Bells First offers radical hospitality to service dog and Air Force vet
Service dog Bear enables Air Force veteran Aimee Sherrod to live a more normal life.
Bear empowers Aimee to take Communion at Bells First.
We look forward to having your dog in church with us soon!
Those were the words spoken at First United Methodist Church in Bells, TN to Aimee Sherrod, a U.S. Air Force veteran now living in the small West Tennessee community
Aimee spent three tours of duty in war zones, but for years she wouldn’t tell people she was a veteran. After facing sexual harassment during two tours and mortar attacks in Iraq, the 29-year-old mother of two was medically discharged in 2005 with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Aimee is haunted by nightmares and wakes up some nights thinking she is once again under attack. As a result of PTSD, she’s moody and can’t function enough to work, go shopping, attend college, or even go to church.
The Bells First congregation has been supportive from the first moment Aimee walked into the church leading one precious and very active young son and with a second on the way. She was welcomed with open arms–even more so after they heard a little about her story.
Louie, Aimee’s husband, has family ties in Bells, so, a year and a half ago, the Sherrods decided to make it their home. They found a church home at Bells First because the small congregation was very well suited to their family’s needs.
However, Aimee was still having trouble functioning day to day and in fulfilling her desire to raise her family and finish her degree in Social Work.
Puppies Behind Bars
“Puppies Behind Bars” is an organization that trains inmates to raise puppies to become service dogs for the disabled and canines that detect explosives for law enforcement.
Aimee was selected to be one of only a handful of veterans to be considered for a service dog for the treatment of PTSD.
The news was transforming. It meant she could potentially regain control of her life, potentially be given the precious gift of being able to attend her children’s school functions, her husband’s work parties, go shopping whenever she wanted and generally be returned the keys of her life.
Bells First demonstrates Radical Hospitality
That was when the first conversation about dogs in church began. It started with a message on Facebook expressing frustration with finding people who were willing to accommodate a service dog for a person with an “invisible disability.”
Aimee’s pastor, the Rev. Benjamin Stilwell-Hernandez, replied to the Facebook query by simply stating without any reservation that a service dog would be welcome to come to Bells First United Methodist Church anytime, and if anyone had any problems with it, the church would adjourn to the outdoors where everyone would be welcome.
Fortunately, when Stilwell-Hernandez asked the Bells First congregation if the church was willing to be radically hospitable to Aimee’s service dog so she could become more active, everyone agreed that service animals were welcome.
Interestingly, churches are one of very few places that are not required by law to accept service dogs in their facilities.
Bear goes to church
A couple of weeks later, “Bear” was introduced to the church. He entered, quickly took his place at Aimee’s feet and was at the ready anytime she called. Other than watching his entrance, the congregation didn’t even notice his presence after that.
Then came “That Sunday”, the first Sunday of the month. Like many United Methodist churches, Bells First reserves the first Sunday of the month as Communion Sunday.
Aimee has rarely been able to take Communion, but on this Sunday Bear did his job and empowered Aimee to come to the table of the Lord and partake in this powerful sacrament!
It was interesting that after church hardly anyone had even noticed that their silent church service dog had come to the chancel rail during communion. Certainly Aimee knew and her pastor did as well, but several after church only mentioned how great it was that Aimee was able to come down and take communion.
Is everything perfect now? No, it is not. But by the grace of God and the help of a loving church, a loving servant and a lot of prayer, this warrior is finally beginning to regain her freedom and her independence.
Bells First has a long history with many great chapters and great stories. Now the church has added another story which focuses on God using a servant named Bear to teach the congregation about hospitality and how to love others more fully.
One more note about service dogs: They’re great in church, always attentive, and never complain (unlike many of us!).