Sunday used to be a special day. My partner and I looked forward to hearing the welcome greeting each week, “Whomever you love, you are welcome here.” I’d beam at Diana, feeling all warm and fuzzy about our Unitarian Universalist congregation. If people don’t like us, it’s not because we’re lesbians, but because we’ve been jerks.
“Whatever body you live in, you are welcome here.” We provide special meals for those who abstain from animal products or gluten. We have a hearing loop so all can hear the sermon and music. We have reserved parking and wheelchair ramps for those who roll in. Our congregation is rightly proud of its accessibility and welcome policies.
Diana and I sat near the window safe from the scent of people’s grooming products and detergent residues. The dome shaped sanctuary, with its minimal air circulation, has always been a problem for me because I have multiple chemical sensitivity [http://www.uua.org/accessibility/chemical/26971.shtml]. If I breathe certain chemicals or dusts, I get a hacking cough, a condition I developed analyzing Superfund waste at the EPA.
About six months ago, attendance at Sunday services doubled thanks to our dynamic interim minister and the concerted efforts of the membership committee. For me, it’s a mixed blessing. Now there are so many people crowding the sanctuary that I can’t escape their scents by sitting near the window.
Sometimes I retreated to the Social Hall to listen to the service through the sound system, but being isolated from the community made me feel like an orphan with my nose pressed to the window, watching the real families feast.
To address the air quality in the sanctuary, I earmarked 20% of my pledge for air quality improvement, asking someone from that committee to contact me. I attended the Environmental Committee’s healthy building audit, which recommended increased air circulation in the sanctuary. I showed the minister there was no setup for moving the air in the sanctuary other than the furnace vents and the cold air return. I asked the cleaners to use a HEPA dust filter when they vacuum. So far nothing has come of any of these efforts, although the ladies of the Caring Connection ask me how I feel.
Lord knows I tried to go through proper channels. I met with the Building Committee chair, but he got transferred to the Ministerial Search Committee before he could take any action on the ideas we generated. A representative from the Building Committee told me the furnace fan had been adjusted so it ran during services, but that’s all they could do. (It didn’t help.) I emailed the new Building Committee chair that a Heat Recovery Ventilator and a smooth floor to replace the thirty-year-old carpet would make the sanctuary environment pleasant and healthful for all, but there has yet been no reply.
I was getting the run-around, as though I were a fussy old lady with princess and the pea issues. By now, others, including the minister, are complaining of the rank air in the sanctuary along with sleepiness, sore throats, or headaches. All in all, getting something done at the congregation, which has the inertia endemic to volunteer organizations, has turned out to be more frustrating than getting something through the bureaucracy at the EPA, where I had to remind myself of the four T’s: These Things Take Time.
I was tempted to slam the door on the congregation. Though if I did, I would lose friendships with people I’d known for years and would be cutting off my nose to spite my face. To maintain my connections, I participate in activities that don’t require going into the sanctuary. I prepare checks for the bookkeepers in the office, I lead a discussion on World Religions in the library, and sometimes I attend Coffee Hour in the Social Hall.
Diana misses worshiping with me. I miss worshiping with her and the community that was my family for almost twenty years. I find spiritual sustenance through the Church of the Larger Fellowship whose services I watch on-line religiously every Monday morning. I’m grateful for the virtual community, but it’s not the same as being at church.
“Whatever body you live in, you are welcome here,” means all persons, including those with an invisible disability, deserve accessibility. Wheelchair users aren’t expected to bring their own two-by-four's for ramps, nor should those with multiple chemical sensitivity have to provide their own respirators.