CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - A group of mothers who breastfeed plan to stage a "Nurse-In" during Sunday worship at Charlotte's Elevation Church this month to show support for a South Carolina woman who said she was asked to leave the church's sanctuary because she was breastfeeding her baby.
Last Sunday, Amanda Zilliken of Lancaster, S.C., sent out a Facebook post saying, "I just got kicked out of church for breastfeeding with a cover on and directed to the bathroom. ... Shame on you elevation."
Her Facebook post, which also featured a photo of the bathroom at Elevation's Ballantyne campus, has since been shared by more than 1,500 people.
On Wednesday, Zilliken, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom, told the Observer that she "definitely" plans to participate in the "Nurse-In." But it's up in the air whether she'll decide to continue as a regular at Elevation, a church she'd driven an hour to attend most Sundays since 2015.
"As much as I love hearing the word of God from Pastor Steven (Furtick) ... I'm not sure at this time if I'll feel comfortable going back because of the way this was handled," she said. "If anything difficult arises (at Elevation), they try to hush it up."
Elevation Church said in a statement: "We do not have a policy that nursing mothers can't be in the sanctuary. A volunteer had a conversation and felt both parties arrived at the same conclusion to exit mutually. We are sorry that this in any way offended anyone. We welcome everyone and anyone to attend Elevation church."
Elevation, one of the fastest growing churches in the country, draws more than 20,000 worshipers to its nine Charlotte-area sites every weekend. Furtick, who launched the Southern Baptist church with wife Holly and seven other couples in 2006, speaks most Sundays in person at the Ballantyne campus. At the other sites, he's on screen.
Zilliken said she did last Sunday what she's always done since the birth of her youngest child, Idamae, who's now 4 months old and breastfeeding. Zilliken said she dropped off her two other children – ages 5 and 4 – at the church's eKidz child-care area. Then she went to the church auditorium's second floor, headed for the last row and took the seat nearest the door. From there, she thought, she could quickly exit in case Idamae caused any disturbance during the service.
As she's done many times before, Zilliken said, she then waited until Furtick's sermon to begin breastfeeding "so she's quiet."
That's when a volunteer approached her, Zilliken said, turned on a flashlight in the dark auditorium and asked that Zilliken follow her to the "mother's area."
"It embarrassed me, and drew people's attention," said Zilliken, who was led to a restroom to finish her 20-minutes of breastfeeding. "To take me to the mother's restroom was totally unacceptable, humiliating – and illegal."
The volunteer returned to the restroom to inform her she could go back to her seat "when you're done," Zilliken said.
But Zilliken said she was so upset by then, crying and angry, that she left after sharing her feelings with other staff members at Elevation. She said they were "unsympathetic" even though they agreed the volunteer should not have pulled her out of the service.
"I drive an hour to this church ... and I missed the whole sermon," she said. Zilliken cited laws that allow women to breastfeed in public and said she saw no one in the church complain about her quietly feeding her baby, with a cover, in the dark.
And yet, Zilliken said, the volunteer told her, "Honey, you have to understand that my job as a volunteer is to make sure everyone is comfortable, not just you."
Elevation added in its statement: "We have several designated areas for nursing moms at Ballantyne specifically – one private to allow pumping and it's close to the auditorium for convenience and the other in the actual baby area with a TV to allow mothers to still be part of the worship experience."
Ariel Tauro, a breastfeeding activist in New Jersey, saw Zilliken's Facebook post Sunday, reached out to her, and has since been working with Zilliken and other Charlotte-area mothers to organize the "Nurse-In." Tauro said the plan is for it to happen Sunday, Aug. 20, during the 11 a.m. worship service at Elevation's Ballantyne campus.
"It'll be local moms coming together to breastfeed their babies where that mother (Zilliken) was kicked out," said Tauro, 27, who has two children, ages 1 and 8, and works as a birth doula – a person hired to offer support to mothers before, during and after labor.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 16 people said they were going to the "Nurse-In" at Elevation and 78 said they were interested. They were all responding to a Facebook invitation that called for showing support for Zilliken.
"Amanda was asked to leave in the middle of church and escorted to the bathroom to continue nursing her baby 'for the comfort of others,' " the invitation read. "Lets come together and have a Nur(s)e-In to support Amanda!"
Zilliken shared her post with mother and breastfeeding sites, and received positive feedback from around the country.
She said some Elevation members have criticized her online, with a few saying she was blaming the church for the actions of a single volunteer.
One Elevation attendee offered support on Facebook and said she hoped the church would apologize to Zilliken.