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Faithful Following, Part 3: Creed of Compassion

The HSUS's Faith Outreach Campaign brings the message of animal advocacy to an audience of believers

All Animals magazine

  • The HSUS's Christine Gutleben took a group from the Q conference to a shelter just outside Portland, Ore.  Andrea J. Wright/The Wright Pictures

by Karen E. Lange

Though conservative churches focused for many decades on winning individual human souls, the conference is about moving beyond that and engaging with the wider world, explains Q founder Gabe Lyons, author of The Next Christians. “They like being challenged,” he says of those at the conference. “They don’t assume they know everything about everything.” Q is supposed to inspire them to reform and restore the culture, to become a sort of Christian counterculture. In the case of animal welfare, the Gospel—the good news that Jesus preached—supports this.

Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? (Luke 12:6)

After the presentation, there are free animal-friendly lunches, featuring wrap sandwiches. For many people it’s the first such meal they’ve ever eaten. Also 200 complimentary copies of a grim and imposing book called CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation): The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Conference gift bags contain the HSUS-produced DVD Eating Mercifully. And there is a visit to a county animal shelter, which Gutleben says will provide a realistic picture of pet overpopulation. Just three women go along—while other conference goers head off to spend the afternoon at other Q events, touring Nike headquarters, visiting art galleries, or sipping microbrews and tasting oysters—but they’re deeply interested. “These are the forgotten animals,” Gutleben says on the way over, leaning from the front passenger seat over the headrest so she can talk to them face to face. Fortunately, it’s a solvable problem, she tells them: If more people adopted from shelters—and more resources were available to help pet owners in need—pet homelessness could end. “Churches can play a huge role in this.”

Most of all, there is Gutleben herself, a former financial account executive turned divinity school graduate who in 2009 traveled cross country with a Christian rock band. She is all smiles, irrepressible, relentlessly positive, whether holding one of the very fat cats at the shelter or encountering a woman on the conference floor whose friend turns her in for eating chicken for lunch instead of the HSUS-provided sandwich. As it happens, Gutleben’s mother, Candace, up from the San Francisco Bay area, is by her side, sharing her own passion for the cause. The elder Gutleben, like the younger, has the ability to approach anybody and instantly engage them in a conversation. If, in some people’s minds, animal welfare has connotations of animal rights activists bent on overthrowing the social order, there could not be anyone more reassuring than these two. They are wholesome and churchgoing and kind, even as they carry a gospel, a message, every bit as world-changing as Jesus’.

And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Matthew 11:6)

The HSUS’s Faith Outreach Campaign is four years old but still in its beginnings. It started with a staff of one, Gutleben, who had to demonstrate to colleagues that the faith community is a natural ally. The work to be done is vast. So for now, the campaign’s outreach to religions outside Christianity focuses on a newly formed advisory council—with a rabbi, an Islamic scholar, an evangelical scholar, and a priest—and efforts to make their observances, such as kosher and halal slaughter, more humane. Much of the rest of the campaign centers on connecting with large evangelical nondenominational churches because they are dynamic and fast-growing, and have not been on the forefront of the animal welfare movement.

Gutleben and her staff recruit congregations to host clinics for vaccinating and microchipping pets, and they encourage church food banks to collect and distribute pet food. They sponsor screenings of Eating Mercifully and provide “St. Francis Day in a Box” kits that include the DVD and other resources, such as The HSUS’s booklet on organizing animal protection ministries. The campaign is building a database of churches with such ministries so they can share ideas and connect. A year ago in Washington, D.C., Faith Outreach held its first national summit of religious leaders—35 evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Seventh Day Adventists—who met with the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Another summit, at which Catholics are represented, will take place this month.

The campaign’s success is the result of years of hard work and two converging trends: The HSUS’s growing influence and churches’ rediscovering their legacy of caring for the earth and its creatures.

At the same time, the work moves as much by the Spirit, one might say, as it does according to plan. This year, for example, a nationally known hymn writer was inspired to support The HSUS after learning about the campaign online. At Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del., the Rev. Carolyn Gillette and her husband and copastor, Bruce Gillette, have held several blessings of the animals on St. Francis Day in October. She took the well-known tune for the hymn “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and wrote new words to create “O God Your Creatures Fill the Earth.” The new hymn was posted online for use by United Methodist churches and by The Text This Week, a website used by ministers across denominations. Verse three: “Lord, bless the animals we keep; may all farms be humane.”

Part 4: One Believer at a Time »

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