We have all experienced distressing incidents at one time or other in our lives. From being nervous of certain dog breeds following a childhood bite, or suffering anxiety on long car rides following a nasty car accident, we all have ‘hidden stories’ and vulnerabilities.

Now there is a plea to our parishes, congregations and individuals to show compassion for those for whom mask wearing may trigger distressing feelings.

“Now that we are starting to gather for worship again, some of our congregation’s needs have come to the fore. We might be aware of those who are sheltering and, for the first time, they may disclose they have serious underlying health issues. Similarly, those who are venturing into our buildings may be sharing a hidden disability such as Aspergers’ Syndrome or hearing loss.

“Welcome all, whether wearing a mask or not”

“Likewise, there are people, like myself, who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and rape. For those, like me, wearing a mask can be an extremely troubling experience. This is because having our face covered reminds us of a traumatic event, where we thought we were going to die of suffocation. Seeing faces covered can also trigger memories of the perpetrator, who may have worn a mask through the attack. Sadly, such crimes are far more commonplace than we previously realised and it is ever likely that there will be a survivor in your congregation. Therefore, it is imperative that we welcome all, whether wearing a mask or not, with kindness and compassion.

“Those who are close to me are aware of my particular foibles. I have always become agitated by hot air blowing on my face from a car heater (insisting on opening a window for a blast of cold air on my face). Similarly, stuffy and congested rooms see me escaping for a blast of cool air up my nostrils, as soon as possible, and hairdressers know that I never require a blow dry! Such responses are visceral and instinctive, a normal ‘fight and flight’ response to perceived threat.

“Yes, through the years I have learnt to breathe through a sense of panic in hot rooms, resisted the impulse to ‘slap’ a delightful hair stylist and coped with shut windows, in winter months, for the sake of another’s comfort.

“However, this is because I am someone who has been ruthless in seeking Christian healing and determined to recover from an overwhelming ordeal by God’s grace. There are those entering our buildings that wont have journeyed so far along the path of healing and require mindful compassion and respect.

“Recovery from sexual assault is a very personal experience, although there are common symptoms that many survivors share. They can be triggered into a place of extreme anxiety, by any number of outside influences such as smells, sights or sounds. This can lead to uncomfortable and heightened, difficult-to-control responses such as: raised pulse rate, physical shaking, sweating profusely, irregular breathing, vomiting, loss of continence and in some cases disassociation (a state of losing engagement with one’s surroundings).

“In light of this, my concern is that survivors will not be made to feel judged or frowned upon, just because they feel distressed wearing a mask. Being a victim can bring an enormous sense of shame and we can feel different or stigmatized because of the abuse. My prayer is that we, as church family, do not add to that sense of humiliation by a subtle frown or ignorant comment.

“My hope is that all ‘welcomers’ will treat the masked and unmasked with equal respect and that all those with ‘hidden stories’ can enter our church services feeling a sense of safety and acceptance, without any confrontation. That we will, as a congregation, speak gently to those who are irritated by a person not wearing a mask, for we do not know the reason why.

“Therefore, it is imperative that this message of compliance to government guidelines is matched with the compassion and care, for those who are rightfully exempt from wearing a mask. May they not being challenged or questioned in the doorway, for they are not being unlawful, they are a victim of a crime.”

While facemasks are mandatory in places of worship (see the Church of England’s guidance here), there are a number of exceptions to this rule including if putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause you severe distress.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and need to speak to someone please contact our safeguarding team on 01872 274351 or email sarah.acraman@truro.anglican.org