Dear Elders . . . A Letter about Accommodating

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This letter was sent by friends to the elders of their congregation on behalf of a friend and fellow member who has Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. All names have been changed to protect privacy, and it appears here by permission. Although it pertains to a congregation member who has Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, it is primarily about accommodations necessary to include someone with a disability in church life, and begs a question for all of us, "How well is your church listening to and responding to those among your congregation who have disabilities of any kind?"

To the Elder Board of First Church,

We are writing this letter in partnership with Dick and Jane Smit. Together with several others in the congregation, we have been seeking to support Jane as she navigates her disability. 

In 2012, Jane approached the existing Council with regards to her need for accommodations due to her Multiple Chemical Sensitivities disorder (MSC). She was hopeful that a scent-free policy would not only be adopted but also be actively promoted through the use of regular public announcements, well-placed signage, and leader and congregational support.  At the time, Jane was thankful for Council’s efforts to create a safe church, but since then there has clearly been some difficulty translating policy into education and action.  There has been one public announcement by leadership. The simple line in the bulletin is not enough to raise awareness of the seriousness of this concern for a fellow sister in Christ. The declaration on the website poses a risk when you consider that someone seeking a scent-free church would assume that First church is a safe place for them, but this is not the case. If this resulted in a serious reaction, how would the church respond? If First church is going to declare itself to be a Scent-Free Facility then it needs to act on that declaration.

It is very important to note that MCS is not an “allergy” and cannot be medically controlled. The only “treatment” is avoidance. We cannot emphasize enough the severity of Jane’s reactions.  Within minutes, her brain and nervous system are affected, causing reactions such as migraine, a dazed and overwhelmed state, temporary paralysis, and the inability to speak. Her “new normal” requires Jane to always be diligent, and alert for extenuating circumstances. However, she cannot control her reactions and the speed at which they happen, and is therefore dependant on others to provide a watchful eye and physical assistance.  Repeated exposure to scents, organic solvents or pesticides are considered to be part of the “vicious cycle” of MCS and can cause further permanent damage to an already injured system.  Jane’s increased limitations correlate directly with increased exposures.  Simply put, MCS is a recognized disability, not an allergy.

Obviously, to continue to experience exposure at the hands of fellow church members is very discouraging—surely the church should be at the forefront of efforts to minister to people with disabilities and not be creating obstacles for them.  Many churches today have successful disability policies and we believe First church can be as successful in addressing this particular need as it has been with other accommodations.

Accordingly, we would welcome the opportunity to talk with the elders (or anyone else!) about how best to move forward.  More specifically, here are some of our suggestions that we urge you to consider:

Educate yourselves, as leaders, on what a Scent-free Policy should mean and its importance to First church’s vision and mission of embracing all.

  • Invite Jane to speak to the Elder Board to share how this disability has impacted her life.
  • Invite the our classis’ Regional Disability Advocate to speak on this issue and provide information on how to effectively implement such a policy.
  • Approach other churches who have successfully implemented scent-free policies to gather feedback and support.

Embark on a program of education for the members of First church, to establish a safe church for those with MCS and other disabilities, highlighting its importance to First church’s vision and mission.

  • Adopt a scent-free policy:

-  Switch to non-toxic cleaners, soaps and products wherever possible

-  Place obvious signage throughout the church and bathrooms

-  Provide notices to inform group leaders, and those renting the facility

  • Explore with Jane and the ushers the advisability of establishing a certain area of the sanctuary that is absolutely scent-free as an added layer of protection for Jane.
  • Obtain a simple wheelchair for those times when any person needs to be assisted out of the sanctuary due to a health incident.
  • Ideally, appoint and support one of our members as a Disability Advocate.

We ask the elders to please engage with us on this issue. This will be a life-long struggle for Jane and her family, and they need the help of their church community. We hope that First church will strive to become a “sanctuary” for those with disabilities… inside our tribe, and out.

Peace and grace,
Harry and Susan Van Dyke
Julius and Linda Johnson
Harold and Anne Jones

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