Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Congregation of Creatures Great and Small

Another non-Euro blog entry. I'll be back on theme soon enough, but for now, enjoy another report from Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

"During my sermon I ask that there be no talking or barking," joked Pastor Jeff Meyers to an audience of about 50 humans seated on folding chairs, who in turn were surrounded by about 30 dogs (plus at least one cat and a stunningly colorful parrot named "Hector"). All had gathered that Saturday morning on the North Avenue Presbyterian Church parking deck for the Blessing of the Pets, an activity that will also take place Sunday in many other churches here in Atlanta and across the country.

The sight of a pastor crouched on the ground as he pets and prays for dog after dog might strike some as unusual, but the pastors exuded a self-aware cheeriness that prevented the scene from inviting any "Daily Show"-type irreverence. And it's a scene that may become increasingly normal to witness; the Blessing of the Pets has been growing rapidly in popularity, says Pastor Meyers.

The origins of the event extend back to the activities of a 13th century friar and animal lover, St. Francis of Assisi, explained Tim Rogers-Martin, Executive Associate Pastor for Equipping Ministries, who chatted while he cradled his own dog, "Sunday," a stray who had been found at a church on that day of the week over 15 years ago. St. Francis's feast day falls on October 4, and so the first weekend of that month is a natural time to celebrate the value of animals.

Explained Pastor Meyers, "These services developed out of Roman Catholic tradition, especially the Anglican and the Episcopalian tradition…Four or five years ago we started doing our own at North Avenue."

In the five years that Pastor Meyers has been employed at North Avenue, he has seen attendance at the blessings swell. "I think it was All Saints [Episcopal] that first did the blessing of the animals [in Midtown Atlanta]," he says, gesturing in the direction of that church. "Then, we started doing it, and then the Lutheran church down the street started doing it. A lot of different churches are doing it--not only for the congregation members, but for the community. And in five years…that's a lot of blessing of the animals!"

Some animals in attendance could use a little hope. Scott and Solange Han-Barthelemy arrived with their "torby" (part tabby, part tortoiseshell) cat, Penny, in a carrier. Penny is 12 years old and faces surgery for cancer in the coming days.

The sermon began with Psalm 148, which makes much mention of animals as part of the creation, including "Creeping things and flying birds." Pastor Meyers then said, "We have caused the animal kingdom needless suffering."

In an interview afterward, he expatiated on that theme. "I wouldn't say this as an employee at North Avenue," he explained, "but for me, personally, I'm a vegetarian. I believe people need to take into consideration the sentience of animals--the fact that animals can feel suffering." He explains that as animals are a part of God's creation, and that our treatment of the natural world comes back around to impact us, essentially a "Blessing of the Animals" is a blessing for all of creation.

The issue of whether or not animals have souls, and therefore whether or not pets and their human owners will be reunited in Heaven, is one that has been debated for centuries. Does the bestowing of blessings on pets suggest belief in an afterlife for Fido?

"God has not given us access to these answers," Pastor Meyers says. "We do know that in the eschatological vision of the end of all things, there seem to be animals there symbolizing peace. Now is that just metaphorical, or is that literal? I don't know. But I know that it's there, and that God does care about animals a lot. They are part of his creation. I am more concerned about the ethical treatment of animals here, and I leave the questions of the afterlife to faith."

Faith has already guided Charlotte Carmichael to an answer. While her border collie, Sada, played energetically around her feet, she said, "I believe all dogs go to heaven. And cats. All of them." She paused. "Except maybe snakes," she concluded with a laugh.

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