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Topics: Justice | Opinion

Churches need to embrace people of all sizes

All bodies are a beautiful part of Creation, says this writer, and it's time spaces of faith start accommodating people-of-size as part of faithful welcome

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“Here’s a big idea: let’s make churches more welcoming of the large-bodied people in their midst.” That’s what I was thinking recently as I climbed the steps to the pulpit of a church where I preach occasion­ally. It’s a beautiful old Methodist building, and a wonderful group of caring people gather there in Christian community. The problem is, I can’t fit through the door to the pulpit. I can’t even squeeze through, or at least not as gracefully as I feel a worship leader ought to.

It is revealing that a preacher like me can’t physically access the pulpit where they would address their congregation, and it makes me realize how often I’m in church spaces that physically exclude me. Christians are called to practise a radical acceptance, but I don’t think we’ve realized the need to consider accommodating people-of-size as a part of our faithful welcome.

Not only are many churches physically inaccessible for large people, they sometimes aren’t socially welcoming either. I’ve heard plenty of side comments about the fear of “getting fat” during cookie and coffee hour, and they always leave me feeling disheartened. And I’ve yet to see a community of faith actively address the societal shame around body size, or hold conversations with large-­bodied people about their sense of comfort and inclusion.  

Scripture tells us, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Each of our bodies, in all of their shapes, sizes and dimensions, are made and loved by God, and Christ dwells in each of them. In a society that creates and exploits body image issues for corporate profit, that is a radical idea for people-of-size to consider.

If my size has been a barrier to fully participating in church commun­ities, then I’m sure I’m not the only one.

People-of-size can often hold a significant sense of body shame, leading to silence and isolation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our churches faced that fear and shame with gentleness and compassion, modelled after Christ’s healing embrace and empower­ment of the outcast?

I’ve worked outside the church to help empower people to resist the body-shaming preju­dices our culture encourages. Now, I want to see churches take up this cause as well. Because if my size has been a barrier to fully participating in church commun­ities, then I’m sure I’m not the only one. According to the 2015 Canadian Health Measures Survey, about one in three Canad­ian adults has obesity. That’s a lot of people who might appreciate a more intentional welcome in their church.

So, in addition to ensuring their physical spaces are accessible to people-of-size, churches should become aware of size-shaming and act­­ive­­ly promote dialogues around body positivity, so that every person in every pew knows that God loves their body, no matter its size.

It’s time for churches to embrace people of all sizes, and start a gentle and kind conversation about dignity for everybody — and every body.

This column first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Sizeism in the Church.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today. 

Aaron Miechkota is a theology student at the United Theological College in Montreal.

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  • says:

    I'm the guy that little old ladies love to see at the grocery store, when their favourite item is no longer on the shelf, but in the unopened carton on the top shelf. Often I get "It must be nice to be tall", after I retrieve their items Well I have other issues the author has in older buildings. It's also embarrassing when you forget to duck the doorways or heating ducts, especially when the former self appears and your pain lets you forget where you are. I sense the author is sensitive to their size, don't blame others for it, do something creative with yourself. For example, change where you preach, you don't need to preach from the pulpit.
    Don't be hard on yourself, or others for who you are.
    1 Cor 6: 19, 20 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
    Often it's easier to change yourself, than to change others or your environment.

    Replies

    • says:

      Hi Gary, I'm the author of the article. Thanks so much for your comment. I have been in the shorter person in your grocery store example! I'm glad to start talking about these things. I appreciate the scripture you shared, it is beautiful and inspiring.

      I hear you about changing myself, not trying changing others. I kind of agree, and kind of disagree. It is true that I am speaking up on behalf of myself and other large-bodied people. This is a big change for me. I'm feel empowered by the Spirit to speak about things that are important to me and others. It helps me to name things for myself. I want to hear other people's perspectives too. Another part of me thinks that speaking up is a way to make things better for everyone. Not to change people, but to gently roll things forward (if that makes sense).

      Thanks so much for sharing your point of view, I really appreciate it. God bless!

  • says:

    Size-ism is alive and well in society, as the author states, as well as in the church. It is often an unexamined prejudice, one of the last "acceptable prejudices." It can be voiced (in low or sometimes not very low tones) in coffee hour as a way to shame another person and create a sense of apartness, if not superiority, between those who are passing judgment. Church furniture, be it an old pulpit or how tight we squeeze the tables and chairs for a church luncheon, also can make large bodied people uncomfortable as they seek to be part of loving community. Thanks for the wake-up call to consider how size-ism can alienate and exclude some while diminishing us all. We have much to learn as we open up conversation about the bodies we inhabit, and how we are called to love one another as God first and always loves us - individually, uniquely, uncompromisingly, by name.

  • says:

    A lot of older churches, built in the nineteenth century, should reevaluate their sanctuary layout for this very reason. People are a little larger, overall, than they were 150 years ago, and there are more people of larger frame and size. Pews were set to accommodate maximum numbers; now that is not so necessary, a couple of rows of pews could easily be removed and each one adjusted a little further from those in front and behind to allow easier access and more comfortable seating.

    Replies

    • says:

      Hi Rev. Perkin, I'm the author of the article and I wanted to say, thank you for your reply. I like the creative solution you have just mentioned (in adjusting the pews). This could help people be more physically accommodated. I hope the article also inspires people to break the silence and shame around talking about their needs. Being large-bodied can be so isolating. Having a supportive community that reminds them that they are loved by God exactly as they are, could make a huge difference in people's lives. Thanks so much for your comment.

  • says:

    I agree .Some of the older historic churches in my area are not suitable for todays larger people. And we are all taller and wider than 100 yrs ago. some seats are about 12 inches deep and very uncomfortable ---sooooooo people don't attend.!!!

    Replies

    • says:

      Thank you Nita, that's been my experience of older churches in my area. I'm thinking of one downtown that has beautiful stained glass windows, a magnificent organ, lovely people and an insightful minister... but those pews! Sadly, not accommodating for full-figured people... which I only learned when I tried to visit there on a Sunday morning. I couldn't fit in the pews. That was, well, embarrassing. I ended up having to leave. Now I see the church has placed free-standing chairs in the back, which is a good start to welcoming large-bodied people with safety and dignity. Thanks again for your comment!

  • says:

    lol @ "people of size" are EXCLUDED by a door frame

  • says:

    I very much appreciate hearing from people who bring forward difficulties in access or welcoming of others to any worship space. We lease a chapel with wide chairs. The pulpit is movable and on the same level as the congregational seating. Our pastor, at Uhill in Vancouver is an Aaron, you are welcome here anytime. Blessings