In my Mercer Island parish, there are a significant number of children with autism. There are many more in the larger community. Often, they are invisible.
As a pastor and a father myself, my responsibility is to find ways to include all people in our worship and to celebrate the full humanity each person brings. As a citizen, my goal is to do everything I can to protect autistic children and others from the toxic load their bodies carry, that both causes and exacerbates these disabilities. This is why I have been active in supporting the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act (ESHB 1294) in our state legislature this year.
Parents have told me that it’s hard to bring kids with special needs to regular church services, which require a lot of sitting still and listening. To meet this need, Emmanuel Episcopal hosts monthly services for special-needs families.
These liturgies are called Rhythms of Grace, after a national curriculum of Gospel storytelling and responses that are geared to people on the autism spectrum. This monthly rhythm of worship brings members of our parish together in respectful and loving ways and offers some healing for the emotional, spiritual and physical isolation that kids with special needs and their families can suffer.
Another way to help heal that pain is to advocate for public policy to address the roots of these disabilities. No one knows for sure what causes autism and other neuro-developmental disorders. Certainly, they may have many causes in any given person and population.
It is clear, however, that many of the chemicals used in consumer products are neuro-toxic and contribute to rising rates of childhood cancers, hormonal problems and developmental disorders. In Washington, consumer groups have been fighting for safe kids’ products chemical by chemical, because our State Department of Ecology does not have the ability to keep the worst toxics away from children.
Chemical companies are currently free to self-regulate, resulting in what is called the toxic treadmill. That means when a consumer group works hard to eliminate one dangerous chemical, manufactures can simply replace it with another one as bad or worse. This happened recently when Graco Inc., the leading manufacturer of car seats, stopped using cancer-causing chlorinated Tris, but replaced it with another toxic flame retardant.
Emmanuel Episcopal can reach out to families with children on the autism spectrum and create a safe and warm community that makes everyone richer because it includes the whole breadth of humanity. But only the state Legislature can pass a bill to keep toxic materials out of the bodies of our children.
My hope is that our Senator Steve Litzow from Mercer Island will be a leader on this issue and help to pass a strong Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act during the special session of this legislature. For these families, I would like to see a bill that includes not only a ban on the carcinogenic chemicals known as Tris, but also allows the Department of Ecology to prevent manufactures from using equally bad or even worse chemicals as substitutes.
This is the season of Pentecost for Christians, a time to celebrate new energy and to be open to the winds of change. Our church looks for avenues to welcome all God’s children to the altar. May our state Legislature find the grace to protect them.
The Rev. Hunt Priest
Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island and a board member of Earth Ministry. Rhythms of Grace services are the second Sunday of each month.