It’s a Sunday morning at Unleashed Community Church in Eugene. Members of the congregation start arriving and find their seats.
As the Rev. Ruthann Rini stands up to speak, she’s met with an unusual sight – just as many of those attending the service are of the four-legged variety as the two-legged.
She’s speaking to dogs and their owners, and it’s exactly the reason she set up this new congregation.
Rini began her ministry almost three years ago by starting a church and charitable organization that actively serves pet lovers in her community, and that reaches beyond the confines of a Sunday service.
Rini met her husband Ron in 1988, when both worked as guide dog trainers. They had no idea where their common interests would lead them. They married in 1991 and decided they would raise their children while working a family business from home.
In 1995, they purchased Country Inn Kennels, a boarding kennel located on the McKenzie River Highway, a few miles east of Springfield. They attended a church near their home, and Rini discovered she really loved Bible study. Over the next 10 years, she began taking precepts courses while also teaching classes.
“Then I kept feeling this call to go further, that I was supposed to go to Bible college,” she says. “And that was kind of unusual for me because I was thinking, ‘Well, what good would that do me?’”
Because Rini thought they were set with their business and family, it didn’t make sense to her that she would feel a strong desire toward college.
“But it was such a strong feeling that I should go,” she says. Within just two years, she had earned a bachelor of arts in Christian ministry at Eugene Bible College.
By this point, Rini knew she had a calling to be a pastor. But how would that fit with their current family situation? Nevertheless, she enrolled in George Fox University to earn her master’s in divinity while completing a pastoral internship at Waypoint Community Church in Springfield.
While attending George Fox, Rini began researching pet loss — the grieving process after a beloved pet dies. She discovered that pet owners have become more and more connected with their pets.
“People are more isolated then they ever used to be,” says Rini, who observed that situations like mobility within society are an upward trend. Families are disconnecting and moving apart, often because of divorce or job relocation.
“But yet, (people) still need this connection with another living thing,” she says. “And so, they have gone to pets. They’ve gone to the dogs and cats in their lives. I found out how deeply entwined people have become with their pets It used to be that the pets were outside — in more of a working relationship, they were more like part of the property.”
She found this trend not only in her research, but also in talking with pet owners at dog parks and through their business, and it helped clarify an idea – that the culmination of the Rinis’ life experiences, business, call to ministry and love for people and pets must come together in an unconventional way.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in hotels that are pet-friendly, restaurants that are pet-friendly, towns that are pet-friendly,” Rini says. “So, we thought, ‘Why can’t a church be pet-friendly?’”
By the time she was near to completing her master’s, she felt confident in the new direction for their life.
“When I mentioned this idea of a church for dog lovers, (Ron) said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good. That sounds like that will work,’” Rini says of her husband’s support. “We were so wildly excited. We would just sit for hours and hours talking about it.”
She also feels Ron was already acting like a pastor even before she came up with the idea for a pet-friendly church, “because he is a very open-hearted person, a warm, caring person, and he would spend a long time talking to people, and they would go away kind of lifted from their sadness from whatever was going on in their lives.”
The labor of love
For most people who begin a conversation with Ron or Ruthann, it doesn’t take long for two things to become evident about them: They love people, and they love dogs.
“We felt like there were a lot of people who took their dogs everywhere with them, who didn’t want to go places where they couldn’t take them,” Rini says. This can be especially true for individuals she describes as being “in transition,” and who find themselves in tough places.
“Over the last few years we’ve (realized there are) different transitions people go through, and with so many people being deeply attached to animals they have no recourse,” Rini says. “For instance, if a family (with pets) gets evicted from their house and they have to go into a shelter, they cannot take their pets with them. So, who is going to be there to take their pets in, and make sure they’re safe and secure until that family can get back on their feet? And keeping that family member united with their original family is so important to everybody’s emotions.”
It’s the same for a person who might be addicted (to drugs or alcohol) and needs their animal to be cared for while they go through the rehabilitation process. “A lot of addiction facilities won’t take a pet,” she says, “and sometimes they don’t have a friend who can take care of their pet. That person needs a place for their animal to be safe and secure until they can get them back.”
Pets, Rini continues, are a vital connection that may lift a person from depression, and give them a reason to live.
“A lot of these people have no other relationships in their lives that are as strong as the one they have with their pet. Then somebody comes along and tells them to give the pet away to a shelter or someone. And they can’t do it. They would rather stay in the position they’re at.”
Ron and Ruthann want to be that safe and secure place.
“When they get out of treatment, when they get back on their feet, when they get into a house – get in that place where they can be reunited with their pet – we’re all about reuniting that family,” Rini says. “And we love the idea of doing it for the kids, especially. The kids are carrying such loss in their lives, such chaos, we’d like this to be the one stability they can have, this relationship they have with their pet.”
Unleashed Community Church provides breakfast, pet supplies and sincere conversations to the pet owners who stand in line at Pro-Bone-o, a community charity that offers free veterinary care for pets of people who are homeless.
“We feed (breakfast to) the homeless once a month, which I think is fantastic because that way they have a meal,” says Russell Rini, Ron and Ruthann’s teenage son.
The people and their pets
Pet lovers looking for a place of understanding and of belonging experience true support and friendship at Unleashed.
“One thing I love about this church is that all of our animals are welcome — and we’re welcome along with them,” Dick Charters says, while affectionately rubbing the heads of his three “puppies” — a nearly 400-pound troop of black Russian terriers. “Ruthann and Ron are wonderful people backing all of us.”
“My son was diagnosed with cancer pretty much the same time as this church was taking off and it’s meant the world to me to have (their friends and support) and the church praying,” says Katie Flaxbeard.
“I love this church,” says Cindy Stevens, who’s been coming with her daughter, granddaughter and two dogs since the first church service. “We met Ron and Ruthann at Pet Fest before they started the church. They asked us if we wanted them to bless the dogs and we thought, ‘Whoa, that’s really different.’”
During the church service, Stevens requested a prayer for Bear, her Doberman. Rini walked over, put her hand on Bear’s back and led the congregation in a prayer for his upcoming surgery.
“The dogs always get along,” Stevens says. “There’s never been a fight. Ruthann is so different as a pastor. It’s not like one of those normal churches. It’s amazing. You feel so much better when you leave — so do the dogs. They act a little different for a while, they’re calmer.”
Photos by Deb Allen
The Rini family at the entrance of the Unleashed Community Church meeting place: Russell Rini, Raquel Inman, and Ruthann and Ron Rini. They are joined by their dogs, Trixie, Shiloh, Buster and Patch.
Dick Charters feels comfortable bringing all his “puppies” to church – three black Russian terriers sporting a total weight of nearly 400 pounds.