This past Christmas Eve, I listened to the soft sounds of Ave Maria and Silent Night waft through candlelit pews. My father has sung in a church choir ever since I was a child, like his father before him, so from a young age, I was instilled with an appreciation for robed singers harmonizing centuries-old Latin hymns. I’m also a sucker for Christmas carols. 😉
As the communion bread was passed around among the pews, I thought about people who could not eat the bread—not because they weren’t baptized, but because they were allergic or intolerant.
Growing up, our family belonged to a small stone Episcopalian church on a grassy hill that could have been pulled out of the Scottish Highlands or a child’s storybook. At one point, we had a female priest, which was something of a rarity back then. Sermons routinely invoked global current affairs and the common values shared across religions, and everyone, regardless of creed, was welcome. We were a progressive church. The communion bread was also baked in the church kitchen and tasted heavenly. I’d walk up to the altar, cup my hands, and receive a hunk of doughy bread, which I’d dip into a chalice of wine. I can’t remember ever worrying about my food allergies during Sunday communion growing up. Plain bread as a kid was always considered safe. That has since changed.
Today, 1 in 13 kids has a food allergy, and millions more have a gluten intolerance. We live in a different world from a couple of decades back. The communion bread I ate growing up definitely contained wheat, although I never knew anyone that had a problem with gluten back then. These days, however, it seems as though at least one person at every dinner party is gluten-free. To accommodate, many churches now offer gluten-free bread with communion.
The rise of gluten-free products has been a double-edged sword for the nut-allergic like me: on the one hand, it has helped increase awareness and accommodations for those with food allergies and intolerances; on the other hand, nut substitutes (like almond flour) for wheat have become increasingly common.
Years ago, I admittedly thought the spike in gluten-free products was more fad than the result of a growing severe medical condition. That all changed when I spoke to a woman at a food allergy conference years back who relayed the harrowing experience of her young son and how their family discovered his gluten intolerance. On Sundays, her son would develop debilitating migraines that would keep him bedridden for days. As she described her experience and his symptoms, I was horrified. Her family connected the dots back to the communion bread. “Gluten did that to your son!?” I thought. Unfortunately, their church wasn’t able to accommodate his gluten intolerance, and her family was forced to join another parish.
At the Scottish storybook church, if you declined the bread or wine, you could fold your arms across your chest and receive a blessing from the priest. At the church I attended this Christmas Eve, communion bread was passed between parishioners in pews on trays, and wine (which turned out to be grape juice), was served in small plastic cups. Surprisingly, an individual blessing did not appear to be an alternative option. You’d think a simple blessing like this would be an option at all churches, allowing everyone to partake in communion and ensuring that the food allergic and intolerant aren’t left out.
Religion, like food, should bring people together. Breaking bread has long been a symbol of community and peace. That community piece is lost, however, if everyone isn’t afforded a seat at the table.
– Abi & the Allergy Amulet Team