DON GONYEA, HOST:
Right outside Lexington, Kentucky, tucked into the green hills of thoroughbred country is a small town with a big name: Paris. It's everything you might imagine a small town to be - quiet, safe, friendly. Church is a defining part of life, as it is for many people across Kentucky. But in Paris, a little country church welcomes a very different breed of congregants, as Leslie Guttman of member station WEKU reports.
LESLIE GUTTMAN, BYLINE: Anne Hollingsworth and Pastor Dow Cobb are chatting outside on the steps of Hopewell Presbyterian Church when two other members scamper up.
ANNE HOLLINGSWORTH: Nava.
DOW COBB: Oh, my gosh.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
GUTTMAN: That's Nava, a black lab and Poppy, a border collie. The pastor cautions me about Poppy, saying it takes the dog a little while to warm up to strangers.
COBB: The dog with the brown eye and a blue eye is the only one you can't reach down and pet.
GUTTMAN: For 30 years, people have brought their dogs to services at Hopewell. Welcoming pets is part of the church's commitment to honoring the Earth and all its creatures. The more you talk to Hopewell's congregants, the more you realize it's not so much that people are bringing their dogs to church, but the dogs are bringing their people to church.
Fray Vaughn is Poppy, the border collie's mom. As she heads inside for services, Vaughn says the dogs make the atmosphere relaxed and down home.
FRAY VAUGHN: A lot of churches, you have to prescribe to certain behaviors, certain dress. And here, you come, I think, just to be a better person.
COBB: They were a part of mine...
GUTTMAN: During the service, Woody Moore, his wife and their two white English Setters Clem and Rufus sit in the last pew. Hank, a sharp-eyed terrier, trots over and inspects the two dogs. Rufus is 2 and still has some puppy in him. He's wiggling around.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
GUTTMAN: Save for the occasional bark, Hopewell's dogs are well-behaved. Woody Moore used to endure church when he went. Then he and his wife started coming to Hopewell with Clem and Rufus.
WOODY MOORE: It was more spiritual for me. Both of our children are out of the house, and so our dogs are constant companions and company. Being able to bring them here makes a great difference in our lives.
GUTTMAN: When it comes time for prayer requests, people ask for the normal things, like help for ailing parents. But often, there are requests for sick animals. For months the congregation held fast that Mazy, a lamb born prematurely on congregant Sarah Dunham's sheep farm, would make it. Pastor Dow Cobb.
COBB: We had prayed Mazy through until she, against everything that medical science would say, her legs had straightened out and she was fine with her legs and her digestive system. And then Hickory the horse stepped on her.
GUTTMAN: To everyone's relief, Mazy pulled through and she's fine today.
HOLLINGSWORTH: Come on, Hank.
GUTTMAN: Anne Hollingsworth lives behind the church with Hank, that inquisitive terrier. He's Hopewell's unofficial deacon. Anne's late husband Don was Hopewell's pastor for years. The church became dog friendly after the couple started bringing Coco, their poodle mix, to services in the '80s.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
GUTTMAN: Inside the little gray brick church, old wooden pews have been painted sky blue. The carpet matches, and overhead is a cloud white ceiling. Pastor Dow Cobb says the dogs actually aren't the unique thing for him about Hopewell. He says the church is the first one he's been involved with that doesn't expect or insist its members follow a prescribed set of beliefs. Cobb also says that at Hopewell, fundamentalists and agnostics, conservatives and liberals sit, pray and argue with each other side by side.
COBB: We kind of celebrate different positions on those things, and it doesn't mean that we have to be angry with each other or dislike each other. We all lost in the woods together down here at night, you know?
GUTTMAN: The people at Hopewell say they found a place of worship where they can be themselves, in the same way dogs are always naturally who they are.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
GUTTMAN: For NPR News, I'm Leslie Guttman in Lexington, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.