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Chemical Sensitivity Among Quakers
My Experience and My Leading
by Alicia Adams
I recently wrote an article that was published in the March issue of Friends Journal. It came from experiences I've had with Quaker worship. My article is titled "The Gift of Chemical Awareness."" It is more than a message about our toxic chemical usage, however. It's about how our culture disenfranchises the "little ones" -- little in number, perhaps, or not able to voice their situations. "Respect for all life" is the basis of peace, I've come to realize. I've come to this through the back door, so to speak: by being impacted by toxic chemicals and thus becoming chemically sensitive. With this sensitivity came an awareness of how intimately we are all linked.
John Woolman's experiences, recorded in his Journal, first prompted me to speak about our culture's toxic chemical usage. I was deeply affected by his realization that he had to speak out against slavery. Some Friends dear to him were slave owners; also, it was an accepted aspect of the financial structure of his day. He quoted one of the Old Testament prophets as expressing his own feelings. In my words, as Woolman's experience impacted me: "Oh Lord! If I have found favor in your eyes, please let me die before I have to do this!"
I've lived with chemical sensitivity for over 35 years. I was poisoned by massive pesticide exposure while working in community development in a Venezuelan slum. In 1992, the combination of our culture's reliance on the automobile, buildings constructed with toxic materials and widespread usage of products containing artificial fragrances caused my husband and me to move to a remote rural coastal environment. We needed to live in chemically clean air. My husband had become chemically sensitive as a result of being poisoned on his job as an auto mechanic. He died in 1996 from the effects of this poisoning.
After my husband's death, I began to search for information on the Internet about the impact of our culture's reliance on toxic chemicals. Among other discoveries, I found research and personal experiences about artificial fragrances. Fragrance chemicals were among the worst of my husband's and my triggers for dysfunction. I learned that fragrance chemicals were not only disasterous to those who had become chemically sensitized, they were dangerous to all life.
I felt like the child who said of the King, supposedly exhibiting his new clothes, "Why is the King not wearing any clothes?" That is, why has our culture become completely convinced that we have to "smell good" regardless of the toxic consequences of using so-called "fragrances?" Don't people know that these petrochemically-derived fragrance chemicals only imitate the natural odors we all love? They are not the "real stuff!" I saw, as in the case of this story, that we have all been massively deceived by the fragrance industry. Could I, like the child, "speak up?"
When I read John Woolman's Journal, I realized that my life has made me an expert on the health and social effects of chemical poisoning. The research I'd discovered is never reported by our common news sources. Most people are unaware of the dangers to themselves and to our planet. Clearly, I was being led to speak about this subject from my own experience: a condition of Friends' ministry. How was I to do this?
I was overwhelmed by the task ahead of me. I needed backing from my spiritual community: the Friends. This meant that I first needed to speak to Friends about my leading, just as John Woolman did. I needed to speak about chemical usage in our meetings -- particularly fragrance usage.
My membership in Friends is central to my life. I was afraid of alienating the ones I loved so dearly -- just as John Woolman was afraid of alienating dear Friends in his day. I thought that among my many losses due to chemical injury might be the loss of my spiritual community.
In Meeting for Worship at Redwood Forest Friends Meeting (RFFM), I stood and spoke of how I'd been impacted by John Woolman's experience. I said that I felt as he did: I'd rather die than do what I knew Spirit commanded me to do! I cried and shook. Then I said what my task was: to speak out against toxic chemical usage but especially that of fragrance usage in Friends' gatherings.
I was encouraged by RFFM's Adult Education Committee to give a presentation about this subject. I asked for the assistance of two chemically sensitive attenders who suggested two more: one's mother was chemically sensitive after years in the teaching profession and another Friend in the area could no longer attend Friends' gatherings because of fragrance usage. At our presentation, we each spoke of our personal experiences and of what we had learned. We suggested alternatives to products that were the most destructive. We had information about sources of these products as well as copies of research we'd found that showed fragrance chemicals to be life destructive. The response of the small group attending our meeting seemed to be interested and supportive.
Shortly afterward, the Ministry Committee asked that the Meeting declare itself "fragrance free." This minute was approved. However, there was not enough time to educate people about what this means or to allow people who were not in agreement (but who didn't speak out against this minute, at the time) to voice their perspectives. In spite of the minute, to my knowledge RFFM is not truly "fragrance free." There are seeds of awareness planted there, though. Sometimes that's all we can do for a long time: plant seeds of awareness. Sending my article to Friends Journal was another effort on my part to be true to the leading I've been given.
Since we gave this workshop, the words of one Friend in RFFM have been haunting me. In RFFM's Meeting for Worship for the Purpose of Business, it was suggested that it was not important to address a situation that only affected the most sensitive people in the Meeting. This unsettled the group. A period of centering worship was suggested, and ensued. From that worship, a Friend spoke. She said, "It is important to respect the most sensitive ones. Their experiences are vital to everyone."
This message, spoken when I was not present and told to me by someone who was there, has had a tremendous impact on me. It changed the way I view my situation, and that of others who have been disenfranchised by our culture. This Friend's message opened my heart to a new way of looking at my chemical sensitivity. I saw this not as a curse and personal handicap but rather as a gift of awareness, given to me by Life itself; a gift that is my responsibility to share. My recent article flowed from my new awareness.
I found my voice in part because other Friends spoke their truths: John Woolman and the Friend at RFFM. This continuing effect on me, and perhaps on others, is an example of the spiritual power of Quaker worship: all present are encouraged to "speak our truths" as moved by Spirit to do so. We cannot know how far-reaching our faithfulness to Spirit's prompting will be.
Since I lived at RFFM, I've had to leave my coastal California home and move to southwestern New Mexico. This means I've had to leave my participation in Pacific Yearly Meeting, its constituent monthly meetings and the wonderful workshops at Quaker Center. This move became necessary because I was exposed to toxic molds and fungi. Dangerous fungi have formed colonies in my body. As a result, I've became hypersensitive to all molds, fungi and yeasts. (There is less mold in the dry southwest than in a coastal environment.) Among the effects of this toxic fungi colonization is an increase in my chemical sensitivity. Though I live in the area of Gila Friends Meeting, held in Silver City, NM, I'm now unable to attend any social gathering, even that of Friends. I cannot tolerate any fragrance chemicals.
With this additional poisioning, I have lost my ability to be physically part of my spiritual community. I greatly miss being part of a monthly meeting: our common concerns and outreach and particularly, our meetings for worship. Whether or not I have truly lost my place with Friends depends on whether hearts are open to my situation and willing to hear my life's truths. We cannot be "in community" with any group of people which discounts our personal situations and won't give us a voice. I was much encouraged by the acceptance of my article by Friends Journal. Perhaps there is a place for me with Friends in spite of my inability to attend any Friends' gatherings: a heart-place.
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