By Paula Schlueter Ross
Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Maggie, Ruthie, Luther, Prince and Shami — the nine four-legged disaster-response workers who arrived in Newtown, Conn., on Saturday, Dec. 15, to assist the shaken residents — “have brought peace and comfort everywhere they have gone,” according to the Rev. Glenn F. Merritt, director of LCMS Disaster Response.
Indeed, the community — still numb from the Dec. 14 shooting of first-graders and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School — has embraced those “disaster volunteers” from Addison, Ill.-based Lutheran Church Charities (LCC): all golden retrievers known as “K-9 Comfort Dogs.”
The dogs and their LCC handlers have been featured by CNN, the Chicago Tribune, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” “Anderson Cooper 360°” and the “Today” show.
In the CNN story, Hetzner tells reporter Don Lemon that the dogs were brought in “to bring comfort to people during disaster, at times of loss …. they just come in for people to pet.”
“We do it in disaster-response situations, or in situations like this. And we place dogs in churches and schools. We have 60 dogs out there, placed in six different states, to do this sort of thing.”
When Lemon asks a child, “This brings you joy to pet this dog?,” the youngster responds: “Definitely.”
Lemon, reporting from Newtown, said he hadn’t “seen anyone smiling out here, and these dogs showed up and the kids started smiling.”
The dogs and LCC staff traveled to Connecticut at the request of LCMS New England District President Rev. Timothy Yeadon. LCC is an LCMS Recognized Service Organization.
The LCC team is working cooperatively with Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown and its pastor, the Rev. Robert H. Morris II, “to bring the mercy, compassion, presence and proclamation of Jesus to all those who have been traumatized by this horrific [school shooting],” according to a statement on the LCC website.
In a Dec. 17 phone interview with Reporter, Hetzner said the Comfort Dogs are so well-received because “they are like a furry counselor. We say they’re a bridge for ministry — the dogs show unconditional love, they’re not judgmental, they’re soft, they’re confidential and they don’t keep notes.”
The response in Newtown, he said, has been “absolutely positive, all the way around.”
Hetzner shared two comments from LCC’s Facebook page:
- “I’m from CT close to Newtown and I heard about your dogs from a child at a gas station. He met you today and for him to be smiling and talking about the dogs instead of crying in such dark times, I can’t thank you enough for the work that you do. God bless you and your dogs!”
- “Just heard about the goldens you sent to Connecticut. Please accept my personal thanks for doing such a wonderful thing. I’m an agnostic, but reading about charity like this makes me doubt my own beliefs, or lack of. Again, thank you from Louisville, Kentucky.”
Hetzner and several of the dogs and handlers had just spent the day (Dec. 17) at the local youth activity center with students from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The children approached the dogs “kind of sad,” Hetzner said, but walked away smiling. “That’s the rewarding part,” he said. “The parents said ‘thank you so much for coming.’ And I think a big part of it is [that] we come in giving, while most of the people in town are taking — they’re taking stories, they’re taking interviews, and the people are just tired of it.”
The dogs also have spent time at Christ the King Lutheran Church as well as at outdoor memorial sites in town. On Dec. 17 Christ the King held a funeral for one of the shooting victims, a boy, and was planning another for Wednesday, Dec. 19. That funeral is for a girl who had attended its Sunday school. Neither of the families are members of the LCMS congregation.
Hetzner said the Comfort Dogs will be present before and after evening prayer vigils to be held at Christ the King all week, and he would like to take them to the local coroner’s office to thank workers there. He also would like to approach the gunman’s father to offer support. “I just can’t imagine what he’s going through,” he said.
“We will be here [in Newtown] as long as needed, and we will continue to send in dogs and teams as long as needed,” Hetzner told Reporter.
Merritt, who also is in Newtown, told LCMS radio station KFUO on Dec. 17 that “it’s just so overwhelming that people don’t know what to say or where to turn right now. And there’s kind of a void left by a tragedy like this.”
But “the opportunity is there to fill that void with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and Pastor Morris and district President Yeadon and others are doing that so well,” he added.
Merritt said he “had the opportunity to visit with some members of the congregation whose children were actually at [Sandy Hook Elementary School] and learn from them how this has traumatically affected their whole family, and how the only hope and peace that they find is being there, listening to the Gospel, carrying on, hearing the hymns sung and joining in the prayer vigils.”
Merritt said Morris, the pastor, “is doing exceptionally well for a young pastor ordained about three-and-a-half months ago. He is doing just a tremendous job of sharing in a clear and gentle way the hope that’s found in Christ and the peace that’s found in the Gospel.”
Said Merritt: “It just makes me proud to realize that The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, of which we’re all a part, has had a voice here, the voice of Christ, in the midst of the tragedy.” (Click here to listen to the KFUO interview.)
Adds Hetzner: “This is the LCMS — as Synod — working together as a united body of Christ, being there in all situations … with the mercy, compassion, presence and proclamation of Jesus Christ!”
Posted Dec. 17, 2012 / Updated Dec. 18, 2012 / Updated Jan. 4, 2013