Recently, when a member of the Underwood Hills Presbyterian Church congregation approached Pastor Becky Balestri to begin planning her child’s baptism, she had one special request. "She asked if we could have the baptism not during Sunday service but on Thursday because she wanted the whole family to be there — the whole family is her husband, the baby and their two dogs," Balestri tells PEOPLEPets.com.Her church in Omaha, Neb., holds its "Paws and Prayers" service — specifically designed for pets and their owners every Thursday evening. After offering pet blessings during a special service every June for three years, Balestri wanted to connect with the pet owners who would only visit the church once a year. "We asked a group of dog owners how we could minister them," says Balestri, "and they asked about a weekday service where they could bring their pet."Taking pets to church, throwing dogs Bark Mitzvahs and bringing pets to blessings are just some of the many ways pet owners include their animals in their spiritual lives and acknowledge them as members of the family."Pets, dogs in particular, love unconditionally and forgive over and over again — they do that better than humans," says Balestri on the spiritual connection between pets and people.
'Pets become your family'Emily Schlansky, who owns Dog Day Afternoon doggie daycare center in Orlando, recently threw a Bark Mitzvah for her 13-year-old mixed-breed Peanut. Schlansky says, "Pets are so appreciative. It’s an experience you can’t always get from a human. It makes you more human."Schlansky believes that bonds between pets and owners are strengthening as a result of these tough economic times. "People are spending more time than ever at home with their pets. When you come in that door your pet is always happy to see you. We don’t have to spend a lot of money to nurture our pets," says Schlansky, "Just take them to the park!"Marking the feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, churches around the world perform pet blessings on or near every Oct. 4. The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City may have the largest celebration. In past years they’ve blessed camels, llamas and even elephants. About 75 members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, Calif., bring their pets to be blessed every October. For the Rev. Federico Sierra, who leads the church’s Spanish-speaking community, the inclusion of animals is innate. Sierra says, "We try to involve people in the loving of the creation, which includes animals and plants, not just people." St. Mark’s works with a local organization to include homeless or abandoned pets in their annual blessing and asks the congregation to donate toys and other pet supplies.At the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City, the annual pet blessing is the third most popular service behind Easter and Christmas. It was this turnout that led the church to welcome pets at all times. Trinity’s Rev. Michael A. Phillips says, "My predecessor did a blessing every year and out of that the thought became, 'If we bless them on one Sunday, why couldn’t we have them around other Sundays as well?' " The church also houses the New York office of the animal advocacy non-profit Mercy for Animals.Phillips says that while the church is not crawling with four-legged friends, it’s not uncommon to see five or so dogs at any given service. "Church is one of the only places all generations of a family interact. And pets are a part of the family," says Phillips, "And for single people, that dog becomes your family."
Beer, limbo and cake for dogs
In Nebraska, Balestri believes her Paws and Prayers service attracted singles who may not have otherwise attended. "Coming to church alone is a lonely thing to do," she says, "What we’ve observed is that many of the people who come to Paws and Prayers, their pets are their only companion." When Schlansky threw Peanut’s Bark Mitzvah in August, it was not only a celebration of Schlansky and her husband’s "only girl" turning 13, it was also a way to bring together the community for a good cause. The Dog Day Afternoon doggy daycare center asked guests to make a $10 donation and raised $1,300 for the SPCA.To some, the celebration, which included beer, limbo and cake — for dogs — could seem silly. "It’s just both a fun and spiritual thing," says Schlansky. "Everyone took a moment to look in their dogs' eyes and thank them for being such a loyal family member."