COLUMBIA — Chester Jakubowicz stands under a cherry tree in his Columbia backyard, holding little Rosalita in his arms as the minister reaches out to touch her on the forehead with blessed water.
Rosalita is a 1-year-old chow-bassett hound mix that belongs to Jakubowicz and his partner, David Sapp. She’s sleeping through her pet blessing, performed by Unity Center of Columbia’s pet minister Barbara Michael.
“I’m not a very emotional person,” Sapp said, “but I cried through the whole thing.”
Michael became a pet minister after she came across the Web site Chaplain of the Pets in October 2005. The beauty of the Web site “touched my heart,” she said. “I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”
Michael, who is a medical librarian at the Truman Veterans Hospital, ordered training materials from the Web site. She had to complete six assignments before being ordained. The toughest of these was watching an animal be put to sleep. The training came in handy, however, when a woman asked her to be present when her dog, suffering from incurable cancer, was euthanized.
“I talked to that animal,” Michael recalled. “I said, ‘You’re going to go back to spirit.’ I think he knew what was going on. And he was fine, and (the woman) appreciated me coming, and the lady at the pet clinic said, ‘Oh, that was a beautiful ceremony.’”
Michael started the pet ministry at Unity Center of Columbia in April 2006. Since then, she has taken on a team of volunteers to help her perform the duties of the ministry, which include blessings, memorials and end-of-life services.
Michael reaches out to people who have lost their pets, many of whom can be embarrassed about how they react when a beloved animal dies, she said. “It’s okay to be sad,” she said. “You’ve lost one of your best friends, one of your children. (The ministry) sort of opens up that space so people feel free to express their feelings and their emotions.”
The primary focus of the ministry is “pets without people,” in particular, animals without a home that end up at the Humane Society. Every Saturday morning, Michael can be found at the shelter, where she visits each animal in its cage and offers a blessing. And every fall, Michael and her pet ministry team hold a public blessing at Unity Church.
Some owners, like Sapp and Jakubowicz, invite Michael into their home to bless their pets. After adopting Rosalita from the Humane Society in April, they felt a pet blessing would help the whole family adjust to a new pet.
“To me, it just seemed to be the right thing to do,” Sapp said. “It felt like it would help with the process of getting Rosalita adjusted to her new environment.”
Cholo, Sapp and Jakubowicz’s shy chow-German shepherd mix, hid under a table for his blessing, Sapp said. Michael ended up having to throw the blessed water on him as he growled at her. As for Rosalita, the participants described her blessing as almost like a child being baptized, especially the way she fell asleep in Jakubowicz’s arms.
Not everything about the ministry is uptight and serious. When talking about her credentials, Michael joked about the duties she has taken on. “I have a certificate on my wall,” she said. “I like to tell people, if you know a duck and a goat that want to get married, send them my way.” After a laugh, she said, “They have to get genetic counseling from their veterinarian first.”
The Rev. Kristin Powell of Unity Center said the pet ministry is important to the church and the community.
“For many people, like me, animals are an integral part of their family,” Powell said in an e-mail. “So it’s important that there is an outlet for people to honor their pets.”
Powell, the owner of Hazel, an 8-year-old beagle, said her dog is blessed every time Michael looks after Hazel or takes a moment to pet the dog. When Michael came to her with the idea of the pet ministry, Powell was open to the idea.
“I thought it was fantastic,” she said. “I was happy for her because it blends two of her passions — chaplaincy and animals. And I knew our congregation would be blessed by a special ministry that acknowledged the importance of their pets.”
Michael said she wants to honor the many ways in which animals bring her and other people joy. She thinks pet ministries can be an important part of educating people about the role animals play in the lives of humans. “I hope it’ll help raise people’s awareness that animals are part of God’s creation, and they are here to be honored, loved and respected,” she said. “Hopefully it’ll raise their consciousness on how they think of animals.”