Starting any new Christian program is always an “iffy” situation.  There are volunteers, financial and membership concerns.  In the special needs community, there are also transportation and supervision issues.  Another issue that will almost always crop up are hygiene concerns.

It’s true that most people aren’t going to discuss this in polite company.  Yet as the entire population of the US ages, personal hygiene is becoming an ongoing matter of offence.  Many of the people who are mentally challenged are meticulously fastidious in their appears and body cleanliness.  However, it is difficult to smell yourself and aging may even deadens our ability to smell.  Therefore, your members may not know that they have become offensive to the general public because of the odor in their clothes and on their bodies.

I’ve heard several different opinions regarding this.  In fact, I’ve even written about the issue.  Usually, I fall down on the side of those who say, “I’m not your mama.”  I can suck up and endure almost any odors, even in my automobile.  However, others are not able to do this.  Some are hypersensitive in their ability to detect and endure body odors.  Because we need to transport people in a ministry within the mentally challenged community, this becomes an added concern.

One ministry head had to ask a young lady to not attend because her body odors were so offensive and strong that no one would allow her to ride in their cars because she left a permanent, terrible smell in their cars.  Her mother would not transport the young woman because she, also, did not want the offending odor in her car.  “Oh, no!” the mother reported to the program leader when asked to transport her daughter.  “I haven’t let RoseAnna ride in my car for years.  Haven’t you smelled her?  She refuses to bathe; and I can no longer force her to do it.  Even the bahavorialist that the agency brought in wasn’t able to get her to bathe.”

We cannot force people to bathe and change their clothes; but volunteers also cannot be forced to pick up people who destroy their personal property, such as the interiors of their cars.  In discussing this problem with board members, staff and volunteers, there is a great variety of opinions in how to handle the issue.

Because our choir members meet the public, we are pretty clear regarding our hygiene requirements.  The choir must have on clean clothes and have a bath before each performance.  That is spelled out in each memo that I send home. 

If this issue fits into the Bible study lesson, I will hit it pretty hard.  I am honest and forthright about the dilemma.  The Old Testament is very concrete regarding hygiene.  There are many chapters in the Law that describe hygienic requirements.  Nevertheless, “cleanliness is next to godliness” is an axiom, NOT a scripture passage.  But there are many other passages that clearly indicate that God is concerned about this issue. 

I see this as a problem with “normal” folks as well as our population.  There aren’t many social occasions with older men and women where someone doesn’t come armed with an offensive odor.  Therefore,  my usual stand remains that if you wouldn’t approach a person without a disability, why would you do it to a member?

Others I know have taken people aside and instructed them about their personal hygiene issues.  I have never done this, except with our choir.  Some of my staff and volunteers have adamantly disagreed with this position.  If a volunteer transports people, I’ve suggested that they carefully and with respect discuss the issue with a member.  If they don’t transport people, I’ve asked that I be a part of ANY one-on-one discussion they have with a member.

There does not seem to be any clear-cut guidelines that address this point.  Even among ministry heads there do not seem to be a firm, concrete, written policy about hygiene worries.  Do you have an answer?  Are we neglecting our responsibility as teachers by not addressing the issue face to face?  Or is it none of our business and we should take the “I’m not your mama” attitude?