About eighteen months ago I read the book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. I’d noticed ungracious and selfish behaviors bubbling up within our then six and eight year old children and wanted to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible. This book was full of takeaways, from suggestions on how to develop a family motto to best practices for acknowledging children’s good deeds. UnSelfie also made a strong case for allowing young children to choose a community project based on their own interests and then volunteer regularly. So that’s what we did.
I did a wee bit of research and then presented our kids with three nonprofits near our house that I knew they would support: maintaining the public bike trail, reading with and to younger children at the public library, and volunteering at an animal shelter. The animal shelter was the clear favorite for both of them. They didn’t even ask what all they’d be doing as volunteers; they just wanted share some love with homeless dogs and cats.
After online and in-person trainings, along with a firm understanding that we would not be adopting any pets of our own, my children and I became certified Operation Kindness volunteers, the largest no kill shelter in north Texas. Our primary responsibilities are holding kittens so they learn to love children and walking dogs. Sometimes we fold laundry or clean dog toys, other days we clean out cat crates or shred paper. Except when we walk dogs on blistering hot Dallas summer afternoons, our required four hours of monthly service never feel like a chore. Our children love the kitten snuggles and the hot breath dog kisses, loading the industrial sized laundry appliances and untangling the cats’ wand toys. They even love discovering that their favorite dogs are no longer around to walk because that means they found their “furever” homes.
Of course they whine some days or argue over which of them the animals love more, but overall, it’s been a great experience that has certainly contributed to cultivating kindness and empathy.
Our favorite moments happen on walks out back, right after the dogs go to the bathroom. This is when we find a bench where we can all sit and just smother the dogs with our love. The primary reason this shelter welcomes children as volunteers is so they can help the animals grow more comfortable around busy little bodies. It’s our children’s duty to pet, scratch, and hug these dogs, and they take it seriously. These moments on the bench are pure joy and allow all of us to temporarily forget that the dogs will go back inside a crate at the end of our walk until someone chooses to adopt them.
This is our Thursday afternoon schedule and it remained fairly predictable…until a few months ago. My daughter stood up from our bench, cupped her small hand to scoop up some water in a nearby birdbath, stepped over to the dog we were currently loving, and then baptized it in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As I held the leash and looked on a few feet away, I watched her then mark the dog as Christ’s own forever.
I saw it all unfold, eagerly waiting to see what she would do next. I tried my hardest not to make this dog baptism a big deal, but I really wanted to know what prompted her to do it. So when her liturgy concluded and we resumed our walk, I casually held her hand and asked why she chose to baptize this dog. It turns out, she actually had a lot of reasons why and she shared all of them as we walked dogs the rest of the afternoon.
“I thought it would make him more adoptable.”
“He seemed scared and I wanted to protect him.”
“I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone in his crate because he was part of our church family now.”
This child never stops surprising me.
She’s not a child who baptizes stuffed animals at home or blesses sandwich bread atop a cardboard makeshift altar. However, she is a child who feels all the feelings intensely, both her own and those of people around her. She has been consumed by the joy baptisms offer our church communities and she knew this dog was lonely and likely afraid. So when she noticed the birdbath full of water, she offered comfort and security to a dog that in her mind would last far longer than our hugs and kisses.
In the months since her inaugural dog baptism, my daughter has gone on to baptize and anoint at least a dozen dogs at Operation Kindness. It’s an act of empathy and kindness that I never imagined would happen when we first started volunteering. So rather than wonder about the doctrine of baptism and whether or not our bishops would approve of such sacramental acts on animals, I laud her generous act. She’s sharing her faith with created beings who need it. She’s welcoming them into our wider family and indeed marking them as Christ’s own forever.