Around seven years ago, due to a health crisis, I became sensitive to a long list of foods. While I’ve added back to my diet many of those foods, I still cannot tolerate gluten, dairy, chocolate, anything with high amounts caffeine or alcohol. Having food intolerances can be isolating. We humans love to connect with one another over food. Whether it was the fact that I couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with fellow pastors at a writing seminar or partake in the desserts that magically showed up in the office kitchen during Advent, I felt left out. Tears of frustration would overtake me when our staff would go to lunch together and I would struggle to find anything I could eat, or we would once again celebrate a staff birthday with cake and ice cream. It didn’t help that I really liked cake and ice cream. Even well-meaning people would offer me gluten-free cookies, which I would have to turn down because they contained chocolate or butter. The act of saying no was a point of disconnection. I couldn’t join in the fun, the celebration, in the same way as others could.
But the hardest thing, I found, was saying no to the church ladies. This was especially true as I made pastoral visits to the older members of the congregation. Mary, an elegant southern woman, loved to ply me with chocolate and sweet tea when I would visit. During a meeting, Pam once brought me a green tea Frappuccino because she loved it so much and she knew that I liked tea. Myra never wanted me to be empty-handed at her house and would always have cookies to munch.
It broke my heart to turn down these acts of hospitality. It felt rude, even, not to eat what was set before me. Many times, rather than embarrass myself or my host, I would simply nibble on what was offered to me, with the full knowledge that my stomach would be in digestive chaos when I left. I didn’t want my rejection of the food to be perceived as a rejection of my host.
I haven’t been on an international mission trip since my health crisis, and I often wonder if it would be wise to do so. What would I be able to eat? Would I have to live off gluten-free, dairy-free and chocolate-free protein bars the entire trip, as I watched my trip partners enjoying the food of that culture? In college, I participated in a week-long mission trip to Honduras. I have a vivid memory of visiting a member of the local Protestant congregation and being offered coffee and cookies. I do not like coffee, but I gladly drank it because I knew it was a generous gift being shared with me. The best international travelers are those who embrace the culture in which they are traveling. This includes embracing the food, even if it is unfamiliar.
So, food intolerances have been limiting and isolating for me. I’m grateful that over the last seven years, American culture has embraced intolerances, at least in part. It’s a lot easier to find things to eat at restaurants these days. I don’t always have to ask about what’s in the food, because ingredients are indicated on the menu. I have found friends who also have intolerances or have made diet decisions like going vegan, which make it hard to participate in church meals. Knowing that I am not alone has lessened the feelings of isolation. We always have a gluten-free station for Communion (when we take it by intinction) and offer everyone gluten-free bread when we pass the Communion plates. We don’t want anyone to feel left out.
I’m also a lot more courageous, whether I’m stating to the staff member planning the celebration that I want popsicles, not cake and ice cream, for my birthday, or I’m turning down the hospitality of a church lady. Thankfully, I have a husband who can eat just about anything, so I can always extend the church ladies’ hospitality to him. Living with food intolerances will likely always be challenging for me. I’m not sure I will ever fully make my peace with it, because I love to eat and I love to eat with people. But I’m stronger now, not only in body, but in mind and spirit, and it helps me cope with the challenges.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.