Santa Rosa church welcomes all, including dogs

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They snooze during the sermons and sprawl in the aisles. Their tails wag whenever parishioners stop to acknowledge them with a gentle pat on the head or a few strokes of affection.

These churchgoing dogs aren’t service animals or social-therapy pets. They are welcome members of the congregation at Thanksgiving Lutheran Church in Santa Rosa, where the “Come as You Are” motto extends to people and their pooches.

The dogs accompany their families to the hourlong Sunday morning service, with shelter rescues and championship show dogs among the four-legged visitors to the Fulton Road campus.

There’s a row reserved for those who don’t want to sit near dogs during worship, but it’s typically vacant. Self-proclaimed “cat people” are happy to see the dogs; even those who aren’t animal lovers find a connection with the furry guests.

“I’m not really a dog person, I’m not really an animal person,” said Sandy Koppen, the congregational president who came up with the idea to welcome dogs to church each week. “It’s fun. People really enjoy it, and the dogs seem to enjoy it.”

A sweet-faced Yorkie is credited with starting the tradition. When Kathy and Randy Easterling began attending Thanksgiving Lutheran Church in 2015, they took the “Come As You Are” invitation to heart. Their 6-pound dog, Sadie, was always with them, so why not bring the well-mannered pooch along to church?

Sadie snuggled into Kathy Easterling’s purse, and churchgoers welcomed the whole family with warmth and acceptance.

“Everybody was so nice and friendly. Everybody’s always been great,” Kathy Easterling said. “Nobody cared at all.”

Sadie showed up with the couple every Sunday for 2½ years, until January, when she died just short of her 13th birthday. Her legacy continues, with an average of seven to 10 dogs attending weekly services that typically bring together 40 worshippers.

Koppen said the congregation has hosted popular Blessing of the Animals services and held a special “Dog Days of Summer” program that inspired her to suggest opening services to dogs on a regular basis.

“Why don’t we make it a dog-friendly church?” she asked. “We’ve got concrete floors, so what the heck?”

Then-pastor the Rev. Jean Lebbert offered her support and welcomed dogs until she retired late last year. It’s been more than 18 months since dogs officially were invited to church, and Koppen can’t recall a complaint or a problem or even an “accident” during a service.

Lebbert said she’s heard of a pastor occasionally bringing a dog to church, but not a congregation with dogs in the sanctuary.

“We thought this was really unique,” she said. “It is for regular Sunday services.”

Paul Feiertag, a church member who doesn’t have a dog, is a fan of having dogs at church.

“We just loved it when they came,” he said. “I’ve never heard a complaint. It’s just made us better people.”

Dogs aren’t overlooked during the petitions, when parishioners pray for those in need. During a recent service, prayers were offered for a dog with liver cancer and for two “raisin-eating” dogs that ended up in emergency veterinary care.

The dogs also are noted in the official attendance records kept by the church. They are listed, too, in the church membership directory.

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Cindy Heiller, a Santa Rosa veterinarian and veterinary director for the Sonoma County-based nonprofit Homeless with Pets, is among those who show up with a dog or two, or three on leash to Sunday services.

She said the policy welcoming dogs is beneficial to people and pooches alike.

“Dogs like being with their parent, too, and they don’t like being left alone,” she said.

Plus, having dogs around is something of an icebreaker to newcomers.

“People will talk to other people with dogs,” Heiller said. “Strangers will talk to you. The first thing we say is, ‘What’s the dog’s name?’”

She’s noticed there’s a sense of belonging among the church dogs, who often sniff and greet each other.

“It’s kind of like they’re saying ‘Hi’ to dog friends at the park,” Heiller said. She was with two of her rescue dogs, Candy and Savanna, and Becca, her 12-year-old German wirehaired pointer. Becca’s 5-year-old daughter, Joy, comes to church with Astrid Anderson, who adopted Joy.

Anderson said Joy doesn’t like being left alone, but also enjoys church for another reason: The dogs “know who have treats in their pockets.”

George and Diane Land bring their two Australian shepherds to church, Sage, 8, and Brie, 5. The couple enjoys the welcoming atmosphere and sense of comfort and camaraderie all the dogs provide.

During a recent service, 10 dogs were there for the sermon officiated by the Rev. Dave Miller, an interim pastor at the church. He and his wife, Natalie, and their 8-month-old son, Atticus, arrived at church with their 5-year-old pug, Cora.

As Miller invited the congregation to receive Holy Communion, he reminded those with dogs to bring them forward for a treat — a homemade dog biscuit served from a tray by steward Dennis Higgs. Higgs and his wife, Michelle, always bring their 8-year-old Lab-pointer mix, Patty, to church.

“She loves it,” Michelle Higgs said. “She goes everywhere with me, anyway.”

Karen Lehman’s 11-year-old, 60-pound Samoyed, Ted E. Bear, was the largest dog at the service. Lehman’s especially grateful her church is dog friendly; Ted E. Bear has anxiety and shouldn’t be left alone.

For Koppen, who started the campaign to bring canines to services, the practice reinforces the church’s “Come as You Are” mission and its “Reconciling in Christ” statement of faith that welcomes everyone and celebrates diversity.

And, she said, “It is kind of a nice way to greet people.”

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