Hundreds of students prepare for sacrament meetings each Sunday. But for some members, that preparation requires an extra step.
Bread is the very thing those with gluten allergies want to avoid. Taking a piece of bread in sacrament meeting could spell danger, depending on the severity of one’s condition.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no specific standard procedure outlined in the church handbooks when it comes to gluten-free options in sacrament meeting. Most wards are happy to accommodate those with dietary sensitivities, although most members tend to provide their own alternatives.
“We always bring our own, and it’s wise to do,” said Dr. Merrill Christensen, a professor of nutritional science at BYU who has two sons and two granddaughters with Celiac disease. “But we’ve never, ever been in a situation where, having informed the bishop of the need, they said, ‘No, we’re sorry, we don’t do that.'”
Several problems can elicit a gluten-free diet, ranging from wheat allergies to Celiac disease. Christensen explained that antigens, or the proteins that cause allergic reactions, trigger the immune system to create antibodies that combat the offending antigens. While the normal reaction is to destroy it, those with allergies have an exaggerated response known as anaphylactic shock.
“Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease,” Christensen said. “An autoimmunity is when your body makes antibodies against its own tissue. This is generally viewed as a bad thing.”
Connective tissue in the body is then targeted by these antibodies once gluten is absorbed.
The villi connected to the walls of the small intestine that help absorb nutrients are then destroyed and can only regenerate if the offending gluten is eliminated from the diet.
“In untreated Celiac disease, if you were to do an endoscopy, or a biopsy essentially of the small intestine, it would look like those have just been weed-whacked,” Christensen said. “Instead of having these long delicate finger-like projections, they’re just stumps. As with other diseases, the severity of the reaction can vary widely.”
For BYU student Tiffany Fischer, a little bread in sacrament meeting isn’t a big deal.
“Sometimes I’ll just eat the bread if it’s easier that way because it doesn’t affect me too badly,” Fischer said.
Fischer’s options vary, but she avoids certain gluten-free products because of other allergies she has. In past wards she has seen several tactics. Her home ward made crackers and placed them in a cup on the sacrament tray for those with gluten allergies to eat. In her student ward in Provo, she has noticed specific gluten-free bread or crackers being passed around.
BYU student Wesley Stevens’ options for a sacrament substitute aren’t as varied.
“I have random allergies to all grains, most dairy, all processed things, everything with preservatives or pesticides and a bunch of other random fruits and vegetables,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ allergies prevent him from touching the bread or holding the tray handle. So he separates his alternatives to bread with a Ziploc bag.
“I really just do whatever I have,” he said. “Sometimes it’s meat, sometimes it’s herbs, sometimes it’s vegetables. I can’t do rice.”
Stevens discovered his allergies to grains about two years ago. When sacrament meeting started becoming physically uncomfortable for him, his roommate encouraged him to bring his own substitute and then made sure it was passed to him during the meeting. This helped turn sacrament meeting back into a spiritually rejuvenating experience for him.
Bishop Jerry Eddington of the Provo YSA 46th Ward said gluten problems in wards have only become more prevalent in the last few years. He said this semester the ward doesn’t have to provide gluten alternatives, but it has done so in the past for several people.
“It works out okay, except it turns out to be a procedural problem,” Eddington said. “You have to single them out and identify them in some way to the people who are passing, and in the beginning that’s kind of awkward and they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. But as the semester goes on, everybody knows if so-and-so is here and you have to find them in the audience.”
Gluten intolerance has become more prevalent in the past few years, but for these students, sacrament meeting is still the sacred experience they look forward to each week.