Jeremiah’s First Communion
By the Rev. Sue Ostrom | Photo by Jesse N. Love, et. al

For those who have food allergies, not being able to partake in church communion can make one feel excluded. Sue Ostrom of First UMC in Moscow, Idaho tells the story of the lessons learned by her and her congregational family in making gluten-free communion available to welcome those who want to share in this experience.

“In this church all people are welcome at communion. The only requirement is that you be hungry and thirsty for God in your life.” These are the words I usually use to invite the congregation to communion. It’s a basic Methodist value: that all people are welcome at communion. In recent years, many of us – including me – have learned that words alone are not enough to make communion accessible to all. Among the challenges are those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. And so churches like Moscow First United Methodist Church have begun to include a gluten-free option for those who need it. It’s not as simple as one might think.

In Moscow, intinction is our normal method for receiving communion. The communion stewards tear off a piece of bread and people dip it in the cup. My first lesson about gluten intolerance was that having a gluten-free bread or cracker was not enough, because the common cup has been contaminated by the gluten from the bread others have dipped into it. “Really?” I first thought. “Just a sip of juice that might have come in contact with gluten is a problem?” Yes, really. And so we began to provide gluten-free crackers and a separate cup used only for the gluten-free option. Those coming forward are invited to ask for the gluten-free option, at which point the communion stewards go back to the altar for the separate cup and bread. Problem solved. Except not quite.

My next lesson came from Jeremiah and his family. Jeremiah has an extreme gluten intolerance. When I trained Jeremiah and other children to be acolytes, we practiced having the acolytes bring the communion elements forward. Jeremiah looked at the paten or plate for the bread and said, “Not me.” Really? I looked at his mother and she said, “It’s better if he doesn’t.” So when he is an acolyte on communion Sundays, Jeremiah carries the cup but not the bread.

For the first two years that Jeremiah and his family worshipped with our church, he still did not take communion. We had a gluten-free option, both bread and cup. It wasn’t enough. The gluten-free crackers were on or near the paten with the regular bread. Communion stewards had touched bread with gluten in it. For many people with a gluten intolerance that was not enough to be a problem. But for Jeremiah (and his father), it was. So Jeremiah did not receive communion.

Unbeknownst to me, he longed to receive it and felt excluded. His mother came to me and asked how we could find a way for Jeremiah to receive communion. She shared with me both his longing to do so and the specifics of his gluten intolerance. I already knew that he does not eat anything that his mother has not prepared or cleared. If he comes into even fleeting contact with gluten he will be sick for weeks. And so we came up with a plan. She would bring both juice and bread that he could have and place them on the opposite side of the altar from where the elements are usually placed. I would bless them, and then when Jeremiah came forward for communion I would say to him, “This is the bread of life given for you. This is the cup of salvation given for you,” and then Jeremiah would proceed to the altar and serve himself.

On the first Sunday in February Jeremiah celebrated his first communion. It was a moment of grace and inclusion — at last. He was thrilled and I was moved almost to tears.

The lesson? Pastors and communion stewards must communicate directly with those with special needs to ask, “How can we include you? What needs to happen?” It requires flexibility and the willingness for both parties to talk openly about the ways that will work. It requires a deep commitment to that most basic of Methodist values: everyone is welcome at communion. Everyone.

The Rev. Sue Ostrom serves as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Moscow, Idaho.

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