“I’M SO sorry to hear about your dog, Father John,” said the woman at the checkout in our big Tesco. “She was lovely.” The whole town seems to have heard that Sophie, my little black Labrador, was put to sleep a few weeks ago: the last act of love, as many pet owners know.
I was hugely touched and supported by the kindness of so many in the parishes and the town. One of my churchwardens gave me a framed photo of Sophie, which she had intended to put with our ministry-team photos under the title “Church Dog”; one of Sophie’s friends had flowers put in our memorial corner in memory of “Sophie Wall”; a former lodger dedicated her MA thesis to her (a first to a dog, perhaps?); a local window-cleaner cleaned my windows and soffits in Sophie’s memory — all so kind.
All in all, there were upwards of 500 social-media responses, cards, texts, messages, and emails, from as far away as Turkey, Australia, Italy, France, and the United States. It all really helped.
SOPHIE was, indeed, the “church dog”. As I’ve previously noted in this column, she was a working Labrador, and her work was greeting people and making them feel welcome. Whenever I produced a bandana for her to wear in the day’s liturgical colour, she bounced around excitedly, knowing that she was going to church to see her friends — her greatest joy (after breakfast, dinner, and doggy treats).
During lockdown, she made a real difference, appearing in the online videos that we produced; and people loved her, especially when she got bored, and wandered out of shot. One new member of the congregation joined purely because she loved Sophie in these broadcasts.
PETS curl up in our hearts, in a different way from human beings, and, when they go, they leave a real hole — in my case, a dog-shaped one. One of the hardest things to come to terms with is not just the empty house, but also the fact that everything that Sophie knew — all she’d learned, all she loved, from teddy bears to piggy ears — has also gone.
I am reminded of the final scene in the film Blade Runner, when the dying cyborg says that all his amazing memories of what he has seen and experienced will be washed away “like tears in rain”. I know it’s silly, but that is how it feels.
Do pets go to heaven? Theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas think that animals can’t, because they have no souls. I don’t care: our pets — like Sophie — have personality, consciousness, and love. One of my predecessors, Canon Bill Peters, used to say at pet-lovers’ funerals that, when we die, our pets will run to meet us. I hope so. Put it this way: if my dogs are not part of my experience of heaven, I don’t think I’ll want to be there.
All systems go
I APPEAR to have acquired an Afghan asylum-seeker, here in the rectory. It started with a phone call from Francis, a member of my PCC and our deanery secretary. Francis is also the justifiably proud father of Jimmy the Juggling Jester, who is a well-known entertainer in the area at fairs, shows, and other events — and very good he is, too. In Jimmy’s other life, as Jamie, he runs a stonemasons’ yard, and this is where Hasib comes into the story.
Hasib appeared, asking for work at the yard (he was already working evenings at Kentucky Fried Chicken), which, having a student visa, he was entitled to do. He had come to England a few months previously, intending to start an M.Sc. in I.T. (his first degree was undertaken in Pakistan), but the timing was wrong. Unwilling to go back to Afghanistan for fear he wouldn’t be allowed to return here, he applied for asylum.
I won’t go into the convoluted, Kafkaesque details of the process (I suspect the Taliban don’t read the Church Times, but you never know). For a time, he cycled from the local asylum-seekers’ accommodation — a daily round trip of 16 miles — until, out of the blue, he was required by the Home Office to move within 48 hours to the Napier Barracks, in Folkstone. Hence, Francis’s phone call, asking if I knew anybody with a spare room.
Used to people crash-landing on my rectory, I offered him my little ironing/box room, which he happily took. He was still compelled to move, however; I remember (I was at the opera at Glyndebourne at the time, which felt incongruous) getting a text from him, saying how bad and grim it was, with other refugees who, unlike him, were mostly illegal.
Francis is a retired solicitor, and successfully took up the cudgels with Immigration on Hasib’s behalf; and Hasib is now settled in my box room, and poised to start his M.Sc. online. A devout Muslim, he was excited to get some halal meat, which he cooked with great relish.
We so often see on our screens the awful events of war, flood, and violence, but frequently they don’t feel real unless the consequences are close to home and personal. We will see what happens.
HASIB, bless him, was initially very wary of Sophie, as there is no culture of house dogs in his home community. But she worked on him, welcoming him with wagging tail and bringing him her toys, and, before she died, he got as far as being able to pat her, and say “Hello”: Sophie’s last little act as a working “church dog”.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.