My longtime work as an interfaith activist sometimes takes odd turns. For many years I’ve enjoyed taking stories from one house of worship to another. Recently I’ve also been taking a small dog.
My friend Heidi recently retired and returned to the United States after serving as a teacher for the children of US soldiers stationed in Germany. Upon her return she acquired a West Highland terrier puppy named Molly, now 4 months old, and is training her as a companion dog. Molly is with Heidi constantly, to help her with bouts of anxiety.
This means Heidi and I take Molly to as many public events as possible so she can learn to behave appropriately. She’s been warmly welcomed at several churches and synagogues. At one church the appropriate staff members wrestled with whether attendance at the 8 a.m. service could be reported in the next week’s bulletin as “44 people and one puppy.” Molly expressed no distress when the committee voted against this, but by her third Sunday there, almost everyone entering the church greeted her by name.
Molly quickly became an expert at sleeping through sermons, and it took her only a little longer to learn to sleep through synagogue services as well as choir and instrumental concerts. She sleeps through large and loud congregational suppers as well as outings to restaurants with groups of friends after the services. She’s learned that under a chair, a pew, or a restaurant table she is “on duty” and expected to rest quietly. At home, off duty, she is as loud, active, and busy teething as any other puppy.
Mosques have presented a different problem. Muslims do not customarily keep dogs as house pets, and we were not sure Molly would know how to behave in a situation where everyone sits on the floor for the sermon and alternately stands and prostrates on the floor during prayers. There are no pews or chairs for her to sleep under. But our Muslim friends have enjoyed hearing about and meeting Molly, and discussions of dogs as pets led to an interesting story that I have since carried from one religion to another.
I told a friend at the mosque that in 2007 I’d visited a school for traumatized children in Bethlehem, on the West Bank. It was run by a Roman Catholic nun and provided care and education for children who had lost a family member in fighting in the Middle East.
When I asked the nun if this was a school for children with “post-traumatic stress,” she said, “No, this is continuing traumatic stress. The problem is still going on.”
I observed that she had several small dogs present for the children to play with. I was puzzled by this since Muslims don’t usually have dogs as pets. Had the parents of the children expressed concern about the dogs?
“At first,” she said, “when the dogs arrived, several parents came to me about it. I said, ‘The prophet Muhammad specifically approved of working dogs. Just look at how hard this dog is working to make your child feel safe and loved.’
“After the parents passed that story around, I had no more questions about it.”
My Muslim friend loved the story and told others, and I found myself telling it repeatedly in the mosque social time after the Friday noon prayers. One man came and said, “I’ve heard your story from a friend, but tell it to me the way you tell it.” I did so.
He said, “I’ve wondered about dogs. I knew that Muslims could keep working dogs, like hunting dogs and sheepdogs, but my kids have wanted a dog as a house pet, and my wife and I were not sure. I think you’ve just solved my problem.”
Molly may have a new second career, as an interfaith relations activist.