Celiac Facts Every Church Should Know

Celiac Facts Every Church Should Know

Written on 05/27/2024
Laurel Dykema

Communion, after-church cookies, church meals, and even snacks at Bible study can be awkward for me.

Why? Because I have celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. If you’re a celiac, eating even tiny amounts (crumbs) of gluten can trigger an autoimmune reaction that damages the small intestine. (Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley.)

The only treatment for celiac disease is a lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. But it’s not enough for celiacs just to avoid bread and pasta. Gluten can be found in soup, cereal, sauces, salad dressings, food coloring, and so many other things!

If you have more than 100 people in your congregation, odds are at least one of them has celiac disease. Celiac disease is estimated to affect one in 100 people (celiac.org).

Although it’s called a disease, celiac isn’t contagious. It’s genetic. I avoid gluten the best I can, but in case of accidental ingestion, I feel very sick and suffer intestinal damage. That intestinal damage makes it hard for my body to absorb nutrients, which can lead to malnourishment and a host of other issues.

You might be saying, “All that is great information, but how can I help celiacs feel safe and welcomed at our church?” I’m glad you asked!

1. Make communion safe.

When I first started attending Westend Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., I noticed they had “gluten-free bread” cut up and passed around on the communion plates with the regular bread. While I appreciated the effort, this gluten-free bread was at risk of accidentally coming into contact with gluten from the neighboring pieces of regular bread on the plate or even from the shared knives and cutting board used to prepare the gluten-free bread.

I reached out to Westend’s leadership to tell them how to have safer communion options for celiacs. Today, our church offers individually packaged gluten-free wafers and communion cups. I am so happy to be able to participate in communion now without having to worry about accidentally consuming gluten.

2. Don’t pressure people to eat something.

If someone isn’t eating the cookies after church or isn’t participating in the meal, it’s OK to invite them to partake. But if they politely decline, please don’t pressure them. They might have celiac disease or another condition you don’t know about.

3. Let people know it’s OK for them to bring their own food.

Food is everywhere at church functions—after-church cookies, snacks at Bible study, potlucks, pizza parties, and more. Before these events, be sure to let people know they are welcome to bring their own food or snack.

Most celiacs I know (including me) are more than happy to supply their own food and snacks wherever they go. We don’t want to be an inconvenience to anyone! But if you want to have gluten-free snacks available for celiacs, go for individually packaged store-bought gluten-free snacks. This helps avoid accidental cross-contamination.

Fellow celiacs, what tips would you add to this list?