Jolly, Princess, Bailey, Tala- these are the names of some of my favorite congregants. Upon meeting them, you might be a bit surprised by their appearance, they are a little jumpy and are known to eat food that has fallen on the ground. They are the dogs and cats of shelter church and they are beloved.
Tala the cat was our first four-legged member. Her people were experiencing homelessness, but she was their beloved cat and they were not going to be without her. She attended our very first service. She rode around in style- her cat carrier attached to a stroller, with her litter box neatly tucked in the basket underneath the stroller. A big orange and white cat with the softest fur- she charmed many a two legged church member and they would bring her little cans of food and sneak her treats. When she inevitably would run away from her people- exploring a moment of freedom- and get lost, we would all search for her and watch the lost pet listings. We had to post bail for her a couple of times to spring her from the pound. As our fledgling congregation worked to figure out who we were and how we would be in community together, it was obvious that animals were an integral part of our family.
Jolly and Princess, both some kind of chihuahua mix, are weekly attenders. Princess lives up to her name and often comes to church in fancy outfits. She serves as a great greeter- meeting people, giving them a welcome sniff. When church moved from the parking lot to the fellowship hall for the winter, Princess sported adorable tiny diapers so she wouldn’t “christen” the church carpet. When Jolly first joined us, she was so scared and timid. She had recently been rescued by her person and she was afraid of everything. She would snuggle, huddled in her person’s arms through the service. She didn’t want to be approached, but carefully watched all that was going on. One night, Jolly escaped while on a walk. Her person was devastated. Our little church community helped hang fliers and search and we prayed fervently for her return. Days became weeks and we refused to lose hope that Jolly would be found and she was! We celebrated the power of prayer, the thought of not losing hope, and the gifts of coming home.
Bailey is a newer addition; a fluffy, energetic puppy that her person got shortly after her son died of cancer. As a pastor, I was a little leary of our member taking on the care of a dog, especially a puppy, but she assured us that Bailey was going to give her a reason to get up and out of bed in the morning and would provide that unconditional love that pets have an amazing way of doing. She was right. Bailey is a gift. She is still 100% puppy and often provides some comic relief during the service, but she also extends love to anyone who will greet her.
I am not sure why more churches don’t allow dogs and cats in the doors. They serve as a beautiful reminder of unconditional love, the wonder of God’s creation, and the need to give and receive love. I guess the same could be said for some of our two leggers, not always welcomed in other church settings, but always a reminder of God’s love. All are truly welcome at shelter church. – Pastor Erica