Welcoming dogs to church service

Weymouth church welcoming dogs, and their owners, to services

The Rev. Rachel Bickford, with 16-week-old cockapoo Indy, is starting a ''woof 'n' worship'' service at the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Weymouth. The Rev. Rachel Bickford, with 16-week-old cockapoo Indy, is starting a ''woof 'n' worship'' service at the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Weymouth. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008
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At the Pilgrim Congregational Church in North Weymouth, worshipers come in all ages, walks of life, and breeds.

This afternoon at 5, the church will hold the first of its weekly "woof 'n' worship" services, which will be open to dogs and their owners.

"The idea came to me as I was sitting reading the Bible with my two dogs at my feet," said the Rev. Rachel Bickford. "Psalm 150 says, 'Praise the Lord, let everything that breathes, praise the Lord.' And Psalm 148 reads, 'Let all wild animals, creeping things and flying birds give God praise.'

"So I thought wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to let all things praise God together and have families bring their dogs to church."

The idea, while novel, isn't unique. The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Chicago, for example, had weekly "dog walker" services this past summer. Aside from the occasional tussle between a Pomeranian and a poodle, the popular sessions went smoothly, according to church member Barbara Winters.

Those services were held outside, however; Bickford plans her "woof 'n' worships" for inside the church sanctuary every Sunday at 5 p.m.

"We're going to have doggy clean-up stations, but I'm not worried," she said. "Dog owners are very responsible folks. I fully expect it will be wonderful and that there will be a lot of giggles and all sorts of fun."

In fact, bringing joy into the church is one of Bickford's goals.

"Things are so tough on everyone right now that we forget to thank God for the good things and find the miracles of everyday life. Our animals always bring that. If you can't pay the oil bill or had a bad day at work, your dog doesn't care. He just thinks you're wonderful. Dogs listen, they don't talk back, and they give unconditional love. . . .

"I really see that as part of God's blessing here on earth - to remind us what to be thankful for, and to find joy."

Bickford also hopes the dog-friendly services - and future puppy play groups - will attract more people to her church, which has a congregation of about 80 people.

And she hopes the community of dog lovers will respond to the prayer "Dear Lord, please make me the person my dog thinks I am" and become involved with Pilgrim Congregation Church's outreach work - helping at Father Bills soup kitchen or building a house in Hingham with Habitat for Humanity next month.

Bickford, who is married with an 8-year-old daughter, Emma Faith, plans to bring her two cockapoos - 16-week-old Indy and 12-year-old Tugger - to the canine services. She'll leave the rest of her family's menagerie (which includes a cat, cockatiel, fish, guinea pig, and a hermit crab named Sparkle) at home.

She's pleased to report that all kinds of dogs will be welcome at the church, though they will have to be on leashes. When she first broached the idea, the church's insurance company said pit bulls could not attend. But the church was able to pay a little more and win a dispensation for the breed, she said.

"This was something I had prayed about and thought about," Bickford said of opening services to dogs. "Dogs bring such hope in a world where we're surrounded by such hopelessness. As I've gone through my ministry, I've noticed how dogs change people's lives. Studies show they can lower blood pressure. . . . And I thought it would be just so much fun."

For today's service, at 24 Athens St. in North Weymouth, all kinds of creatures are invited for a blessing of the animals, which will be preceded by a "pet expo" starting at noon. Activities include a dog agility demonstration, children's game, and pet vendors. The church will continue to hold its traditional services at 10 a.m. on Sundays.

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