By Lindsay Peyton

It’s mainly canine companions that line up for prayer in front of Bellaire UMC for the annual Blessing of the Animals. But there are also cats in carriers and other pets too. “Someone always brings an iguana, and there are gerbils and hamsters,” Rev. Seann Duffin said. “Once, someone even brought a horse.”

All animals are welcome to attend the event, now in its 11th year. The flier simply requests that pets are friendly, vaccinated and “either on-leash, in carriers, cages, fish bowls or terrariums.”

All owners are also invited – regardless of church membership or faith affiliation, Duffin explained. “This is really an event for the entire community,” he said.

Blessing of the Animals is scheduled for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 25 at Bellaire UMC, 4417 Bellaire Blvd in Houston.

The event starts with a brief worship service. “Everyone gathers on the lawn right in front of the sanctuary,” Duffin said. “We read scripture and pray. There’s a blessing over everyone.”

Each pet is assigned a number at registration, which is called for individual blessings provided by Pastors Duffin and Lataya Simpson, as well as Jordan Payne, director of student ministries. The moment will be captured by Nikky LaWell Photography – and digital portraits are provided for free.

While owners wait for their fuzzy friends to be called, they can pursue the vendors. This year, Woofgang Bakery and Grooming and Three Dog Bakery will be on-site, as well as Westbury Animal Hospital and dog trainer Teri Mercatante.

Also in attendance will be Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that provides assistance dogs to individuals with disabilities, as well as Faithful Paws, a ministry of Bellaire UMC that offers pet therapy to hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, schools, universities and community groups.

Adoptable pets will also be waiting on the church lawn, offered by Golden Beginnings, Westie and Scottie Rescue, Miniature Schnauzer Rescue, Citizens for Animal Protection, PugHearts of Houston and Rescued Pets Movement. “Some of them might walk home being adopted,” event organizer Steve Smith said.

He explained that a number of those in attendance may not have a church home. Each participant is given a flier to invite them back to Sunday worship and Easter services.

The event was created by the church’s evangelism committee, as a new means to reach out to the community. Smith, a former lay leader, was nominated to take charge of the event.

At the time, he was owner of Rover Oaks Pet Resort – and seemed a perfect fit for the job. He opened the doggy daycare, pet spa and boarding facility in 2001 and knew exactly what it took for smooth operations that include K9s.

Smith also loves pets, explaining a white German Shepherd that he rescued ended up changing his life for the better. Organizing the Blessing of the Animals was a perfect way to use his skills to benefit pets, which he considers God’s gift to humanity. Rover Oaks staff also helped with the initial events.

Bellaire UMC offered Blessing of the Animals in the past, Smith explained. But it was for church members only, with about 20 or 30 pets in attendance.

Now that the event has been expanded, as many as 270 companion critters have attended. The first year for the new iteration of Blessing of the Animals was in 2011 – and it has continued in this format every year since, with one exception during the pandemic.

“People start showing up early,” Smith said. And they come back year after year.

Once, he remembers a woman driving up from Sugar Land, who got stuck in traffic and couldn’t make it on time. All of the pastors had already left, and Smith was helping clean up. He offered to bless her dog.

“This dog was her life,” Smith recalled. “Something like this is fun. It can also reach right down into someone’s soul – and it does that for a few people each year.”

Pastor Duffin agreed. “People care deeply for their pets,” he said. “They are very much members of the family.”

Often, when he is blessing the animals, a door opens for a more personal conversation. He explained that when a pastor blesses a pet, the owner also experiences love, care and compassion.

“Seeing it happen with their pet might remind them that there is a need in their own life,” Duffin said. “They might need a prayer too. And what a gift it is to me and the other pastors to be invited into that moment of their lives.”

He talks to each pet owner and usually starts the blessing off from Deuteronomy, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

“I pray for their pet to continue to be a faithful companion, a bearer of love in the world,” he said. “And that as a part of God’s creation, they will continue to be a blessing, not just for their owner but for everyone, that God will continue to work through them.”