Everyone’s Best FriendPulaski Heights's therapy dog ministry brings people closer to Christ

Everyone’s Best Friend
Pulaski Heights's therapy dog ministry brings people closer to Christ

When the idea for a therapy dog ministry came to Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, it took the church completely by surprise.

“None of this was planned; we just called it a God thing when it happened,” said Gayle Fiser, the volunteer Outreach Coordinator for Therapy Dogs International Chapter 255 of Arkansas.

Gayle’s husband Paul – a retired math teacher from the Little Rock School District – was out shopping one day, more than 11 years ago, when he happened to run into a former colleague whom he hadn’t seen in a decade. The friend mentioned that she was now doing therapy dog training, and if Paul ever wanted to get his dogs certified as therapy dogs, then she could help train them. The Fisers had recently purchased two Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies.

A week later, Gayle was in a meeting with the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, who at the time was serving as a pastor at Quapaw Quarter UMC in Little Rock, where Gayle attended church.

The two were discussing a church member whose dog had recently died and how the church was able to make a pet food donation in the dog’s name to someone who needed help buying pet food.

Dianne Hocut (left) with her dog Bart, a Yorkie and the smallest therapy dog in the group, and Stacey Hightower, Hospitality Coordinator & Welcoming Assistant at PHUMC (right).

“I had mentioned how much I loved that we were able to do that for someone through our pet food ministry,” Gayle said. “And then Betsy said ‘oh, speaking of dogs, I was in a meeting last week and someone had mentioned that it would be great if we could get our dogs certified to be therapy dogs so we could go visit the nursing homes around here,’

“And I said, ‘I can make that happen.’”

Soon after, the church began offering certification training for therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs International, one of many organizations that helps to train and certify dogs worldwide. Gayle’s Spaniel puppies were two of the first dogs to go through the Quapaw Quarter therapy dog training.

A few years – and a few appointments – later, Singleton Snyder was serving at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church when the idea for a therapy dog ministry came up once again.

This time, she knew exactly who to ask for help.

“That was one of the first things I wanted to do when I got her,” Singleton Snyder said. “I called up Gayle and said ‘I know we want to do therapy dogs here. Would you be willing to help?’”

Gayle, of course, said yes.

Training to be a Therapy Dog

The first step for a dog to become a therapy dog is to receive certification through Therapy Dogs International.

Therapy Dogs International (TDI) was founded in New Jersey in 1976, with the exclusive goal of training dogs and their handlers to be beacons of comfort for nursing homes, hospitals, or any other area where a therapy animal is needed.

There are no specific breed requirements for a dog to be certified as a therapy dog, and dogs from all different backgrounds – both purebreds with pedigrees and rescue dogs from shelters – can go through the certification training.

“The only requirement is that they are not aggressive dogs and they have to be at least one year old,” Gayle said.

During the spring and fall, dogs and handlers who want to go through the therapy dog certification training can come to the Pulaski Heights UMC campus on Woodlawn Drive in Little Rock for a 7-week course, led by a professional dog trainer. The dogs are trained in the church gym and classes are free for anyone who wishes to go through the training.

After completing the training, the dogs receive an ID badge and a bandanna that they wear to let people know they have undergone certification training. Handlers also receive a necklace with an identifying badge. The dogs are TDI certified dogs and aren’t specifically stationed at PHUMC, but can be sent to many different places that need their services, including churches.

Gayle said this type of training is usually hundreds of dollars, but by offering it for free, from a professional trainer that volunteers her time, they can reach more people in the community who want their animals to become certified therapy dogs.

Four-Legged Friends in the Sanctuary

But what role can a dog play in the sacred space of a church service?

“They’re greeters,” Gayle said.

“I think around this time of year – the season of Advent – when we have a lot of guests and people who might feel intimidated by the church, having the dogs greet them at the door makes them feel a little more comfortable.”

Singleton Snyder thinks having animals at church also lets people know they consider dogs a part of the family as well.

“Even your furry family members are welcome,” Singleton Snyder said. “If someone hasn’t been to church in a while or thinks church is a place that you have to segregate some of your family from, like your dog, then they might be surprised seeing all of these dogs greeting them at the entrance to the sanctuary.

Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder says hello to Flare before worship at the New Heights service.

“We want people to know that their pets are just as valued in God’s creation as people. It sends a signal of welcoming, in a different way.”

Gayle said that the people who have signed up to be greeters at the door aren’t always United Methodists or even Christians.

“They might be Baptists, or they might be Episcopalian or Catholic. We even have people who have been hurt by the church in the past and atheists.

These people don’t always stay for the church service, but they’ll sign up to greet people entering the sanctuary,” Gayle said.

Singleton Snyder thinks she has an idea for why these people are signing up to greet.

“I think the reason they’re coming is that they care about people. They care about animals. They feel like they are doing a service for people. And who’s to say what God is doing with that person?”

Recently, the therapy dogs were present during Pulaski Heights’ Blue Christmas service on Dec. 14. Blue Christmas is a solemn and reflective service for those who have gone through difficult times – whether that be the loss of family, financial burdens or divorce – and feel that joyful Christmas celebrations are a painful experience.

The dogs were able to be at the service and comfort those who simply needed a soft bundle of fur to cry into.

“The dogs understood that people were sad. And when people would pet them or cry into them, they understood that they were there to comfort people,” Gayle said.

The Therapy Dogs are also a big part of the Helping Hands Respite Care Program at Pulaski Heights.

The program — which offers care for seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other care needs — is the perfect place for a dog’s love, according to Helping Hands Coordinator Beverly Villines.

“Many of the friends who attend our Helping Hands Respite Care Program have had dogs of their own and warm up easily to the dogs who come to visit,” Villines said. “When one of them arrives in somewhat of a ‘blue mood’, upon seeing the therapy dog the person visibly changes.

“I believe the therapy dogs have a way of knowing who needs them the most on any given visit.”

Next Steps

For the future of the therapy dog ministry, Gayle and Singleton Snyder have some exciting ideas planned out for 2019.

The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas – one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States – hosts a Leadership Institute every year. Its goal is to bring together church clergy, staff, and volunteers and train them to make disciples of Jesus Christ and strengthen the local church.

Gayle attended the Leadership Institute this year and, after meeting with COR’s pet ministry director, came away from it with fresh ideas on how to expand not only Pulaski Heights’ ministry but COR’s pet ministry, as well.

“They not only have a therapy dog ministry but they do other types of pet outreach as well, like classes teaching children how to behave around pets that they don’t know, and visiting different shelters in the area to see the animals that are housed there.

Pam Turner (right) with her dog Flare and Michelle Justus (left) and her children.

“So when we were together, we just couldn’t talk fast enough about our different ideas for pet ministries,” Gayle said with a laugh.

Gayle has also submitted a proposal to the leadership at COR to potentially teach a pet ministry workshop at the 2019 Leadership Institute.

“This workshop could be related to discipleship, missions or hospitality. Because it’s really all three.”

For Gayle and Rev. Singleton Snyder, the Therapy Dog Ministry isn’t just another job; it’s personal.

“I’ve always had dogs. We have three dogs at our house now. And I was the first person to do animal blessings her in the ‘90s. So finding ways to minister to people with pets was always my vision for ministry. And as time has gone on, it’s become even more clear that our pets are part of our families,” Singleton Snyder said.

Gayle agrees and believes that pets have a lot to teach us.

“I think that because dogs offer unconditional love, they help us model that behavior, and we should be following their example. They are accepting of all people, no matter what” Gayle said. “We have a lot to learn from our dogs.

“I believe there is a lot of healing power in fur.”

To receive a child is to receive Christ himself

To receive a child is to receive Christ himself

As we “recover” from the hectic holiday frenzy – shopping, celebrations, decorations, gifts and meals – and look at these first days of the New Year – I’m reminded that at their core is the beckoning of a new beginning; a new beginning in the form of a child.

The birth and life of Jesus ushered in not only a new way of thinking about salvation, but he also spoke to prevailing attitudes toward those who were the least of these: children, women, old men and slaves. Before Jesus, many in society viewed these people as burdens. In Greece and Rome, it was even accepted for unwanted children to be abandoned on the roadside.

However, it wasn’t acceptable for Jesus. He welcomed all children. He viewed them as valuable and worthy of love. Matthew writes that Jesus said, “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:5)

These words are simple, but they are abounding with meaning to me as I reflect on Methodist Family Health’s 120 years of service. As the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Rogers as well as a member of the board of directors at Methodist Family Health, I think about the early Christians who gathered children abandoned on the roadside and raised them as their own. It’s essentially what Methodist Family Health still does every day.

Methodist Family Health began as the Arkansas Methodist Orphanage in Little Rock in 1899. From the beginning, Methodist Family Health welcomed children in the name of Jesus, and what started as a mission of the Methodist Church in Little Rock has now become a statewide continuum of care, one that offers help for children and their families who have been abandoned, abused and neglected.

Residents of the Arkansas Methodist Children’s Home at the turn of the 20th century.

Like the children left on the side of the road, the children who have received a home and care from Methodist Family Health had nowhere else to turn. Like the families who could not care for orphans, widows, the disabled or enslaved, Methodist Family Health was and is a safe place to turn for help.

Since its beginning, Methodist Family Health’s mission has expanded from providing short-term care for orphaned children and helping them find homes in 1899 to seeking homeless orphans, finding loving homes for them and making it possible for families to adopt a child who would be a blessing to their home in 1910. Its current mission in 2019 is rebuilding the lives of Arkansas children and families struggling with psychiatric, behavioral, emotional and spiritual issues by giving the best possible care to those who may need our help.

As the Kingdom of God welcomes both children and adults, Methodist Family Health does the same. Women with a dual diagnosis of a mental health issue and a substance abuse problem can find help – and bring their children with them – at the Arkansas Centers for Addictions Research, Education and Services (Arkansas CARES) program. Children who are a danger to themselves, someone else or both will find help at the Methodist Behavioral Hospital in Maumelle. Families who need guidance for a child’s learning, behavioral or emotional issue can get the care they need in Methodist Family Health’s outpatient and schoolbased counseling services, day treatment programs, psychiatric residential treatment centers or its grief center serving children and adolescents.

As always, children who have no family who can provide for them can find that care and consistency in Methodist Family Health’s group homes and emergency shelter.

As I reflect on this season of new beginnings in this blessed season of Epiphany, I encourage you to learn more about how Methodist Family Health’s legacy of welcoming the least of these continues to create new beginnings for the children and families in Arkansas.

A grace-filled church

A grace-filled church

In the fall of 1974, I was a freshman at Hendrix College in Conway. Every Sunday morning, I would put on my three-piece polyester suit and walk to Conway First United Methodist Church. At the time I was not sure I believed in God, but somehow I could not get away from the church. The church had always been a place of grace where I felt welcomed and loved.

In the summer of 1975, I knelt by my bed in the parsonage at Arkadelphia and felt the presence of God. I have heard somewhere that there are three conversions in the life of a Christian. We are converted to Christ, converted to his church, and converted to his cause. I guess I found my way to the church before I found Christ, but the United Methodist Church has always been a place where I experienced grace. After my conversion, I soon felt the call of Christ to his cause. For me, that was the cause of full-time ministry as a pastor in the UMC.

I am now in my 36th year of ministry, and I have to say I have had a wonderful time as a United Methodist Pastor. The grace I experienced as a boy in the church has continued to this day.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to serve my church as a delegate to General Conference. That year, I was assigned to the committee that addressed the issue of human sexuality. It was a remarkable experience to sit in that room with 30 other people from around the world. That experience confirmed three things for me around this controversial issue.

First, even though those 30 delegates were worlds apart in their understanding, we offered grace to one another. It was the same grace that I have encountered throughout my life in the Methodist Church. At the close of the meeting, a young man approached me who was on the liberal side of things. He acknowledged our differences, but also said, “I bet I would enjoy going to your church.” I smiled at him and said, “I would love to have you as a member.”

Second, there really are three distinct groups in our denomination: liberal, moderate and conservative. Liberals view the issue of human sexuality from the lens of love based on Matthew 22. Moderates see this issue from the lens of unity based on John 17. Conservatives view this issue from the lens of biblical continuity based on Matthew 19.

The final observation was the one which most surprised me. In that 2012 meeting, and in subsequent discussions, I have concluded that we really don’t understand each other very well. Due to our misunderstandings, we sometimes assume the worst of others in our community. We accuse liberals of being amoral and unbiblical. We accuse moderates of being institutionalists who only want to maintain the bureaucracy of the church. We accuse conservatives of being schismatic and homophobic. While this may be true of a small percentage of each of these groups, this is certainly not true of the vast majority of people on all sides of this debate.

Given our differences, I don’t see us being able to resolve our dilemma around human sexuality at our 2019 General Conference. At the end of GC 2019, some will be joyful, and some will be heartbroken no matter which plan or no plan we choose. Here are my hopes for GC 2019.

I hope we can offer each other the grace that I have found so abundantly in the United Methodist Church. Even in our differences, I hope we can see the love of God in each other. I hope we can avoid belittling and demonizing people with whom we disagree and don’t understand.

Finally, I hope we can respect the pain and sorrow that is going to come from whatever we decide in 2019.

No matter what happens, I thank God for the love and grace I have found in the United Methodist Church!

This is part of a continuing series from members of the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.

UMFA’s New DigsFoundation celebrates opening of new headquarters in West Little Rock

UMFA’s New Digs
Foundation celebrates opening of new headquarters in West Little Rock

In late November 2018, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas finally moved into their brand new building in West Little Rock.

The new UMFA headquarters – located at 601 Wellington Village Rd. – will serve as the base of operations for the foundation, which manages $165 million in endowment funds and other charitable assets that benefit local Arkansas churches and United Methodist ministries.

The new building is a big improvement over their previous location at 5300 Evergreen Dr., both in terms of square footage and amenities.

The more than 10,000 square-foot building is almost four times as large as the previous headquarters, and features more meeting spaces, a larger reception area, a new training room that seats up to 70 guests, and extra office space to fit new hires if the Foundation chooses to expand its employee numbers in the future.

The Foundation will have its building dedication and open house from 3 to 6 p.m. on Jan. 24. Email hklein@umfa.org or call 501-664-8632 by Jan. 18 if you plan to attend.

A wall in the new UMFA building showcases the numerous Faith Funds articles that have run in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper and magazine over the years. Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

The Lusk Training Center — named for John and Becki Lusk of El Dorado who made a $1 million gift to fund the building — is one of the new additions to the UMFA headquarters. This room will be used for training courses, as well as a place to host seminars and other events. It’s furnished with the latest technology, including “power towers” in the floor, which allow guests to plug in their electronic devices for charging. Each tower can charge up to six devices. The room seats around 70 people.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

The main entrance to the new UMFA building showcases a beautiful metal church steeple, reminiscent of many of the United Methodist Churches of old. The quiet space at the waiting area is open and inviting, encouraging calmness and reflection.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

From left to right: Clarence Trice, Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer; Janet Marshall, Vice President of Development; Mackey Yokem, Grants Administrator; and Kristin Hartman, Account Manager.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

One of the many meeting rooms located throughout the building.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

A memorial dedicated to James B. Argue Jr., president of UMFA for more than 35 years, hangs on the wall so visitors can read about his legacy.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

The James B. Argue, Jr. Stewardship Center, the official name of the UMFA building, is named after Jim Argue, who served as the CEO of UMFA for more than 35 years. Argue passed away in May 2018 due to health complications.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

An old sign from the original UMFA building sits inside the new building as a reminder of the journey the foundation has taken since its beginning in 1963.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

 

The reception area of the new UMFA building.
Photo by Stephen Gideon

Starting not so fresh

New Year’s resolutions have gone out of style.

Nobody keeps them anyway. The average New Year’s resolution lasts until the second week of February; only 10% last six months. We have a hard time starting over.

Still, there is something about the New Year that calls us to take stock, assess, evaluate, and resolve to do better about some aspects of our lives. We would like to think the New Year gives us a clean slate to leave the past behind and stride confidently into the future. It doesn’t; the baggage and consequences of the past do not magically fall away and disappear.

As I write, our government is close to a week in partial shutdown mode. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are temporarily out of work. The intransigent leadership, continuing division, animosity, and gridlock of our political system will not disappear when the ball descends on Times Square.

Our United Methodist Church will not magically get unified in the New Year. No matter what happens at the special General Conference in February, we will need to keep praying, keep reading and thinking, and most of all keep talking as we try to be faithful to God’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Those pesky personal problems won’t go away just because the number on the calendar is different. Family conflicts and dysfunctional relationships take time and toil and tears to resolve. We can’t just put them away like we do the Christmas decorations. And our weaknesses and sins are harder to eradicate than a New Year’s resolution can conquer. Why do we keep doing the things we know are wrong and destructive? Even St. Paul couldn’t figure that one out. (See Romans 7)

So what’s the point? Is renewal a pipe dream, progress an impossibility? Can the New Year actually be a time of starting over in a meaningful way? I think it can.

In the New Year, we can accept forgiveness for the past. So many things went wrong last year; so many times we fell short. But grace means forgiveness. We know God forgives us. That was the whole point of the cross. Forgiving ourselves can be harder to do, but we have to find a way if we hope to move forward. And if someone we have hurt offers us forgiveness, take it like a kid grabbing candy. There’s nothing sweeter.

In the New Year, we can generate new resolve. The human process involves many new starts; why not let one of them be right now? You’ll probably need another new start by April and July and October. But don’t let that stop you from starting over today. One thing is for sure: you won’t do any better unless you decide to. We Wesleyans believe free will is a gift of God, and progress, while not inevitable, is not impossible either.

In the pursuit of personal progress, we have the encouragement of God. Our Creator wants us to leave the past behind, walk the narrow path that leads to righteousness, and become the person we were created to be. Paul, who struggled so mightily with his sin, gave witness to this encouragement in Philippians (“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”) and Ephesians (“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”) Scripture is replete with encouraging words from God.

In the New Year, we can also find encouragement in the community. There are many reasons people pack the churches for Christmas Eve services—the music, the story, the threats of family matriarchs. But I’m convinced that one of the reasons we gather is that at some significant level, we acknowledge that we are part of a community of faith, and it does our soul good to be in a church full of people who share our spiritual foundation. Yeah, we may neglect our faith 50 weeks of the year, but a couple of times a year, we can’t escape our Christian DNA.

Christmas Eve and Easter only happen twice a year. What if in this New Year we re-engaged with the community of faith and rediscovered the encouragement of like-minded pilgrims on the journey? Every week isn’t a high holy day. The sermon may be a snoozer, or half the Sunday School class may be absent. But little by little we grow in Christ. Inch by inch, we make progress toward the goal. We will find it helps to feel accountable to someone else traveling beside us.

Renewal is an ongoing process. We could start just as well on March 2 or June 23 or September 16. But we probably won’t. There is something about the New Year that calls us to a new day. Let me encourage you: Engage the process. Take some baby steps. Trust in God. Find community. Soon you will look back and discover how far you have come. The goal of perfection in Christ will be nearer than ever before. Happy New Year!

What can the new year bring?

What can the new year bring?

As I write this, I am finishing a day of reflecting on 2018 and planning for 2019. I have had enough experience to know that some of my plans will come to naught, but some will flourish and bear fruit. So I set goals and plan, holding loosely to my dreams and making room for what God dreams for me.

In the last several months I have been surprised and disappointed, and encouraged and hopeless about the future of the United Methodist Church. I met Jesus in the United Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church nurtured that relationship and taught me how to follow him. The church taught me to read the Bible and how to pray. The church encouraged me to listen with the ear of my heart and see through eyes of faith. The United Methodist Church confirmed this teenaged woman’s call to ordained ministry and provided for my education as an undergraduate through seminary and beyond. Then, for over three decades, the United Methodist Church provided a place for me to serve, offered support for my family, and gave me a community of believers with whom to share life and love.

It never dawned on me that all that could end — not even six years ago when Bishop Scott Jones announced that the United Methodist Church no longer existed and he and some “others” were working on a plan to dissolve the church. You see, everything that is good in me, and everything that I value, is somehow connected to the United Methodist Church in all our complexity and imperfection. We mediate the grace of God to each other and the world. We have the opportunity through our call to serve the least, last and lost in Jesus’ name. And we are invited to live a higher, holier life; a life set apart for sacrifice and service guided by the very mind of Christ.

Therefore, as I face into this new year and the called session of General Conference, I do so with hope and awe. God has been and is with the United Methodist Church. God is doing a new thing, in spite of our sin and faithlessness. God is doing a new thing in our midst, and it might just emerge as we are busy doing our own things.

I have no doubt that many of my brothers and sisters who read this will be disappointed by my refusal to choose a side or endorse a plan. Frankly, none of the plans, as they are, capture my imagination of the future God is bringing to the church. As one scholar recently commented, the Traditional Plan represents a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. And in much the same way, the One Church Plan is a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century dilemma. I am prayerfully preparing for God to bring us a 21st Century witness in the midst of this divisive 21st Century conference because I believe in a higher unity that comes through our baptism into Christ and reveals the One Lord God and Father of us all.

I hope that God will deliver the General Conference from Robert’s Rules of Order, and we will truly conference together as disciples of Jesus Christ. My deepest desire is that the Holy Spirit will show up, and we delegates will be led home by another way—a way that is not currently available in any piece of legislation but one that will emerge as we worship together. My fondest vision is that Jesus will come, and we will finally know what Jesus would do and have the courage to do it ourselves.

These are my prayers even as I plan to be a member of and minister in the United Methodist Church before and after the called session. For as Isaiah foretold it, “Forget what happened long ago! Don’t think about the past. I am creating something new. There it is! Do you see it? I have put roads in deserts, streams in thirsty lands.” (Isaiah 43: 18-19 CEV)

And so it goes, with my planning: make it yours, oh God. Amen.

This is part of a continuing series from members of the Arkansas Delegates who will be traveling to St. Louis for General Conference in February 2019.