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Wayward hen finds a home

Church discovers chicken is its best calling card

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today 

Louisville — The Rev. Laura Sias-Lee has always been open to the Spirit leading her to do things differently, like successfully introducing an unorthodox way for her Sashabaw Presbyterian Church congregation to gather for worship.

The Rev. Laura Sias-Lee’s daughter, Abigail, discovered the wayward hen in the churchyard one morning. Since that day, Henrietta, has become the church’s best calling card in community. Courtesy of Sashabaw Presbyterian Church

Rather than meet every Sunday morning, the faithful in Clarkston, Michigan, now worship on the second and fourth Saturday nights of the month, leaving the first and third Sunday mornings for traditional praise and prayer. Sias-Lee says it gives her small congregation two Sundays off to “slow down and renew their spirits.”

Then there was the time the Spirit led the pastor to create what she called the “Jesus Wall.” After noticing a picture of a Eurocentric Jesus hanging in one of the first churches that she served, Sias-Lee began searching for and hanging depictions of Jesus that represented different cultures, races and even moods, like that of a Jesus seemingly caught in the middle of a good joke.

The Jesus Wall became an effective way to open hearts to the Gospel truth that the Son of God came for all humankind.

“I didn’t want to take away who people identified with. Rather, I wanted to expand their idea of who Jesus is,” said Sias-Lee, adding that the wall was especially helpful in new member classes where she would number the pictures and ask people to reflect on which Jesus they identified with the most.

“The answers were very interesting,” she said.

Yes, Sias-Lee is open to just about everything and anything the Spirit leads her to. But a year ago, when a feathered friend came strutting out of the scrubby woods that are part of the church yard, the pastor did not expect the little critter to be the answer to Sashabaw Presbyterian’s “How do we connect more with the community?” question. Yet, “Henry,” who would later be called “Henrietta” — the eggs the hen laid led to the name change — has become the best public relations for the church.

“The hen has become our calling card,” said Sias-Lee.

Up until Henrietta, the congregation was ardently looking outward doing what it called “little things in love” in the community. Little things included inspirational, cheery chalk drawings left on the sidewalk during the height of the pandemic’s sheltering in place to brighten the path of the those walking by.

Another little thing, said the pastor, was having flute music playing at night to greet the many more walkers who were seeking some connection outside of their Covid-cloistered four walls. The “little things” were effective, but then came Henrietta.

The hen arrived on the first day of the church’s new preschool, Acorn KinderHouse. It was an exciting time as operating a preschool had been a desire of Sias-Lee’s and, with the session’s support, it was now a reality. As the teachers were getting ready to welcome the children, Sias-Lee’s daughter, Abigail, who works alongside her mother at the Waldorf-inspired school, came running into the building announcing that there was a chicken outside.

“Sure enough, when we went outside there it was, just walking around and exploring,” said Sias-Lee.

It remained for the day and returned the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. Concerned with the chicken’s safety — “We wondered where it slept at night,” Sias-Lee said — and after calls to animal rescue agencies turned up no owner claiming a missing pet chicken, the preschool parents acted. One parent offered to buy a coop; another picked up chicken food. It was obvious what was happening.

Henrietta was clucking her way into the hearts of Acorn KinderHouse’s children.

Sias-Lee, though, still had to get approval from the church’s session to have a chicken on its property. They approved but pointed out there were no funds to support Henrietta. That wasn’t going to be a problem, though, because not only did the parents donate to all of Henrietta’s needs, the community at large was taking an interest in the hen.

“Henrietta opened an avenue for those of us in the church to talk to folks we never spoke with before. People were coming to ask about the chicken. We even had new faces show up for worship last Christmas Eve because of Henrietta,” said Sias-Lee.

Henrietta not only become the conduit to more conversations in the community, but she has also provided an opportunity to talk to the children about where food comes from, how important it is to care for animals and, most dear to the pastor’s heart, the chicken has opened conversations with the children about the Divine.

Sias-Lee recalls how one such conversation began when a little girl asked her if God created Henrietta. “It was a powerful moment,” she said.

As for the eggs that Henrietta lay, the plan was to donate them to local food organizations, but because the eggs aren’t pasteurized the food banks and pantries cannot accept them, says Sias-Lee. So now the eggs are offered for sale to the preschool and church community — $5 for a half-dozen and $10 for a dozen. All the money, Sias-Lee adds, goes to the area food pantries.

Sias-Lee is open to Spirit-filled new ideas, but never in a million years did she ever think that a chicken would play such a prominent role in her ministry as Henrietta has.

“To think, the woods where Henrietta walked out of was the property the church was thinking about expanding and building on years ago. But we never did,” Sias-Lee mused.

Now that wooded area is the perfect space for Henrietta — and her growing brood. This past spring, the preschool welcomed baby chicks to walk alongside the wayward hen who has found sanctuary at a sanctuary.

Recently, Sias-Lee and her daughter were wondering what a chicken showing up the way Henrietta did symbolizes. In Christian teaching, the hen illustrates God’s loving mothering of us. In Native American lore, a chicken symbolizes new beginnings.

“I also heard a chicken symbolizes the need to reevaluate your plans,” said Sias-Lee, who found that to be appropriate as the pandemic has led to many organizations, like Sashabaw Presbyterian, having to reevaluate, which led to the birth of the preschool.

Now if only Henrietta could do more than cluck and tell her side of how the Spirit led her to this place.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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