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July 27, 2018 - 

At Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., a recent worship service included a special guest named Walter.

Walter is no ordinary worshiper. A standard poodle who has been a staple in the Friendship Ministries program at Plymouth Heights, Walter is an annual guest during the congregation’s yearly worship service led by the group.

Friendship Ministries is a faith formation and inclusion ministry that brings together church mentors and people with intellectual disabilities.

Tom VanWingerden, a Plymouth Heights member, is executive director of Friendship Ministries. "Other than the sermon, we're up there reading and singing and leading the songs,” Van Wingerden said. "It's the one day during the year when [Friendship participants] are in charge of almost every aspect of worship."

Walter made himself at home in the sanctuary during the service. "He goes up and down the aisles [and] sits on the pews. It's quite fun to see a dog as part of our group,” Van Wingerden said.

Walter became involved in Friendship Ministries about 10 years ago when Ron Mekkes, a program mentor and Plymouth Heights member, started bringing him to the group’s Tuesday gatherings in hopes of getting some participants to open up. Van Wingerden says Walter’s gentle nature made him an immediate hit.

"He'd go up and down the aisles, and people would pet him,” he said. “He's very patient. He's a therapy dog for almost everyone that comes to the group.”

Friendship Ministries is a nondenominational organization that got its start in the early 1980s with participating churches in both the U.S. and Canada. It seeks to “promote the ideals of equality, interdependence, compassion, and hospitality within the body of Christ,” according to the organization’s website.

Plymouth Heights has been part of Friendship Ministries for about 25 years, holding weekly meetings from September through May. About 25 people attend the Tuesday gatherings at Plymouth Heights, Van Wingerden said.

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