Pets provide companionship, loyalty and healing, along with a warm head in the lap and a wet lick on the cheek. Recent studies have shown that pets can help their owners through difficult times. Churches throughout the United States are taking notice of furry, feathered or gilled family members. Whether sponsoring a guide dog training program or comforting humans whose pet has died, many UCC congregations are honoring the bond between church members and their animals.
The Rev. Rebecca Brown (center) greets church members at Ipswich, Mass., and their pets during pet blessing Sunday.
Church helps dogs become guiding eyes
Bill and Alice LeBlanc, members of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Nashua, N.H., have been faithful in their ministry as puppy trainers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. GEB, a nonprofit guide dog school established in 1954, provides trained guide dogs for the visually impaired. Twelve years ago, the LeBlancs became puppy raisers. They bring home 8- week-old puppies from the Guiding Eyes Cryogenics Lab (GEB breeds all their own puppies, mostly Labradors and German Shepherds) in the hopes that the dogs will go on to graduate the program and become guide dogs. For 18 months, the LeBlancs housebreak each puppy, teaching them to sit, stay and come, as well as exposing the puppies to any public area where a blind person may go with a guide dog. Bill and Alice might be seen with their puppy at a department store, a doctor's office, a subway and even an airplane. But the first stop the LeBlancs always make with their dogs is their own church.
"The people at church are so supportive of the program," says Bill. "They come over and they know the do's and the don'ts of how to handle the dog. If the dog has a [training] jacket, they know limited contact is required."
Bill brings the puppy to coffee hour after worship, where the children can play with the dog. "The dog is learning how to react with children, how to react with people. And it also learns how to be quiet for an hour in the service," says Bill.
Of course, being quiet for a whole hour might prove difficult for a puppy-in-training. Bill fondly remembers a time when his puppy let out a loud groan right in the middle of the sermon. Bill remembers his pastor, the Rev. Ed Koonz, handling the breach of silence with good humor. He laughs. "[Koonz] said, 'I guess it's time to cut that sermon short!'"
Now training their seventh puppy, a Labrador named Germaine, Bill has become an area coordinator for his region of New Hampshire. He credits Pilgrim Congregational UCC for not only being financially supportive to the GEB program, but also generously offering space in the church for the GEB meetings.
Between meetings, Bill takes Germaine to do presentations at schools, civic organizations, Lion's clubs and other churches.
Occasionally, the LeBlancs will go somewhere and be told, "We really don't want your dog here." Once they explain the program, however, the dogs are welcomed with open arms. And the puppies are on their best behavior. "One of the best compliments that a person can give us," says Bill, "is, 'We didn't even know there was a dog there.'"
Pets are a blessing in Ipswich, Mass.
The Rev. Rebecca Brown, pastor of First UCC in Ipswich, Mass., had never done a pet blessing service until two girls from her Sunday School, Rachel and Elizabeth Carbonneau, approached her about it three years ago. The first year, the Carbonneau sisters took it upon themselves to make arrangements, buying various cat and doggy treats—even animal crackers for the people—and making sure there were bowls of fresh water for the animals who came to the springtime service. Three years later, the yearly pet blessing is a mainstay on the church calendar.
"People's relationship with their pets are so close," says Brown. "The way people experience unconditional love from their pets is so profound. It is a way they come to know God's love, through the love they share with their animals."
Brown often schedules the pet blessing around the birthday of Francis of Assisi. "We read some prayers and poems by St. Francis because he is a such a great spiritual father of loving animals and caring for them," Brown explains. Hymns such as "For the Beauty of the Earth" are appropriate since the text is based on the writings of St. Francis.
"We sing a hymn and the dogs, of course, when they get near each other, bark like crazy," says Brown. "It's great if you can be outdoors, because the noise really echoes around."
Each person introduces his or her pet, providing an opportunity for pet lovers to get acquainted. Then Brown goes around the circle and places her hand on the head of each animal. "I pray that God would watch over that animal, bless it, keep it safe, help it to be free from illness," says Brown, "and to know the love of its family and also to give love back." After the blessing, each animal is given a treat. "Then there is lots of barking and wagging of tales," says Brown. "It's definitely the rowdiest service I do!"
Jacob's Circle supports church members grieving a pet's death
The Rev. Evan Farrar learned something after his cat died in January 2003. "I realized how [the death of a companion animal] is not addressed as a legitimate spiritual issue and grieving concern," he says. "Even ministers, colleagues whom I love and respect, would say, 'Oh, it's just your cat?'"
When Farrar was called to serve North Port (Fla.) Community UCC earlier this year, he was determined to start his own support group for people grieving the death of a pet. Jacob's Circle, named for Farrar's cat, meets the last Thursday of each month.
The support group is intentionally a community outreach, so Farrar keeps the meetings interfaith. Forming a circle around the altar, attendees bring pictures of their pets and are invited to light a candle in his or her memory. Attendees introduce themselves and tell about their pets, or any issues they might be having since the death of the pet. Farrar leaves time for silent prayer, and reads a responsive litany he wrote about animals and loss. In addition, "Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care," by Andrew Linzey (The Pilgrim Press, 1999) provides spiritual and uplifting readings to share at the Jacob's Circle meetings.
Farrar's support group has gotten the attention of a nearby humane society, which has asked him to start a Jacob's Circle for their volunteers and employees who often suffer feelings of loss when an animal dies or is adopted. Farrar is glad to oblige.
"Pet grief support groups can only happen, I think, if you're not worried about steady, regular numbers," explains Farrar. "Sometimes nobody will show up, sometimes you'll have 10. This is just something I do no matter what. Even if it's just me that shows up, then I'm remembering and honoring the cat that I loved so much." Farrar also offers individual counseling time for those who want to talk about the loss of a companion animal.
"I believe that if people can see and appreciate the spirituality of animals, then in some way they're appreciating the mystery of God and the mystery that is in all of creation," says Farrar. "Embracing that mystery is so important."
At Beatitudes, pet ministry is intergenerational
Strolling along the hallways of The Beatitudes Campus of Care's skilled care nursing facility in Phoenix, Ariz., you're likely to see the resident cat elusively ducking in and out of rooms, or one of the nurses' Bassett Terrier mix, sitting on a resident's lap. Tonto, a black Labrador pet therapy dog, comes to visit every so often and sits, waiting expectantly to be petted.
The Beatitudes Campus, an outreach ministry of the Church of the Beatitudes UCC, is home to more than 600 people living in residential and assisted living apartments or the skilled care nursing facility. The campus also includes Age Link, an intergenerational child care center - the residents at the nursing facility are visited frequently by the children from Age Link, just as the children are visited by the residents of the Campus.
Kathy Deyo, activity coordinator for Vermillion Cliffs, the Alzheimer's and dementia unit at Beatitudes, sees the difference a visit from a pet therapy dog can make. "Dogs are such a comfort," she says. "It's a hands-on thing, because the dog is warm, it makes them feel good. You can see the smiles on their faces when the dog shows up on the unit."
And the dogs seem to sense they are there for a purpose, believes Deyo. "Of course, all dogs love to be petted," says Deyo, "but they will sit so patiently," and can calm an agitated resident.
Each year, the Church of the Beatitudes gathers the communities together for a pet blessing ceremony. This year, Dudley, a retired pet therapist, was present alongside Cinnamon, one of the new pet therapy dogs. Others brought cats, rabbits, even a turtle. Still others brought pictures of beloved pets who had passed away during the year.
The unique ceremony is a direct reflection of the intergenerational philosophy of the Beatitudes Campus, where animals, children and older adults live together and share their mutual affection. "It's the best thing we do here," says Deyo. "If you could have pets, children and music all day, you would find a great difference in your residents."
For ideas on honoring pets in worship, see "Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care," by Andrew Linzey (The Pilgrim Press, 1999). To learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which provides guide dogs to visually-impaired persons, go to guiding-eyes.org.