On Sunday, I was sitting near the sign language section during the morning worship service at my church, and because I know a couple of the interpreters, I realized something was going on. They were talking in hushed tones among themselves, pointing and occasionally signing as the volume in the sanctuary got louder.
When they came near my seat, I asked what was troubling them.
“There are deaf people coming to this service, and the seats are all taken,” one of them explained. When I looked over at the section normally reserved for the hearing impaired, sure enough. Lots of hearing people were sitting there.
When I considered whether we could simply ask the people mistakenly sitting in the deaf section if they could move, I looked around. Another packed house. If they left the seats they were sitting in, they wouldn’t find others. And to be fair to them, the seat covers that normally reserved the area were missing in action. For all they knew, the deaf people were sitting somewhere else now.
I even thought of giving up my own seat, but it was in the wrong spot for seeing the interpreter, plus I needed the seat I was in because of its proximity to the stage. I would be making a small presentation during each service and needed to have a direct path to the stairs.
As I was considering whether the deaf people coming to the service that morning would feel neglected or uncared for, I remembered the gluten-free communion bread in Hannah Faith Notess’s essay “A Blessing for the Rice Cracker.” In this essay, part of The Spirit of Food collection, Notess recounts her brother’s celiac disease which makes his body reject taking the Lord’s supper, to the point of rashes and a constricted throat. And yet, against better judgment, Ben would remain in line for the wheat bread, dipping it in the juice, even if an alternative were offered.
When I asked Ben why he used to avoid the rice cracker at Communion, he said he felt uncomfortable stepping out of line. Even though the church was doing its best to be inclusive, it didn’t seem to fit the ritual, and he didn’t want to feel different. Notess writes.
I hadn’t realized before that our accommodations, our best attempts at making people feel welcome, are often alienating, isolating. A special section for wheelchairs, a service in Spanish, a Sunday School class for single people. While these gestures might say we love handicapped and Spanish speaking and single people, it also says the rest of us are not handicapped or Spanish speaking or single.
Of course the answer is not to go the other way, to tell people they need to speak our language or get up and walk or find a suitable mate before they can be part of the body of Christ. It’s offensive even to imagine that sort of attitude among God’s people. Though, sadly, that has been the experience of too many people who try to find their place on a Sunday morning.
Maybe the solution lies somewhere in the middle, in something we all can share in together. Like maybe a meal.
What if churches just served rice crackers to everybody? I asked Ben if he thought that would be a good idea, and he said he did: ‘There’s nowhere in the Bible that says “This needs to be made from wheat flour, thus saith the Lord.”‘ Those rice crackers may taste like Styrofoam packing peanuts, but I’d consider that Styrofoam taste a blessing if it meant I could share Communion with my brother, Notess concluded.
I learned after the service on Sunday that everyone found a seat where they could hear, or see, the sermon. One family sat in two groupings, another lady moved to my seat when I went on stage, and the interpreters were able to preach with their hands what the pastor spoke with his voice.
I am writing today in community with my friends at thehighcalling.org. We are working our way through the book, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. This week, we considered essays 28-30, in a section called “At the Table of the Lord.” Click on the button above to see what others are writing. Then, pick up the book yourself and join us for next Monday’s discussion.