by Jane Pearce
Ubi caritas et amour, Deus ibi est. Where charity and love are, God is there. These are the simple yet profound lyrics of a well-known Western church hymn. I first heard these words, in their Taizé form, while working my way through divinity school, and I’ve carried them with me ever since. They orient and guide me, and console and empower me, especially as I try to help animals in need.
I spent this past October volunteering at Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s largest farmed animal rescue and protection organization. I put my cushy life on hold to live in a house with four strangers and two bathrooms, to wake up each morning long before the crack of dawn, and to perform physical labor for eight hours a day, five days a week. (After three years of sitting in a divinity school library, this physical labor almost killed me.) My month of serving the animals consisted of cleaning barns, feeding birds, being snapped at by a naughty duck named Pip, changing soiled bedding, applying sunblock to pigs’ ears (yes), assisting in sheep shearing and hoof trimming, encouraging goats to exercise (don’t ask), and trekking many miles back and forth across a dry and sunny landscape to ensure that the animals in our care were happy and comfortable. By the end of the month I had lost ten pounds and my library-pampered skin was glazed in a thick film of dirt, sweat, and fur. And I was impervious to duck bites.
Although it was physically exhausting and often emotionally difficult, it was one of the most meaningful and spiritual experiences of my life. Learning about the different animals—their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their histories, their needs—deepened my understanding of creation and the myriad nonhuman lives that are a part of it, as well as my conviction that we have a responsibility to care for and speak up for them.
I first met Joshua during my volunteer orientation. He was a giant Holstein steer, intimidating in size but as gentle and sweet as could be. I was quickly drawn to his calm disposition and his ease around humans. I learned that he had come to live at the sanctuary when he was only a week old, a sickly newborn dairy calf deemed useless and discarded by his “owners.” The caretakers at the sanctuary extended mercy and compassion to him, nursing his frail body to health and blessing him with a safe place to call home for the rest of his life. Joshua enjoyed 17 blissful years at the sanctuary, grazing with his herd, lazing in the warm California sun, and soaking up the love and attention of the humans who met him.
Unfortunately, Joshua was aging and he wasn’t in the best of health. He suffered from arthritis in his leg joints and had developed a painful foot abscess that kept him immobile and thus separated from his herd. He was given medication and watched regularly, but, aside from one hopeful day, he didn’t seem to be improving. Over the course of a week or so we all witnessed Joshua’s health decline further. He looked distressed beyond his joint and foot issues, sometimes breathing heavily and unable to lie in a comfortable position. He also seemed depressed and lonely. We all tried to console him and keep him company. A fellow intern and I visited him as much as we could, treating him to sweet hay (a delicacy amongst bovines) and holding his water bucket to his head so he could more easily drink from it. We petted him and talked to him, replaced the soiled straw around his body, and shooed flies away from his foot. He accepted our assistance and fellowship without reservation.
I arrived at the shelter early one morning to hear that Joshua was in even worse shape. Not only was he unable to stand or walk, he couldn’t even sit up—he was stuck lying on his side. The vet, I was told, was on his way. Three of us interns, before beginning our morning barn-cleaning shift, looked in on him. What we saw was heartbreaking. His heavy body crumpled on the ground; his eyes, confused and panicked, looked to us for an explanation, for help. We decided then that two interns could take care of cleaning the barns; the third intern would stay behind and comfort Joshua.
A few hours later, as I scattered fresh straw for a flock of chickens, a staff member found me to give me the news: Joshua was bleeding internally and suffering tremendously. His body was giving out on him. If I wanted to say goodbye, I needed to do it soon. I nodded, trying to process her words as I turned toward Joshua’s barn. I started running up the rocky dirt road, past the chicken houses, past the turkey barn, past the pig barn, where I picked up speed, worried that it’d be too late by the time I arrived. I had to say goodbye. I had to let him know that I cared.
I stopped as I reached his barn, gathered myself, and then entered with as much peace and calm as I could muster. I found Joshua confined to the same spot as he was that morning, only this time he was surrounded by his caretakers, about ten people altogether. His head was in the lap of the intern we left behind hours earlier. She had stayed with him, holding him and comforting him, never leaving his side. Instinctively, I knelt down next to his body and placed my palms on the fur of his back. Tears began to well up in my eyes. I tried to fight them off, embarrassed that I couldn’t be tougher and just accept this part of life—this inevitable part of working with animals.
After a while the patient vet spoke up to explain the procedure—his way of telling those of us who didn’t want to see the euthanasia that we should go. I didn’t want to see it. I only wanted to say goodbye. I tried to lift my body off the ground to leave, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t budge, and my hands wouldn’t let go of Joshua. I realized that I had to stay and comfort him, even if it meant witnessing him dying. With palms pressed firmly in his fur, I placed my head against his back and began to pray silently. Tears streamed down my face as I pleaded with God to be there, to comfort Joshua and to take his pain away. I prayed fervently and continuously. Be here, God. Comfort him. Show him your love and mercy. Be here, please. Help him.
God, are you here?
And then it was over. The sweet and gentle life we called Joshua was gone. His soft eyes that kindly welcomed newcomers, his giant frame that absorbed hugs so well—gone. His body was buried at the sanctuary that evening, returned to the earth.
That night, drenched in grief, I left the sanctuary to drive the dark country road into town. As I allowed myself to recall the day’s events, I thought deeply about my faith, and my expectations of God. Did I believe that God had been there, back in the stall with Joshua? Was God present even though Joshua was but a mere animal? Could I even ask that of God? I was startled when these words rushed at me, cutting through my solitude and sorrow: Ubi caritas et amour, Deus ibi est.
Yes, God was there.
God was there when the good Samaritan lifted Joshua’s weak newborn body off the ground and delivered him to Farm Sanctuary. God was there when the sanctuary caretakers, filled with empathy and reverence for his tiny life, embraced him and healed him. God was there to see Joshua grow and thrive and flourish for 17 years. And as we encircled Joshua’s dying body to extend our love and mercy, God was there. I believe that God is there each day, permeating the sanctuary through the nonstop feeding, bathing, medicating, grooming, and rehabilitating of some of the most abused and most vulnerable creatures in the world.
God is even there each time a volunteer fills Pip the duck’s pool with fresh water while simultaneously shielding themselves with a trashcan lid or broken rake head as Pip furiously snaps at the flesh of their legs. (I am certain this is Pip’s way of expressing deep gratitude for the care he receives.)
I understand that it might seem too far-fetched to suggest that we can extend God’s presence and loving care to animals. Human beings have the monopoly on God’s love, no? Surely it’s not possible that God could care about or have time for animals given all the attention humans require. But God is there and God does care, and scripture tells us as much: Job 39, Jonah 4, Psalms 33, 36, and 104, Joel 2, and Genesis 1 and 2 all confirm this. God created the animals, is present with the animals, and loves and cares for the animals, even those we’ve labeled as “farm animals” (to distinguish them from “companion animals” or “wildlife”).
So if God cares for these creatures, why don’t we Christians care for them? Why don’t we include them in our celebrations of St. Francis’ Feast Day? Or in our liturgies and hymns and prayers? Or in our “creation care” efforts? Why don’t we consider their lives—and deaths—when we sit down for a fellowship meal, or when we partake in the Eucharist? Why aren’t they advocated for in our social justice work?
Farmed animals really need our help. Over 9 billion of them are killed in the U.S. each year for food. The vast majority of these animals, along with the hundreds of millions more who are kept alive for their milk and eggs, suffer in factory farms where they are forced to endure horrific lives and are subjected to extreme confinement and cruelty. To understand the awfulness of this system, search “factory farming” on the Internet, then view the images. You can also learn more about it here: http://www.farmsanctuary.org/learn/factory-farming/. Or, if you’re really brave, watch this: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/investigations. No other creatures on earth suffer more in terms of quantity or quality. No other creatures have less voice, less power, and are granted less dignity than farmed animals. But these creatures are created by God, and are loved by God. These creatures deserve our attention, our inclusion, and our action.
I’ve spent a total of four months volunteering at Farm Sanctuary, during which I was blessed to learn about and connect with a number of fantastic and amazing creatures, including Joshua. My observation of and interaction with these animals, along with earnest reflection and contemplation, has reshaped my understanding of our human responsibility toward all of creation, and has reshaped my understanding of Christian love and service. Animals, especially those in such dire need, can and should be included in our circle of compassion, and in our moral and theological considerations. We must shed light on and give voice to these hidden and forgotten creatures. And we must extend to them our mercy and love.
Ubi caritas et amour, Deus ibi est.