by Sarah Withrow King

“The very nature of to seek out the deepest possible communion and friendship with every last creature on this earth.” Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life

There are moments in life when you feel like you’re in the pocket, in the groove...where you know you’re just exactly where you need to be.

I was honored to take part in two events recently that gave me such hope for the future of the church’s response and relationship to animals.

First: CreatureKind has its very first college chapter! I spoke at the first gathering of the CreatureKind club at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, TN. We roasted veggie dogs and vegan marshmallows over a fire, worshipped together, and talked a little about connecting our food with our faith. We were in the company of a sweet black dog and a beautiful rescued hen named Hope. I was struck that the Adventist students, who attend a vegetarian college and many of whom grew up in vegetarian households, still resonated with the feeling of isolation felt by so many Christian animal advocates.

A few minutes away from Collegedale, in Chattanooga, I visited a Seventh Day Adventist congregation during their weekly worship service. With the odor of a chicken slaughterhouse permeating the air outside of the church, I talked a little about my book Vegangelical and our responsibility as people made in the image of God to reflect God’s perfect and intense empathetic nature to all of creation.

After that Saturday morning service, I spent two days with Mercy Junction, a ministry of the Presbytery of East Tennessee, which operates the Justice and Peace Center at St. Andrews. The Justice and Peace Center is devoted to advancing social justice in Chattanooga and the South, and organizes with both secular and faith-based organizations and individuals. Center Director, Beth Foster, put together a series of events called “Feast of St. Francis: A Weekend for All Creation.” The weekend events included a vegan cookout, rodeo protest, and a St. Francis Day service at a local Presbyterian church at which Foster preached and I talked a little about my theology of animal protection.

I felt a certain joy throughout the weekend. A sense of intimate friendship with my hosts, whom I’d never met in person before I arrived in Tennessee. A sense of deep connection to the men and women who came to the cookouts and protest and talks. They were small gatherings, but it became clear that each person was integral. During the passing of the peace at a tiny church planted in the midst of housing projects, every person greeted every other person with a kiss and a blessing. My presence there mattered, not because I’m so great, but because every person, every creature, is in intimate relationship with one another. My sense of belonging, and the overwhelming gifts of hospitality extended to me during this short trip are a true reflection of how God sees me, and sees each of God’s precious creatures. We aren’t faces in a crowd. We are sought out for “the deepest possible communion and friendship.”

On Tuesday, Mercy Junction held three Blessings of the Animals services, two of which took place outside Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride chicken slaughterhouses. Outside of the killing factories, Pastor Brian Merritt prayed for the animals and workers in the plants, both of whom suffer. Can you imagine the horror of slaughter from an animal’s perspective? And can you imagine how humans might suffer, standing in the midst of the smell and blood and screams of a slaughterhouse, hanging bird after bird, slitting throat after throat, for hours and days on end?

Jesus told us that if we were at the altar giving our offering to God and we remembered that we had a conflict with a brother or sister, we were to leave our offering and go to reconcile that broken relationship. Peace between us and God is intimately connected to the peace between us and other creatures. Relationships, not rules, are the keys to reconciliation. So, when Pastor Merritt prayed for the animals, he also prayed for the workers, for the men and women who are caught up in an economic system that leaves them no option but making a living by death.

As a Christian whose vocation is animal protection and helping other Christians think about our role as stewards of God’s whole creation, I found my time in Tennessee profoundly moving, uplifting, heartening, life-giving. We are not alone. God sees us, sees our struggle. God sees the struggle of animals used for food. God sees the struggle of humans who abuse them. God loves us all, seeks us all, and wants to be in intimate relationship with us all. And there are other humans who feel the way we do, who are fueled by the despair and hope that fuels us.

May we be in friendship with one another, with God, and with all God’s creatures and reflect the image of an empathetic God to all. Amen.