Paws For Love

Find strength where ‘two or three are gathered’

By Norris Burkes
January 2023

During my years as a chaplain for Sutter Medical Center, I usually flew solo for patient visits.

While I was occasionally interrupted by a well-meaning staff member offering an unsolicited prayer, or even an overambitious clergy pressing his or her theology, I was happy to yield my sacred patient space to Toby.

Like me, Toby preferred to work off leash. That’s because he was a therapy dog, a Queensland heeler, a pun not lost on our healing team. He liked people of all flavors, having never met a human he wouldn’t lick.

Part of my duties was to conduct a support group at Sutter Senior Care, a daycare support facility for elderly people.

One afternoon, I went to the unit to lead my spiritual support group, only to learn the group was canceled in favor of a Christmas potluck. Not a bad trade considering how renowned the staff was for potlucks.

As I made my way to the food line, a social worker pulled me aside to tell me the change in routine had caused a panic attack in one of our elderly patients. Since the woman normally attended my group, the social worker suggested I talk with her.

Leaving the food line, I found a woman sitting anxiously near the exit. Her name was Dorothy, as in the “Wizard of Oz.” She was drumming her feet, repeating 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.

I tried to explain, “No, we’re having a potluck.”

Her shaking prayer resumed. Her eyes left the conversation.

“We can still sing our hymns,” I said, coaxing her back into our exchange. “Nothing is stopping us from singing.”

She tossed a glance through the noisy crowd.

“We can still sing, just you and I,” I said, excusing myself to search for a hymnal.

When I returned, Toby was warming my chair.

What’s the dog doing here? I thought. This is my gig. I didn’t need Toby sticking his wet nose in my clerical business.

Yet, as I watched, the woman extended a shaky hand greeting for Toby. He responded by wrapping his tongue around her hand like a kid’s tongue encircling an ice cream cone on a hot day.

Dorothy’s frown transformed into a smile. She took a grip on Toby’s collar. Hesitantly and despite the fact I had been upstaged, I started to see the wisdom in letting Toby take over.

When I opened the hymnal and asked Dorothy what she wanted to sing, she replied, “Amazing Grace.”

“Yes. It certainly is amazing,” I said.

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 gushes. By the time we sang our last song and pinched our last pie crumb, Dorothy walked herself to her bus, finally answering her prayer to go home.

People ask me whether they have to attend church to worship God. No, you don’t have to go to a building to worship. But Dorothy and I reaffirmed the wisdom in the biblical promise that God will be present any place “two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20).

That afternoon, Dorothy and I were two people gathered. Even though Toby made us an iffy threesome, our worship connected us with our creator and renewed our strength. God’s handprint of love, if not Toby’s paw print, was evident.

For information on Sutter Senior Care, visit

Norris Burkes can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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