Breastfeeding can be a challenging act for any mother in any setting. And it may be even more difficult when mom and infant are worshiping at church.
At least it was recently for Annie Peguero, who was repeatedly asked to leave the sanctuary of a Springfield, Va., church as she breastfed her 19-month-old daughter during worship.
“My mind is blown. My mind is completely blown,” Peguero says in a video she later posted on Facebook.
Other minds were blown, too, as the incident at Summit Church made the rounds on social media and in the Washington Post on April 26.
Understandably, Peguero’s experience commanded the attention of many in the American church, especially of ministers and others concerned about the treatment of women in U.S. congregations. Those who track the church’s reputation — and its ongoing decline — also took notice.
Several who spoke with or emailed Baptist News Global on the topic said the Summit Church situation illustrates how the culture’s dysfunctional views of sexuality have infiltrated communities of faith. It also shows just how far the church has to go to become the nurturing place it needs to be to attract people to its message.
‘A lonely journey’
Some of the women interviewed were unimpressed with Summit Church’s stated concern that breastfeeding in the sanctuary could be a distraction to men and visitors, or that it could be offensive to online viewers.
“As a woman, I think the notion that men will be distracted by breastfeeding says far more about the over-sexualization of women’s bodies in our culture than it says about the supposed inappropriateness of breastfeeding in public,” Kyndall Rae Rothaus, the senior pastor at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, said in an email to BNG.
Not that discomfort around bodies is anything new for the church. Examples abound in history. These include the shock that God took bodily form in Jesus or Christ’s consumption in the form of communion, Rothaus said.
“If anywhere in our Western culture we reclaim and celebrate the beauty and miracle of our God-created bodies, let it be in the church,” she said.
What happened to Peguero also illustrates an urgent situation in much of the American church, said Merianna Neely, the pastor of New Hope Fellowship in Columbia, S.C.
“The unfair treatment of this breastfeeding mom while men who have engaged in sexual harassment, sexual abuse and spiritual abuse are welcomed into communities of faith…reveals the culture of sexual abuse and sexual harassment that permeates our country,” she said via email.
Neely said she can identify with mothers who struggle to breastfeed their children. She said it can be especially trying for women ministers.
“As a breastfeeding mother pastoring a church, I certainly understand the tension of having to feed my child, preach and lead in worship,” she said. “Breastfeeding can be a lonely journey even when you have a supportive partner and a supportive community.”
‘Banishing women from church’
Katie Morgan, the minister of spiritual formation and outreach at McLean Baptist Church in Virginia, struck a hopeful tone that more churches will eventually accept breastfeeding moms in their sanctuaries.
The practice may become acceptable in congregations as it has for crying babies, integrated worship or casual dress on Sunday mornings.
But it’s something churches need to take as seriously they do evangelism.
“We as churches do a good job being sensitive to the outside world and to our visitors, but sometimes at the expense … of those we have sitting in our pews week to week,” Morgan said.
There’s actually a biblical mandate to welcome breastfeeding moms to worship, said author, speaker and Baptist minister Alan Rudnick.
Joel 2:16 directs that the people assemble, including “’infants at the breast,’” Rudnick said. In a verse in Luke, a woman said the breast that nursed Christ is blessed.
Much of what ails the modern church is the separation of families said Rudnick, explained to BNG and in a blog post titled “Breastfeeding in Church: A Sin?”
“Families don’t share a meal any more. They are overscheduled,” he said.
Churches are guilty, too, as they split families up for different Sunday morning activities. Requiring mothers to nurse their babies in separate rooms is further step in that direction, Rudnick said.
“If the mom has to separate from her family to go to a special room, that’s just another way that churches intentionally or unintentionally separate families,” he said.
But it’s really not all that complicated of an issue, said Stephanie McLeskey, university chaplain at Mars Hill University in North Carolina.
Churches should provide special rooms for mothers who want to nurse there.
“My own child was too easily distracted to nurse well in spaces with lots to look at, so I was grateful for the provision of quiet spaces,” she said.
Women should also have the option to breastfeed in the sanctuary during worship, if that’s their preference. People who are uncomfortable with that simply need not look, she said.
“Anything short of this is tantamount to banishing women from church, and at a time of life w hen a welcoming and nourishing community is especially important.”