Welcome back to The Faithful OT, and if you’re reading this the week it comes out, happy Holy Week to my Christian followers. Continuing with the theme from my last blog post on practical considerations for baptism, I thought it could be useful to make a post on considerations for distribution of Holy Communion. This week in many Christian churches, we celebrate the institution of the practice of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday, derived from the Gospel readings from the Last Supper. While during the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic many people have gone without reception of communion, with Easter approaching and the ongoing vaccination efforts across the globe, many people may feel called back to church to a long-awaited return to receiving communion. As an occupational therapy student, it is my hope that all people will be welcomed back to this celebration with considerations in mind for individuals with disabilities.
Reminder on Substances Present in Communion
While all churches have interpreted scripture on Holy Communion differently, at most churches, communion is distributed in the form of some sort of bread or wafer alongside wine or grape juice. With people returning to church for Holy Week celebrations, it is always good to remind visitors to a new denomination or faith tradition the basic teachings of a specific church on communion, such as who is welcome to receive. With social distancing guidelines, many churches are doing an excellent job of providing weekly instructions for directions on how to move about the sanctuary for safe distribution. While these reminders can help individuals prepare in a practical way for communion, especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, reminding congregants that they can partake in either substance – the bread or the wine/juice, allows for more individuals with food allergies to be able to participate meaningfully knowing that they have fully communed with the congregation, even if they only partake in one substance.
Along these same lines, if your church has alcohol free or gluten free options, make sure to advertise this! This is a great strength of a church to have, but many churches do not make these options clear for congregants. By advertising this every week, you are setting a precedent for accessibility at your church every week.
Feeding and Eating Difficulties
As you may know about me if you know me personally, I am an OT student who is really interested in pediatrics and all things sensory processing related. That being said, I’ve worked with quite a few kids on eating and feeding interventions for many different reasons. Some people have sensory systems that have a low threshold for stimuli that bother them, including the feeling of food in their mouths. For other children who may have developmental disabilities, oral-motor delays may make it difficult for them to swallow or chew new foods. And for some kids, taking foods orally is not recommended by their physicians or speech-language pathologists. In these cases, there can be a major barrier to physically consuming Holy Communion.
For many families, these feeding challenges cause immense amounts of stress, and I can only imagine the added fears that could come out for a family if their church community was not actively supporting them as their child prepares for partaking in communion. In these cases, it should really be a priority of the community to help families prepare their children to receive. How can you pastorally care for a family by taking initiative in these situations? As one of my OT professors often said in our classes, “practice makes permanence!” By engaging the family in practice sessions or allowing the family to take home unused hosts (and of course not consecrated if your church has consubstantiation/transubstantiation) home to practice may allow the child to become accustomed to the wafer. As stated above, you can also remind families of your church’s teachings on communion. Could instead the child receive a small drop of the wine or juice, or a small piece of a communion wafer?
Additionally, even with all the practice and accommodations, things can go not as planned. In my experience with feeding and eating based occupational therapy, I’ve learned that it’s really important for children have agency over their choice to consume food or not, and this may mean that a child spits out communion after receiving. As a pastor, a family member, or an OT, it is best to think about this situation now and prepare for what you may want to do if it ever occurs. What does the church teach? Where do we go from here without introducing shame or blaming the child? For many children, spitting foods out can mean that they have detected a threat by consuming the food. How can you best prepare the child for communion in a low-stress, non-threatening way?
Disabled Pastors, Ministers and Seminarians
Something I’d like all of us to consider more is not just disabled individuals as congregants in our churches, but as people who chose to pursue vocations to ministry. For some people, this may mean deciding to apply to seminary with a disability, and for others, it may mean serving as a pastor even after acquiring a disability later in life. In these situations, it is our job as members of a church to encourage these pastoral vocations, even if accommodations must be made so that individuals with disabilities can say prayers over and pass out Holy Communion.
Not only is it important for individuals with disabilities to be given the same opportunities to preside over communion services as their non-disabled peers, but by having a pastor continue to distribute communion at weekly services if they chose to do so provides the opportunity for disabilities to be visible and appreciated within a community. For any occupational therapists reading the blog, asking your patients who have hand injuries or neurological conditions that affect the mobility and coordination of the upper extremities if they are religious may open up opportunities for you to provide meaningful, motivational sessions to practice distribution of communion. With our aging population, it is important to remember that 2 in 5 adults over the age of 65 have a disability. This means that at the seminary level through retirement, we can and should begin engaging with disability through our practice of Holy Communion, as it will likely affect some our pastors and leaders at some point in life.
Communion is a reminder to us that we are all part of the Body of Christ, disabled or not. With disability being a reality of our world, it is important to remember that to truly invite all to our table, we must make the distribution and participation of Holy Communion accessible.