Hand or paw, God loves us all

Stallsville’s Animal Ministry Team shares Gospel through love for pets

By Jessica Brodie

SUMMERVILLE—Kathy Belsky knows what it’s like to lose an animal you love so much it’s like your child. The longtime animal lover was devastated when she lost her 19-year-old cat, Kato, last year.

A newcomer to the Lowcountry, Belsky began to look for grief counseling and found comfort in Stallsville United Methodist Church, which was holding a Blessing of the Animals service. And there she found a network of likeminded souls who care just as passionately about animals as she does.

In January, with full support from their pet-loving pastor the Rev. Robin Griffeth, Stallsville UMC formed the Animal Ministry Team to reach into the surrounding community and help those dealing with issues involving pets. They handle everything from prayer for a lost or ill animal, to support during surgery or bereavement, to the blessing of new pets. They do memorial services, on-call prayer and even prayer blankets, which are small handmade blankets that have been prayed over specifically for an ill animal.

And they do it all to reach people and bring them to connection with God through a shared connection with animals.

As Griffeth said, “There may be people out there who are hesitant to come into a community of faith, but they might say, ‘Hey, they like animals; maybe they’ll accept me.’”

Bridging people through pets

Members of the Animal Ministry Team are intentional about sharing their presence with the community and getting the word out that they are animal lovers. They wear name tags and talk up their activities all over town. After all, as Belsky said, “For many people, their animal is their only connection to humanity.”

Their brochures read, “If you think we love animals, you should see how much we love people,” along with their slogan: “Hand or paw, God loves us all.”

“We do ministry to people through a shared love for all animals,” said Marcene McCurdy, member of the six-woman Animal Ministry Team. “I’m confident God has made arrangements for the eternal life of animals, and the message needs to get out there to pet lovers and others who question what will happen to their furry soul mates.”

Her daughter, Erin McCurdy, a vet technician, agrees.

“A ministry like this is important,” she said. “It is phenomenal to be a part of being able to bridge people through their pets, to make the connection between the secular world and the church.”

A conversation-starter

The team is a group effort with no chairperson; each woman brings her own gifts and graces.

Linda Chilcoat does the prayer blankets, which she calls her joy.

“I have made 70 blankets since February,” Chilcoat said, motioning to the stack of cheerful-printed blankets folded neatly on the table before them, awaiting the prayers of the group. The blankets are adorned with smiling puppies and kittens, with bright eyes and lolling tongues. “I find when I’m out, people are starting to recognize me, ‘Oh, you're the animal ministry lady! How are the animals?’ It always opens up conversations—people unload, tell you about their pet, the one who died; you can say a prayer with them.”

Belsky handles publicity. Having known the love of Kato for nearly two decades, she feels called to be a voice for animals and speak out for them.

“To me, a pet’s love is God’s sign that he loves us. It’s the purest form of love and unconditional, a sign of how we should love God,” Belsky said.

And if the Stallsville Animal Ministry Team can reach just one person through that shared love, they’re a success.

God’s timing

Griffeth said the Animal Ministry Team is the fulfillment of a career-long dream for her.

“I always wanted to serve in a church with people who’d take their passion about animals and turn it into a ministry beyond a Blessing of the Animals service,” she said.

In fact, it was the church’s very first Blessing of the Animals that led to the creation of the group. Those who helped organize the service began to talk about forming a year-round ministry, and inspired by passion from several in the New Members class—including Belsky—they decided to follow their hearts.

“Ultimately, our hope is people will feel drawn to Stallsville because they know other animal lovers are here,” Griffeth said.

That’s exactly what happened with Melissa Floryance, the newest member of their team.

Floryance, a chaplain who has a serious respiratory issue and relies on her medical alert dog, Maxx, moved to Summerville in August and immediately began searching for an animal-friendly congregation.

“I just started to pray about where to go to church. I didn’t feel comfortable just showing up at church with him. I’ve been to places where I’ve been told to leave or told he was not welcome,” Floryance said.

God led her to Stallsville. On the day she visited the church to meet with Griffeth about attending, the Animal Ministry Team was saying goodbye to a member of their team who was moving to Florida.

“God’s timing!” Griffeth said, and Floryance agreed, calling it a “GMC: a God Manufactured Coincidence.”

Not only were Floryance and Maxx warmly embraced by the church, but they decided to join the Animal Ministry Team that very day.

“My passion is service dogs and how they make life possible,” Floryance said, explaining how Maxx is able to scan her and alert her when she shows early symptoms of a respiratory attack. “I couldn’t be here without Maxx. If my lungs shut down, I would need to go to the ER.”

For her part, Floryance has a drive to share how all pets have special gifts and should be cherished right along with people. And often, she said, people feel far more free talking about their pets than any mention of Jesus or the Bible.

“Even the most diehard atheist will want to talk about their pets,” Floryance said, noting it can also open the door for prayer or discuss about the afterlife.

Getting the word out

The team is busy getting ready for this year’s Blessing of the Animals service, set for Sunday, Oct. 4, at 3 p.m.; all are welcome.

They are also gearing up for phase two of their nascent ministry. Long-range goals include holding a memorial service once or twice a year to honor pets lost; hosting a grief support group; purchasing a team cell phone so if an emergency/rescue issue arises, they can be there to pray; and maybe even holding a “pets in the pews” service.

“Our goal is get people to know we’re here, to get the word out,” Griffeth said.

The Animal Ministry Team is willing to pray with or send a prayer blanket to anyone in need of one, anywhere, and is also happy to help other pet-lovers start a similar animal ministry in their area. Contact them at [email protected].

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