“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.” —Robert Louis Stevenson
It’s hard to remember exactly how it began. Maybe it was when it was so cold or hot outside that we encouraged a visitor who had driven a long distance to be with us to bring their dog in from the car. Or was it when the pastor’s small Lhasa Apso was very sick and needed continuous observation and frequent attention? The precedent also could have occurred when a former church member cycled 15 miles on the bike path with her large dog and stopped in to say hello on a hot summer day when she was in town on vacation. We put out a bowl of water for her thirsty dog, and they both stayed for the worship service.
Informal, diverse, and welcoming are adjectives often used to describe our small church family in the Sun Valley mountain resort community of Idaho. There are times when there are more visitors than regular members, and we have long been accustomed to vacationers showing up with ski pants and jackets, motorcycle leathers, cycling jerseys, hiking boots, or jeans and t-shirts.
It seems natural that a considerable part of our "congregation" is now composed of creatures with four paws, fur coats, and collars around their necks. They, like us two-legged worshippers, look forward to greeting the other canine regulars on Sabbath mornings: Stanley, Koda, Lily, Emma, Esta, Moose, Jaxon, Buddy, Cheska, Rogue, and Bentley. Puccini, a fluffy white Bichon Frise, shows up for the summer-autumn season in the mountains after a winter-spring sojourn in Palm Desert.
Buddy always arrives dressed to impress with a sporty bandana.
Bentley and Rogue like to serve as greeters.
John Hall, head elder, says that being able to bring Stanley to church adds to his own enjoyment of Sabbath as he observes Stanley, an extroverted Chihuahua, reveling in the music — sometimes “singing along” — and enthusiastically greeting both his human and canine friends. Martha Miller, who gets the award for bringing the biggest dog, Jaxon, a Boxer-Rottweiler mix, believes that an unusually close bond has formed among the members as we have come to know each other’s dogs. “And these dogs serve as examples for all of us of unconditional love.”
How do visitors react when they step into the church and see dogs laying on the floor or curled up on someone’s lap? They are surprised and enthusiastic. Especially children. Many visitors have brought their “best friend” along when they return again. It also seems that people are more likely to stay for potluck and linger over lively discussions if they are not concerned about leaving a dog home alone too long. We also know that some of our visitors who drive a couple hours to join us do so more often because they can bring their best friends with them. However, if someone mentions they are allergic to dogs, the dog owners are careful about keeping their pets separated from that person.
Jaxon and Moose watch the offering plate being passed.
Esta and Cheska hear the bell that signals the end of lesson study.
We are in a dog-crazy community. One of the largest nonprofits here is Mountain Humane, an organization which thinks and acts way beyond the traditional walls of an animal shelter. During the summer, hikers can connect with a dog in the shelter at a popular trailhead and give the dog a wonderful outing for a few hours. They offer summer camps and facilitate book clubs, and their thrift store — The Barkin’ — is a go-to place for both locals and tourists. Many local FedEx and UPS drivers carry dog treats in their trucks, and lots of retail and business places offer dog treats to their customers.
The Episcopal Church here puts on an annual Blessing of the Animals service in the fall season during which pet owners can bring their pets before the clergy for a brief private moment. The clergy honor St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, in their opening remarks and after visiting with each pet and owner, there is a general blessing for all the pets assembled “to go and be the best pet you can be.”
When asked what she thought of our practice of having well-behaved dogs at church, Marlys Hall noted, “I can’t imagine animals being excluded from worship in heaven. Bringing our dogs to church adds to the diversity and welcoming nature of our congregation.”
“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” —Will Rogers
Moose sits patiently during tea time.
Stanley waits for a crumb to fall on the floor during tea time.
Juli Miller is a business development consultant for the healthcare, hospitality, and aviation industries. A member of the Adventist Forum board, she is grateful to attend a church where one is greeted by wagging tails and friendly growls.
Main image: Lily and Koda listen attentively to the service. All photos courtesy of the author.
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