When Reverend Jeffrey Roy began giving his sermon on Saturday, an audience member swooped in at the seats.
“There was a dachshund, his name was Ralph, and Ralph was barking the whole time I was trying to talk,” Roy said. “I was raising my voice and Ralph was barking so hard. It turned out to be a test of wills, and I would say Ralph won.”
The scene was not necessarily unusual in St. George’s Church by the Episcopal River At Rumson, a pet-friendly worship service is held once per month during fall, winter, and spring.
“We have dogs, cats, hamsters, parrots singing together, rabbits, fish — people brought aquariums,” Roy said. “There is barking – there is always barking. It is really nice to hear. It brings some life to that space.”
Barking and bladder control
The service started five years ago. Roy noticed a strong demand for traditional Blessing of Saint Francis of Assisi for animals – Held in many churches on October 4, the Feast of the Feast of the Nature-Friendly Monk. He thought: Why not do this more often, and as a full service and not as a short blessing?
“People love their pets,” said Roy, whose dogs regularly attend the service. “It’s an opportunity to bring that part of their life into the church.”
Sometimes he holds White, half his dog, half Shelty, in his arms while he preaches. Most of the animals that attend are dogs, and they tend to get on well.
“Obviously there are some who feel rough about each other,” he said. “Others are disapproving of anyone. In all the years we’ve done this, I think I’ve had a pet related accident (a self-relieving pet) in church and that’s it. It’s like the animals know they’re in church.”
However, Roy is keen to maintain the service’s charter.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that I have a very short amount of time, about 30 minutes, before things completely get off track and I lose control between the bark etc,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the service regularly brought more than 50 people to St. George with their pets. After closing, attendees again creep towards that number.
“There are five or ten people who regularly attend the pet service and that’s the only church they get,” Roy said. “This is the home of their church, and their service is that of pets. Whatever we can do for people to share the good news, to preach Jesus and to bring Jesus to people, if it takes dogs and cats sitting in church, I’m all for it.”
“You are with people who understand”
Eileen Schimper, a realtor who lives in the Atlantic Highlands, brings her three dogs every month. Raised a Catholic and regular in the grace of St. Francis of Assisi, I first heard about and experienced the service of St. George last year.
“I’ve seen how wonderful Reverend Jeff is and how welcoming the devotees are, and it just felt so wonderful to be there with a group of people who love pets the way I do,” Schembre said. “I felt so integrated. It has become something I put on my calendar, and now I try to do it every single time.”
On Saturday, she and her daughter Eileen Militello attended with her 2-year-old Friese Ruby, her 15-year-old toy poodle Edie and her 11-year-old poodle rescue Ozzy, who is battling some serious health issues. They loved this.
“I used to be in public,” Schembre said. “Sometimes the dog might bark or whine, but you’re with the people who get it.”
Schembre, who has been working in animal rescue, appreciates how Roy doesn’t just provide a service to animals; Make it up about them.
It’s not like, ‘Hey, how are you? “Nice dog,” said Schembre. “He includes them in his spiritual talks. They are God’s creatures too.”
This is part of Roy’s sermon, dogs barking and all.
“The primary message our pets share is that they are perfect examples of God’s unconditional love,” Roy said. “If you’re trying to figure out what God looks like in your life, take a look at what truly unconditional love looks like. When you accidentally step on the tail of your dog or cat and hear that cry and you’re totally terrified, and not two minutes later, they’re saying, ‘Hey, how are you?'” And they are on your lap. My message is to show how much love is in these relationships, and how we should view our relationship with God in this way.”
Future pet-friendly worship services will be held at St. George’s Church by the Episcopal River in Romson on November 12, December 10, January 14, February 11, March 11 and May 13, all at 5 p.m.
Jerry Carino is a community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the interesting people of the Jersey Shore, inspiring stories, and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]
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