Four-footed congregants

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered | August 18, 2013

For the audio of this story, please click here.

Here’s a modified version of the public-radio radio script:

Right outside Lexington, Kentucky, tucked into the green hills of thoroughbred country, is a small town with a big name: Paris. It is everything you would imagine a small town to be: quiet, safe, friendly. Church is a defining part of life, as it is for many people across Kentucky. But in Paris, a little country church welcomes a very different breed of congregants. They arrive for Sunday services not on two feet, but four.

Ann Hollingsworth and Pastor Dow Cobb are chatting outside on the steps of Hopewell Presbyterian Church when Meabh, a black lab, and Poppi, a border collie, hurtle out of a silver truck and scamper up to the door. The pastor cautions me about Poppi, saying it takes the dog a little while to warm up to strangers.

For 30 years, people have brought their dogs to services at Hopewell. Welcoming pets is part of the church’s commitment to honoring the earth and all its creatures. The more you talk to Hopewell’s congregants, the more you realize, it’s not so much that people are bringing their dogs to church, but that dogs are bringing their people to church.

Fra Vaughan is Poppi, the border collie’s mom. As she heads inside for services, Vaughan says the dogs make the atmosphere relaxed and down-home. “A lot of churches you have to prescribe to certain behaviors, certain dress, and here you come just to be a better person,” says Vaughn.

During the service, Woody Moore, his wife, and their two white English setters, Clem and Rufus, sit in the last pew. Hank, a sharp-eyed terrier, comes over and inspects the two dogs. Rufus is 2 and still has some puppy in him. He’s wiggling around.

Woody Moore used to endure church. When he went. Then he and his wife started coming to Hopewell with Clem and Rufus. “It was more spiritual for me,” says Moore. “Both of our children are out of the house, so our dogs are our constant companions and company. Being able to bring them here makes a great difference in our lives.”

When it comes time for prayer requests, people ask for the normal things, like help for ailing parents. But often, there are requests for sick animals. For months the congregation held fast that Maisie, a lamb born prematurely on congregant Sara Dunham’s sheep farm, would make it. Says Cobb, “We had prayed Maisie through until against everything that medical science would say, her legs had straightened out, and she was fine with her legs and her digestive system, and then Hickory the horse stepped on her.”

To everyone’s relief, Maisie pulled through, and she’s fine today.

Ann Hollingsworth lives behind the church with Hank, that inquisitive terrier, who’s Hopewell’s unofficial deacon. Ann’s late husband, Donn, was Hopewell’s pastor for years. The church became dog-friendly after the couple started bringing Coco, their poodle mix, to services in the ‘80s.

Inside the little gray-brick church, old wooden pews have been painted sky blue. The carpet matches, and a cloud-white ceiling arches overhead.

Pastor Dow Cobb says the dogs actually aren’t the unique thing for him about Hopewell. He says it’s the first church he’s been involved with that doesn’t expect or insist its members follow a prescribed set of beliefs. Cobb also says that at Hopewell, fundamentalists and agnostics, conservatives and liberals, sit, pray, and argue with each other side by side. “We celebrate different positions, and it doesn’t mean that we have to be angry with each other or dislike each other,” Cobb says. “We’re all lost in the woods together down here at night, you know?”

The people at Hopewell say they’ve found a place of worship where they can be themselves, in the same way dogs are always naturally who they are.