Greetings, community. Almost two years ago, our congregation adopted a scent policy and we have been living into it since then. The policy states: “First Mennonite Church of San Francisco would like all services  to be accessible to those with chemical sensitivities. Please refrain from wearing perfume, cologne, and scented products. This is also the policy of FMCSF’s host, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.” 

Sheri was musing to Pat and Joanna recently that in her 18 years of ministry here she has not come across an issue that has brought up as much resistance, skepticism and even conflict as this scent policy. And so, with this blog post, we hope to address several points related to this policy, in the hopes of furthering greater clarity, communication and awareness:

  • We are aware that some people found our email to the congregation of March 1, 2017, too directive. Others found it confusing. Thanks to each of you who talked to us directly about your concerns. We know it can be hard but we are most appreciative when you do this — direct communication is the foundation of a healthy community.
  • We are aware that several people in our congregation are chemically sensitive. This is not just a problem for one person. We hear frequently from people who have been affected by fragrances worn in our community. One time, we received a photograph from someone who had rash and extreme swelling on their face after sitting behind someone wearing a fragrance during worship. 
  • We encourage those of you with chemical sensitivities to speak up about this and to speak directly to people who are wearing fragrances. (As a pastoral staff, we commit to doing the same when we notice someone wearing a fragrance.)  We know direct communication is difficult. We believe it can be especially difficult within a Mennonite culture that can sometimes be conflict-avoidant. This is a growing edge for our community, and we encourage each of you to grow in giving and receiving feedback.
  • We have noticed a generational difference in terms of who has the most resistance toward this policy. Younger adults seem to accept more quickly that dangerous chemicals with largely unknown effects are used in scented products and that not using scented products so that everyone can participate in our community is a matter of inclusion and social justice. Older adults are more likely to question the scientific basis of the fragrance-free policy and wonder if adverse reactions to scents are rooted in actual cause and effect. (See below for educational resources about this.)
  • We are aware that for some people wearing scented products to church is part of the festivity of Sunday. We recognize it is a bigger ask for these people who are oriented in that way to give up this practice.
  • We are aware that becoming fragrance-free is a process. The first step is to refrain from wearing scented products to church on Sunday, including:
    1. clothes washed in scented laundry products or exposed to cigarette smoke; 
    2. cologne or perfume; 
    3. scented hair and body products such as shampoos, conditions, soaps, lotions, gels, mousses, hair sprays, and deodorants. 

Each of us pastors still has some scented hair and body products that we are reluctant to simply throw out, but we do refrain from using those products on weekends when we will be in church. We are also going to be replacing these products with fragrance-free alternatives (see list below).

If you have a question, ask! One congregant told us that she uses essential oils to ease pain; was this a problem? We think it isn’t, and we’re also aware that we are not the last word on this. One of the advantages of having chemically sensitive people be “out” in our community is that we can approach them to ask these questions.

  • Last, we are aware that societal change is hard and slow. Not so long ago, people smoked in office buildings, schools and airplanes. Now we would not think of it since the health risks are known to us all. We believe that some day we will also understand more the health risks related to fragrances and other chemicals. In the meantime, we hope to err on the side of inclusion and hospitality. 

In community and with love,

Sheri, Joanna and Pat

For Further Education:

We encourage you to check out this article and this video, a keynote address at a recent Bioneers conference by John Warner, a Ph.D. chemist with degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Princeton. If you want to only see parts of it, you could watch from the beginning to 2:50 and then from 5:48-7:13. As he says: “I’m a Ph.D. chemist and I never took a class in toxicology. How could we invent chemicals that harm us? How could we not?”

If any of you have other educational resources, please let us know or include them in the comments sections below.

Recommended Scent-Free Products Used by FMCSFers

  • Magik Botanicals: shampoo, conditioner, detangler (Amazon)
  • Bright Green Laundry Detergent (Safeway)
  • Simple Human Liquid Hand Soap (Amazon)
  • A La Maison Hypoallergenic Unscented Bar Soap (Amazon)
  • Alaffia Authentic African Black Soap – body wash, shampoo, shaving & more (Whole Foods)
  • Crystal Body Deodorant Stick (no aluminum chlorohydrate)
  • Alba Botanica Clear Enzyme Deodorant Stick – aloe unscented
  • Jason Fragrance-Free products, including shampoo, conditioner and deodorant. As a bonus, these products are all quite inexpensive! (Amazon)

Again, if any of you have recommendations, please let us know or include them in the comments sections below.