Church welcomes the four-footed faithful

MOUNT VERNON, Va. – A local church offers a twist on the usual Sunday services – here, you can get God and walk your dog.

The Dog Walker’s Worship is anything but a traditional service. Rev. Charles Oberkehr is pastor of the Epiphany Lutheran Church. As the rain fell on Sunday morning, he watched his flock arrive at the church.

A yellow lab barked excitedly, and Oberkehr recognized him – “That’s Sonny,” he said, referring to a rescue dog owned by Jim Nussle. Sonny and Nussle are regulars to this service. As a small female husky and border-collie mix arrives, the pastor says, “That’s Onyx,” accompanied by her owner, Danielle Christensen; Amanda Christensen and Jonathan Graft.

Danielle Christensen calls the service “a really neat idea. It’s something that was never really done before. I think many more people have dogs and it’s a great way for people to get involved with church and also include their animals with it. I think that’s great.”

The pastor’s own two collies greet every human and dog who arrive. He says, “We have FanCee, she’s a five-year old collie and her younger brother Prince, he’s about two. They look forward to meeting the other dogs.”

After a prayer and praise it was time for a walk. The pastor says they go through the neighborhood focusing on the wholeness of creation. He says, “And recognizing that we’re all in this together, the humans and animals and we’re all a blessing to each other.”

Nussle, Sonny’s owner, says it’s a nice excuse to come out with your dog. He describes the Dog Walker’s Worship as “more of an opportunity to get together as fellow Christians and walk our dogs together. We talk about anything; it doesn’t have to be just about faith.”

The pastor started the pet-friendly worship and dog walk in June after seeing lots of people walking their dogs by the church, with some actually parking in the church’s parking lot to walk their dogs. He says, “You never know how one thing is going to start and where it’s going to lead.”

The pastor says this is probably the last Dog Walker’s Worship for the summer, but that the program has inspired him to develop a dog therapy program over the fall.

He says the program has done wonders for community outreach. In fact, he says, a Presbyterian Church in Taiwan found out about the story and has been blogging about it in Mandarin.

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