivity.
They have posted a notice in the bulletin.
The congregation uses fragrance-free soaps and cleaning products. So glad I can attend. Had to quit for three years when our former church was too perfumy.
My favorite two responses, by far, were these:
We are made to feel welcome and treated like all the other members. We know we are very blessed to attend such a kind and caring church! Our church board wanted to know about our chemical sensitivities and asked what they could do to help us be able to attend. Then they did it!
Our church, though poor, renovated the building to provide a safe room with MCS safe materials and filtration that will allow any MCS folk to attend.
As hopeful as those responses are, they don’t reflect the experience of the majority of respondents. The person who shared one of the success stories added this:
P. S. Our former church did NOT treat us with respect. They always treated us like we were a bother and sprayed the church with pesticide behind our back. (Of course, our bodies knew.) This church cared more about its "public image" than it did the health of its members.
Here’s a sampling of typical experiences.
I have requested a roped off area where it would be a perfume free zone. The pastor promised to look into it, but after that wouldn't return my calls.
I asked for help several times, and got poor response.
I was brought communion twice, but since then nothing.
They don't return my emails or phone calls. Nobody ever called to see why we stopped coming or offered to visit me at home either.
The church as an entity has been rather unaccommodating, refusing to change cleaning products or ask members to forego fragrance for services.
They put me on a prayer list in the bulletin. Then after learning of my details, they forgot me.
A few people pray for me when asked. I have no access to fellowship or bible study of any kind.
Since I got sick and cannot attend we cannot get them to return emails or phone calls.
The church for a while had "fragrance free" labels for the first two rows. They didn't continue it for long.
Virtually no access is provided to me from any local churches.
Many people mentioned how involved they had once been.
The isolation after being a very active volunteer is bizarre. To think I once participated in volunteer services 4-6 days a week, tithed 10% and promised 10% for church development costs, to be forgotten. My children question my faith. The church never hesitated to ask for my service but once I became disabled, I'm out. I will continue to remind my kids that the Lord has not forgotten me. That he is not the church.
Others mentioned how much they would still like to be involved.
My best fellowship in the past has been in home Bible studies, meeting in someone else's relatively low toxic home. In the past I have taught those, and I really miss that now. But how am I supposed to find other women who need a fragrance free Bible study/prayer group when neither they nor I can come to church?
Anger and hurt came through in many of the responses.
I have never come to terms with not being able to attend church or the total lack of understanding or concern. I was taught you should never do anything that would prevent someone else from coming to church and I feel that wearing fragrance falls into this category.
I'm disheartened that the only thing keeping me out of church are the fragrances of people and cleaners. There are so many fragrance-free cleaners and soaps on the market. And I don't understand why people can't leave off their scents just one day a week so another believer could have access to church. It seems so selfish and uncaring that folks would rather keep me from church than to give up fragrance for three hours a week.
There is a huge population group that is unchurched simply because the people in the church deem their right to wear perfume/cologne more important than for others to be able to fellowship. It's very sad how selfish the church can be.
I'd like my beloved (now former) church board to encourage listening and learning about things they don't understand rather than dismissing them as "unbelievable" or "made up." Chemical injury is real. And it's not that rare.
Sometimes people just give up.
We know we're a challenge so generally we just disappear.
I am no longer interested in church.
Others still long to be part of a church and long to see churches take leadership on toxicity issues. Here’s what people have to say:
[We] desperately want church access and fellowship.
Fragrance and cleaning chemicals are everywhere. There must be a better way.
The church could do a wonderful service by educating their members.
I would ask that churches all over the world would educate members about chemical sensitivities so that people with MCS could attend without suffering consequences.
The MCS life is hard. We need support and Christian fellowship. Please hear us. Please see us. Please make a place for us.