Toby likes people of all flavors, and I doubt he’s ever met a person he hasn’t licked.
Toby is a Queensland heeler, a pun not lost on the healing team at the Sutter Senior Center in downtown Sacramento. In 2002, I often conducted a spiritual support group at the center and always looked forward to seeing Toby.
But one afternoon, I came to the center to find my group had been canceled in favor of a potluck. Now at the time, I didn’t see that as a bad trade. I knew the staff to be renown for these potlucks.
Yet, it quickly became evident this disruption in routine was causing a panic attack in one of the elderly patients. Since the woman normally attended my group, one of the social workers suggested I talk with her.
Poised near the exit was the woman whose name I can’t recall. But she was repeatedly praying, which has since caused me to remember her as Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.” She was drumming her feet in cadence with the litany, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”
At my appearance, “Dorothy” stilled momentarily to ask whether we were having our group today.
Pursing my lips, I floated an excuse: “No, we’re having a potluck.”
Her shaking prayer resumed as her eyes took leave of the conversation.
“We can still sing our hymns,” I said, coaxing her back to our exchange. “Nothing is stopping us from singing.”
She tossed a doleful glance through the noisy crowd.
“We can still sing — just you and I,” I said as I left in search of hymnals.
When I returned with the hymnal, I found Toby warming my chair.
What’s he doing here? I thought. This is my gig. I didn’t need a dog sticking his wet nose in my clerical business.
Yet, as I watched, the woman’s hand formed a shaky greeting for Toby. Toby responded by wrapping his tongue around her hand like a kid’s tongue encircling a chocolate ice cream cone on a sweltering day.
Slowly, the woman’s wrinkled face formed a smile as she took a firm grip on Toby’s leash. Hesitantly, and despite the fact I had been seriously upstaged, I started to see the wisdom in letting Toby take the lead.
When I opened the hymnal and asked Dorothy what she wanted to sing, she replied, “Amazing Grace.”
“Yes. It certainly is amazing,” I allowed as my hand connected with hers to discover Toby’s ability to lick a double scoop. During the next 15 minutes, we sang one duet after another. Between songs, I couldn’t help but notice a calmness permeate the woman’s spirit as she hugged Toby’s neck a little tighter.
Her joy was beginning to spring forth from this connection — first in drips and then in gushes. By the time we sang our last song and pinched our last crumb of pie, Dorothy insisted on leaving her wheelchair to walk herself to the bus that would finally answer her original prayer.
People ask me all the time whether they have to attend church to worship God. No, you don’t have to go to a building to worship God, but Dorothy and I reaffirmed the wisdom in the biblical promise that God will be present anywhere “two or three are gathered.”
In that afternoon, Dorothy and I were two people gathered together and, even though Toby made an iffy three, our worship connected us with our creator and renewed our strength. God’s handprint of love, if not Toby’s paw print, became evident for all to see.