BERKELEY (CBS SF) — It’s hard enough to get faith-focused adults to pay full attention to a sermon, but when Grace North Church’s pastor spotted a dog sitting up in the pew right next to its owner, listening intently, the idea struck.
“It felt a little odd, because it was as if the dog was paying attention to the whole service, including the sermon. That started the trend,” said Pastor John Mabry, describing the Sunday 20 years ago when former pastor, Fr. Richard Mapplebeckpalmer and he started something very new, and very different, and very non-human.
Mabry embraced the concept readily.
“I started to bring my dog, then our music minister started to bring his. Eventually we just realized,’Hey, we’re a dog-friendly parish!’ and hung a sign outside saying, ‘Dog friends welcome.’”
That soon expanded, and critters among the congregation have included everything from a few parrots — who fortunately did NOT repeat every word of the liturgy– to a regularly attending cat (on a leash). Three dogs attended on a recent Sunday.
Over two decades, the animals have not caused many problems. “Thus far, they’ve been amazingly well-behaved,” Mabry said, but added that they do take measures to foster good behavior.
“As I like to say to my wife, regarding our own dogs, ‘Where there is no temptation, there can be no transgression.’ So we encourage people to keep them separate. People are usually pretty good about keeping them securely leashed, and sit in different sections of the sanctuary. If the dogs are already friends, of course, there’s no problem.”
As for reaching the pets with his preaching, Pastor Mabry said most dogs are not like that first canine who paid rapt attention.
“They mostly lay on the floor together and nap. Dogs, like children, are no friend of the sermon.”
Mabry is proud of his church’s role in a unique community, telling CBS, “Berkeley is definitely unique, and in some ways we are an ‘only-in-Berkeley’ kind of church!’
“Many folks in Berkeley are deeply suspicious of organized religion. I get that, since many folks in our congregation have been very wounded by churches and Christians in the past. One of the things that we do well, I think, is give people a safe, non-dogmatic place to re-approach the Christian faith ‘at their own speed,’ so to speak.”
No dogma, but plenty of dogs.
When it comes to theology, the church also takes an inclusive view.
Mabry said, “We are a Christian congregation, but we also see ourselves as part of a larger family of faith that includes faithful people of many great religious traditions. As people of faith, we have so much in common with faithful Buddhists and faithful Jews, for example.”
The teaching honors the wisdom of multiple faiths, and that leads to some unusual sacred texts for a Christian church. “When we read from the Bible, we also read from a non-Christian scriptural source such as the Tao Te Ching or the Bhagavad Gita. These readings are specially selected so that they are thematically related to the Gospel reading, and they often echo or challenge it,” said Mabry.
While acknowledging that his congregation is definitely unique, Mabry emphasizes that just because Berkeley can be a little different, there are still commonalities.
“Berkeley churches are no different from churches in other areas, in that what most people are looking for is an authentic experience of the sacred. If they encounter the Divine in worship in a way that moves them, they will most likely come back,” Mabry said.
The pet-friendly group is part of United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. They meet Sundays at 5 p.m. at Christ Church East Bay, 2138 Cedar Street at Walnut in Berkeley.