Paws for the Kingdom

By: Brad Rowland

In October 2021, The Salvation Army’s Sherman Avenue Corps in Washington, D.C. was facing an interesting challenge. The corps was seeking new avenues for outreach in the local community and also navigating issues with approachability and communication as the neighborhood around the corps facility was changing. Then, Sage arrived.

Major Srikant and Captain Indrani Bhatnagar, corps officers, adopted their first dog, Sage, and immediately noticed an uptick in conversation and connection with others walking their dogs. This led to a thought bubble and, according to Captain Bhatnagar, paved the way for Major Srikant to develop a “crazy idea” for outreach through dedicated “Paw Parties” that would bring people together and to the corps.

“Like many other times, I thought he had lost his mind again and soon would be back to normal,” Captain Bhatnagar said. “Nonetheless, that did not happen, and he got more persistent with the idea.”

The Paw Party, or Paw Program as it is sometimes called, now takes place monthly after its formal creation in the summer of 2022. The gathering is held either on Saturday morning or a weekday evening, with the program featuring music, snacks and drinks for both dogs and dog parents, water play, games, and what Captain Bhatnagar describes as “the obsession with chasing the ball.”

The Sherman Avenue Corps now owns a puppy pool to go along with treats and toys, and local pet stores have donated items including gift certificates that can be used as door prizes. The party can and has been held at both the corps and within a local dog park, with each month following a theme.

In February 2023, the meeting was centered on “Mardi Paws” and, in March, the focus was “St. Pawtrick’s Day.” Not every month is explicitly tied to an already existing holiday, but the association helps to raise awareness and establish relationships that The Salvation Army perhaps would not encounter through other means.

One such example of an unlikely connection stemmed from a neighbor who repeatedly complained and sometimes even hassled The Salvation Army in previous months. This neighbor felt an overarching concern with The Salvation Army’s property housing a shelter population and feeding program, with skepticism about its being located in the midst of an area of the nation’s capital experiencing gentrification. This relationship was tenuous for a long period of time, perhaps due to unfamiliarity and inaccurate assumptions, but the neighbor now embraces The Salvation Army and its ministry, becoming a friend to the corps and its soldiers.

“After the neighbor came to the Paw Program along with his pup and his wife in 2022, he came to (Major) Srikant and apologized for his behavior toward us and toward The Salvation Army,” said Captain Bhatnagar. “He explains that he always believed the Army had nothing to offer them, he believed the Army was only for the homeless or someone who is less fortunate. His words were ‘I’m sorry, today I learned that The Salvation Army is for everyone, including people like me.’”

The Salvation Army’s mission in the Washington, D.C. area remains unchanged in winning souls for the Kingdom and meeting human need without discrimination. Though the Paw Program does not fall within the traditional programming structure, its outreach has proven valuable in the community and opened fruitful doors in a short period of time.

“We have gained corps members, many volunteers, and program members throughout this special program,” Captain Bhatnagar said. “We are beyond blessed by the Lord for using us in many ways for His people.”