Photography by Danny Fulgencio.

The Rev. Lisa Klaus stands at the pulpit and looks out over her congregation. As she scans the pews to see the familiar faces, she spots several furry friends sitting shoulder to shoulder with their owners.

It’s not an unusual sight at Bethany Christian Church, where four-legged members are part of the family. For years, members brought their pets to after-hours meetings. So, about two years ago, the church decided to officially welcome all God’s creatures on the grounds and in the Sunday service.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

“This is a very big pet community,” Klaus says. “We prayed about it and were led to do it. If individuals want to bring their pets to worship, we welcome that. It’s not just for the people who come every Sunday.”

Churchgoers displayed the announcement on the sign in front of the building, and it drew the attention of several neighbors, including a stray black cat someone saw staring at the letterboard, as if it wanted to attend.

“I’d never head of anything like it, so I thought I’d just go in and sit there,” says Cheryl Hudson, who has come for about a year and a half with her rat terrier, Elvis. “I came here to scoff, but I kept coming back, and I stayed.”

Congregants hope the invitation will meet a need in the community, where many residences lack a yard. The lawn in front of the church serves as a mini dog park with a Little Free Library stocked with pet treats, waste bags and books that owners can read in lounge chairs while their pets play.

Neighbors have embraced the use of the lawn, but some are still hesitant to join for Sunday service. Occasionally, the reverend will notice residents listening to worship at the door with their pets — but they’re too shy to join. If they had, newcomers would have found greeters ready with dog and cat leashes and a community of pets that behave, remarkably, like angels while sitting in the pews.

“More and more people are coming as they see that we’re pet friendly, and we really mean it,” Klaus says.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

On a Sunday morning in July, four dogs, a cat and about 20 people file into the small chapel on Oram Street. Dogs greet their pals with a friendly bark, and churchgoers welcome the pets with a belly rub or a pat on the head. During worship, dog barks mix with human voices as congregants lift a hymn of praise. Tails wag to the beat.

The most excitement comes during communion. The dogs zero in on the crackers and juice as they’re passed from person to person. Blake, a boxer-pit bull mix, gets a bite from his owner, only to have his hopes dashed when the offering plate comes around, devoid of food. Seeing his disappointment, the server pulls a treat from his pocket.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

“Blake loves churches,” owner Kim Higbie says. “We live next door, and sometimes he’ll just walk in there and get treats.”

The animals settle down once Klaus begins her sermon. The message is full of funny illustrations that resonate with people who enjoy pets in their lives. But when it becomes emotional, Elvis is there to wipe the tears from Hudson’s face.

Pets certainly help owners cope with the troubles of the world and provide a calming presence. Those qualities are celebrated each year at the church’s annual pet blessing, which takes place the first Sunday in October. During the 30-minute service, members sing songs about God’s creation, and Klaus leads the congregation in a prayer over the animals.

The service has become one of the most popular Sundays at Bethany Christian, with 18 pets blessed last year. Dogs like Rex Kirby’s standard poodle, Boudreaux, are the most common participants, but all furry, feathered and amphibious friends are welcome.

“Dogs bring joy to people,” Kirby says, “and in a church, that’s really special.”

Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

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