A 'small but mighty' Pennsylvania congregation is showing love to its neighbors young and old, by going to the dogs. Using pet therapy, St. James United Church of Christ is filling the gaps in its community, with a reading program for elementary schoolers and a visitation program for seniors with intellectual disabilities—ministries served by church volunteers with two and four legs.
"We realized there were kids who needed confidence and greater proficiency in reading, and people with developmental disabilities who had been moved from campus housing to residences in the community," said the Rev. Lynn Lampman, pastor of the Havertown, Penn., congregation. "It is amazing to see how the dog provides significant help with anxiety and creates an atmosphere of unconditional love — it's no accident "dog" is "God" spelled backward — and a place where we can start our conversations."
The church began working last summer in partnership with PAWS for People, the largest pet therapy organization in the Mid-Atlantic region, when St. James' 59 members began to identify ways they "could serve their community to create a more just world in four areas: helping families dealing with addiction, helping those undergoing cancer treatment, supporting the LGBT community in their relationships, and developing a pet therapy program to help children and developmentally disabled adults," said member Maureen McGurk.
Since July church volunteers have been setting up monthly pet visits with seniors and offering hour-long reading sessions with therapy dogs for elementary school students. They are also creating and delivering care packages for cancer patients, and holding workshops with a dozen LGBTQ couples. Another workshop planned for next month hopes to offer assistance to people struggling with addiction.
The St. James pet therapy program started with Luna, the pastor's golden retriever and PAWS certified therapy dog. Lampman, volunteering with Luna in the PAWs for People reading program at a local library, knew there was a waiting list. The church decided to become a partner/host site, where kids come to pair with and read aloud to dogs, to meet that growing need in the community. Now a PAWs training facility, the St. James' program has three dogs and their handler teams, several volunteers and 18 readers enrolled.
"In the nearly a year we have been doing the program, we have seen children's (5 years-old through 6th grade) confidence, ability and joy of reading significantly increase," Lampman said. "An additional byproduct we had not originally intended, but ended up seeing is children receiving comfort and grief from the pet therapy dog after their own dog had died, and (others) getting more comfortable and familiar with dogs with the hopes of their family being able to get their own dog."
Pet therapy is just one of several ways the church is embracing the UCC's 3 Great Loves (3GL) initiative. 3GL, which runs through General Synod 2019, is a visible witness to the denomination's collective efforts in one uniting mission. It embraces the many types of ministry in which United Church of Christ congregations are already engaged — expressions of Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation — working toward making a more just world for all as God's hands and feet.
Church volunteer Cheryl Trump knew her Labrador/terrier mix, Joy, had the right temperament to be a good therapy dog.
"I wanted to get involved so I went through the training program. It takes a special dog to sit patiently while a young child sits with them and reads," she said. "Each month Joy and I look forward to the PAWS reading night at St. James. I see smiles on children as they come into the Sunday school room and sometimes a see a little fear as they approach Joy. Some of the children have never been around a dog and I show them how loving, quiet and patient Joy is and they begin to relax. It makes me smile when a child holds the book up to show Joy the pictures as they read. At the end of their reading time a tender hug and sometimes a kiss on Joy's head as the child walks away saying 'see you next month Joy.' Our reading program for me is an example of the fruit of the spirit we express here at St. James: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness." Gal 5:22
The pet therapy program, both for the young readers and the elder developmentally disabled, gives all members of St. James an opportunity to participate in the work of the church.
"My own children love being involved in the pet therapy program as volunteers. They both are animal lovers (especially dogs) and there really aren't many ways that younger children can volunteer with animals. This gives them the chance to do that," McGurk said. "They help sign the children in, help them with choosing books and which dog they want to read to.They help keep time for the reading sessions and have the children stamp their cards when they are finished reading (they get a free PAWS tee shirt after five sessions). It has been very positive."
The program also exposes the young volunteers and young participants to new realities.
"One experience I was especially grateful for is when my son and I volunteered to help with the PAWS holiday party for the developmentally disabled seniors," McGurk said. "We helped with the craft project. It gave my son (age 12) the opportunity to interact with adults he may have never met if it weren't for this program. When it was finished he said, 'They were really nice.'"
"It gives kids the opportunity to practice reading aloud in a low-stress environment. As an elementary teacher, I see how stressful school has become with all the emphasis on standards and high-stakes tests," McGurk continued. "Our PAWS participants don't have to worry about how many words they get wrong or how fast they are reading (often when they read aloud to their teachers in school we are required to keep track of these things). They can just practice without worry."
"The other thing we feel good about is exposing people to what a church can be like—love incarnate—a place and people that not only talks about justice and equity, but works for it too," Lampman said. "We serve as a corrective to the negative images that have been portrayed about what a church is, what it believes, who 'belongs,' and how it behaves. I can imagine Jesus would have had a pet therapy dog and his disciples too, if there had been such a thing in his time. Pet therapy is not only consistent with his message, but is a wonderful and amazing vehicle for the message he came to bring, and has given us to share and live out.
"We like to see it as a great new adventure with each other, God, and the community."