America: O when the dogs … go marching in!

The Rev. Tom Eggebeen leads the Sunday afternoon canine service at Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Westchester area of Los Angeles. Ryan LaRochelle sits in the front row with his Chihuahua-terrier Lilliana.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA. You can imagine all your own jokes about dogs going to church, and members of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles have heard every one of them 100 times since they began regular weekly worship services with their pets nearly a year ago.

“I have to admit, even I call it the Doggie Church sometimes,” chuckled the Rev. Tom Eggebeen, a Michigan transplant to Los Angeles three years ago. He has seen the biggest growth in his aging and previously shrinking congregation by launching this weekly, Sunday-afternoon service at which parishioners can bring along their four-legged best friends.

“We asked a focus group of cats if we should include them and they all agreed the dogs need church more than they do,” joked Eggebeen, laughing then apologizing. “Sorry. You can imagine that I needed to develop quite a few lines like that to get people to lighten up and open up to this concept.

“Here’s the simple truth: Where there is love, there is God. For many people, especially people living alone, their dogs are their best friends, really essential companions in their lives. And we always emphasize: We’re not worshipping dogs. We’re worshipping God. But in this worship service, we welcome the whole family, including our four-legged family members.”

On Sunday afternoon, Eggebeen showed up just after 4 p.m. to arrange seating for up to 30 humans and their pets at the 5 p.m. service. He spread out chairs and fluffy white dog pads, using the chapel’s space lengthwise to face a side altar. The arrangement places him just an arm’s reach away from the long front row in this casual service. Occasionally, he pets someone’s dog himself. During the offering, ushers pass both a collection plate that the humans fill and a basket of dog treats that the canines empty.

“My dogs are my best friends,” said Ryan Gerardveal, who visited the canine service for the first time on Sunday with his friend Ryan LaRochelle to see how it all unfolds at Covenant. Gerardveal said he was skeptical about this whole idea, so brought neither of his dogs, a Pomeranian and a pit bull. But, on Sunday, he said he was impressed to see LaRochelle take a seat in the front row and cradle his Chihuahua-terrier, Lilliana, on his lap throughout the service. The little dog seemed to enjoy the experience and Gerardveal left convinced that he should return with one of his own four-legged friends on a future Sunday.

“I can see that I shouldn’t bring the pit bull. That’s probably not a good idea with this many dogs in one room, but I do think I’ll bring the Pomeranian,” he said. “My dogs are a very important part of my life. When I don’t have a friend to talk to, I can always talk to the dogs. We don’t speak the same language, but I can always depend on them to listen. Can’t always say that about other friends, can you?”

The canine service lasts only 30 minutes, but the liturgy follows a traditional Christian pattern with an opening call to worship, the Lord’s prayer, a scripture reading, a sermon, hymns and a slight adaptation changing the traditional “prayers for the people” to “prayers for the people and animals.”

At that point in the service, Eggebeen invites people to lay a hand on their pets and join in prayer for the concerns of the world, their lives and their pets.  On Sunday, during those prayers, Eggebeen added: “We also pray for animals living in distress. We remember all those animals who are living under deplorable circumstances.”

During this prayer time, individual prayer concerns from the congregation are mentioned by Eggebeen, as they are in thousands of other churches nationwide. But, this list of prayer requests also includes pets struggling with cancer or other major challenges. On Sunday, he also announced that one pet had died the previous week. Eggebeen asked parishioners to remember that family in their own prayers this week.

“Other than the doggie treats during the offering and that one portion in our prayers, this is otherwise an ordinary Christian worship service,” Eggebeen said.

Now that two dozen people regularly attend with their pets, Eggebeen plans to organize a new planning team to shape the future of the program formally called “Canines at Covenant.” The church likely will continue to limit worship to dogs, most of whom have learned to get along with each other in the chapel each week.

“Could we add other kinds of pets? Maybe, but dogs seem to work best. Who knows? We’re really in uncharted territory here,” said Eggebeen, who has no vested interest other than the welfare of his congregation. He lives with his wife Donna in a small apartment and they don’t own a pet themselves. “We got this started because people at Covenant really wanted it. Since we got some media attention last year, we did hear about a church in Omaha that tried this for a while, but it didn’t work out for them in the long term. This takes a lot of ongoing planning. It’s not easy.

“When we first started this, we did get a handful of very nasty emails, stuff like: ‘It’s an abomination for dogs to be in a house of worship,’” he said. “But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And what we’ve seen in the first nine months is that most of the people who attend the canine service had not been attending worship for a long time, if at all. So, if this brings people back to church with their entire family, I’m all for it.”

(Photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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