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PC(USA) church in Iowa celebrates all God’s creatures, great and small

First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant has envisioned a way to care for the pets loved by God and by us

by Sherry Blackman | Presbyterians Today

All God’s Creatures, a commissioned ministry of First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, will break ground on its very own building to shelter animals. (Photo by Trey Hegar)

The First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa — believing where there’s God’s will, there is always a way — envisioned a way to care for God’s beloved creatures.

Prior to the pandemic, the church began a new ministry called All God’s Creatures. Its mission was to connect the hands and paws of the community, says Kate Ridinger, an AGC board member, noting that the “need has only grown.”

“Animals are a gift, our pets are a gift, and we have to do better for them and us,” she said.

In 2020, All God’s Creatures received over $300,000 in a donation from a couple’s estate in a neighboring county designated for an animal rescue organization. During the pandemic, the board instituted a trap, neuter and release program for cats.

All God’s Creatures then began providing pet rehabilitation and adoption services as well as exploring ways to reach out to the community, offering volunteer opportunities and working with adults and youth with disabilities, veterans and nursing home residents.

“There’s power in volunteerism that will give our youth a sense of purpose,” said Ridinger.

But God had something bigger in mind for this growing ministry, and the board of All God’s Creatures would soon discover that nothing thwarts God’s plans, not even in the tumult of a pandemic and the fallout of what do with all those Covid pets that had no place to go when their owners emerged from lockdown — especially the animals of Mt. Pleasant, which had no animal shelter for them. That is, until now.

Provision for pets

In the fall of 2021, a property came up for sale in a green space perfectly suited for the animal advocacy group. According to Ridinger, what followed was a year of investigation, research and prayer, including how the church could be involved, what kind of fundraising was needed and a determination of the costs of the operation.

All God’s Creatures closed on the property this past summer. While the bulk of the staff will be volunteer, the board will hire a director who will work to create jobs in the community, and two part-time animal care specialists. Plans are now in place to renovate the building, and the shelter hopes to be operational in 2023, accommodating up to 12 dogs and 50 cats, according to Ridinger.

“We were encouraged to develop sustainable ministry programs by the Presbyterian Mission Agency. All God’s Creatures is one of our commissioned ministries,” said the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of the 250-member First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant. A sustainable ministry program supports the work of a nonprofit and creates jobs.

Currently, All God’s Creatures is researching the possibility of sustainable business models such as dog grooming. The revenue will support the outreach programs, staff and animal care, and a 10% tithe will go to the church.

“The tithes from our ministries are part of our congregation’s long-term outlook. In 20 to 30 years, congregations may not have as many members who regularly pledge. We hope to continue to create ministries that meet the needs in our community, create jobs and help sustain the ongoing work to build the kin-dom of God,” said Hegar.

The pastor, though, is quick to clarify that the vision behind All God’s Creatures was and is not to gain church members.

“We may get a few new members, but All God’s Creatures is not about us and our church. It’s about growing the way of Jesus. The shelter will connect thousands who get to share and receive the unconditional love of God, and even though it doesn’t happen on Sunday morning, what it represents is in the name — All God’s Creatures,” he said.

Yet, the church has attracted new members since it began focusing outwardly on the surrounding community. For example, Kathy Nellor joined the church while serving on the board of All God’s Creatures.

“The church is walking the walk, is action-oriented, has feet on the ground. It’s carrying out a mission, not just financially supporting one. It’s showing God’s unconditional love to all God’s creatures and doing what God wants us to do, caring for animals and providing companionship for others,” she said, adding that there’s power in the right group of people working together.

Nellor commented that the board has become a tight community within the wider community, and hail from different churches, and some with no church affiliation.

“Each member brings a contagious energy and enthusiasm to the project. I am a strong believer in volunteerism,” Nellor said. “Serving others is healing for those who serve and those who are being served.”

In addition, All God’s Creatures is providing an opportunity to engage the unchurched who gravitate toward hands-on projects and want to contribute to their community but don’t want to attend church or fill the pews.

“They want to encounter the living Spirit,” said Hegar. “We may not grow our church membership exponentially, but this is a great way to live into the Great Commission for any church, to go out into the world and make disciples. The church isn’t about an institution, but a way of living in the world and contributing to help others.”

Hegar also added that “Jesus said you will know my followers by the works that follow them. Do good, don’t impose ritual, love God, love people, be present, weep with those who weep, celebrate with those who rejoice.”

Through All God’s Creatures, First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant , Iowa, hopes to reach the most vulnerable people in the community. (Contributed photo)

“The mystery of God is revealed in God’s creatures and Creation. God is relational. Through All God’s Creatures we will reach the most vulnerable in our community,” he said.

Ridinger, 37 years old, is a good example of how such ministries are relational and appeal to the younger generation. She grew up attending a local Episcopalian church but as an adult, like many in her generation, her draw toward organized religion faded. She credits Hegar, who serves as an ex-officio All God’s Creatures board member, for never pressuring her to come to church, but who was not only community-minded, but showed interest in her as a person.

“Whenever he and I would speak about church, he would tell me the work I am doing and will do is church. He said, ‘It’s doing what church should be doing.’ When he explained it to me this way, I found working toward this goal with the board very rewarding,” said Ridinger.

Leaving a legacy

Board chair Cyndy Danielson has always had a heart for God’s creatures, and she and her family have a long history of fostering cats and dogs.

“But all of us on the board are similarly concerned about people’s welfare. So, from its inception, All God’s Creatures has looked at various ways that we can provide opportunities for people who also need a hand up and who are the vulnerable amongst us,” said Danielson.

Danielson has a heart for “rehoming” pets whose elderly owners are transitioning to assisted care or who refused to go to the hospital because they had no one to care for their beloved pet.

“We also have elderly whose pets have died but who didn’t adopt a new pet fearing they wouldn’t be able to care for it in the future, but they are eager to foster pets,” she added. She hopes to develop programs that will connect people and their pets so that arrangements can be made before such an event occurs. One board member takes pets to the nursing home to visit and provides updates and pictures to the original owner.

Danielson, a retired district court judge and a practicing lawyer, has worked on the legalities of All God’s Creatures, including lobbying the city to change its code to house an animal shelter. Being an Episcopalian, Danielson hesitated to take on the challenge of creating such a mission for animals.

The children in both the church and the larger community are learning that ministry reaches all of God’s Creation. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant)

“But after talking to Pastor Trey, we have similar purposes and goals (love thy neighbor) and I felt comfortable taking this on,” she said.

While Danielson sees how All God’s Creatures will provide people with positive experiences, offering ways for teaching job skills, providing educational opportunities for adults and children, and meeting the needs of the elderly in their later years, there’s a deeper, more personal reason why the 72-year-old is championing All God’s Creatures.

“I want to know that I made a difference in this world,” she said. “One of the inadvertent benefits to our community is that several young adults have taken up the torch and learning about the ins and outs of serving the community. All God’s Creatures has provided me and others on the board the perfect opportunity to pass on the importance of community service and how to do it. It feels like we are passing the torch to the next generations, which will be invaluable in the years to come.”

Sherry Blackman is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania.

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