October 20, 2011
Faithful Following, Part 5: Project Compassion
Church ministries protect and celebrate animals
by Karen E. Lange
The service takes place in a church basement. Worshippers sit on stackable vinyl chairs. An iPod provides musical accompaniment. Occasionally the barking gets so loud the Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas has to stop because she can’t be heard.
But for the 40 to 50 people who show up one Sunday evening a month at Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Mass., the 30-minute Perfect Paws Pet Ministry service is sacred: a chance to share their love and grief for their pets and each other, and an opportunity to connect to God. Some drive an hour or more each way, whiskery companions in tow.
There’s Nibbles, a German shepherd adopted by a retired Marine after the military dog was wounded while sniffing out roadside bombs in Iraq. When the veteran served in Vietnam during the 1970s, orders forced his fellow soldiers to abandon the dogs they were working with. Nibbles is his way of putting that right. “Marines don’t leave Marines behind,” he says. And there is Jumma, a Rhodesian ridgeback beloved by Deanna Grimm and Charlotte Norris—present at least in memory. After he died in July, he was honored during an August service with a video and a quilt made by a friend with bandanas accumulated from grooming sessions over the years. And there are Ethel and Lucy, a pair of Yorkies rescued from a puppy mill and adopted by Don and Debbie Mailloux. Once their fur was matted. Now they sport carefully coordinated clothes.
Following some scuffling amongst the dogs, candles are lit and the service begins—a compressed version of the normal liturgy, complete with Holy Communion. Miraculously, the leashed dogs (and the odd cat or gerbil) focus on the homemade wooden altar and cross at the front of the room and, for the most part, sit still. Afterwards are blessings and prayers and treats for the pets, as well as their people.
Fran Weil came up with the idea for the service in 2010 after an outpouring of warmth from fellow congregants helped her cope with the painful decision to put down one of her dogs—he was 12 and had bladder cancer. “There’s a need to recognize those creatures that have tails and paws, that really fill our world with so much beauty ... and teach us about compassion,” she says. “... They’re deeply spiritual and wonderfully soulful.”
The Perfect Paws ministry includes a foster and adoption network and a pet bereavement support group. Churches elsewhere in the country are finding other ways to incorporate animals into their work. Dorchester Presbyterian in Summerville, S.C., a rapidly developing suburb of Charleston, bought 42 acres of wetlands adjoining the church property to preserve it for wildlife—deer, foxes, owls, turkeys, raccoons, opossums, turtles, and frogs. McLean Bible Church in Virginia enlists a dozen or so volunteers to take their pets, mostly dogs, to nursing and retirement homes, libraries that encourage kids to read to pets, and programs for disabled children. “They have kids who won’t talk to anyone, but when there is a dog, they talk to the dog,” says Nagwa Aziz, who started the Paws4Hearts ministry. The Rock in San Diego (ranked by Outreach magazine as the 23rd biggest church in the country) runs a Dog Lovers Ministry with around 40 volunteers who help out at adoption events and low-cost spay/neuter clinics, says ministry leader Nesia Britton. “We believe that a dog is a lifelong commitment, and we hold people accountable.”
Misunderstandings sometimes occur about the new ministries. After a local news anchor covering Calvary’s service quipped that “all dogs go to heaven,” Keith-Lucas had to deal with angry objections from people who thought she was out to save animals’ souls. The National Enquirer called and asked for an interview (she declined). But the controversy died down once she explained the church was trying to reach out to pet owners and inspire them to act morally by caring for God’s creation.
The bond people feel with animals is profound and powerful, Keith-Lucas says. “For many people it can be their deepest experience of God’s love.”