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Hachi: Portland Oregon's Ministry Cat

Hachi: Portland Oregon's Ministry Cat

I must give love. It’s who I am. I do it because I must in order to be myself.

Hachi leaves his apartment at Chelsea Court every morning at six to go to work at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Northwest Portland, returning home somewhere between 7 pm and midnight. He walks down two flights of stairs, out the side door, walking 197 feet until he reaches the church. With the exception of a possible snow day or two, Hachi goes to work 365 days a year. 

His friendly and easy-going nature makes him well-known and loved by the neighbors as well as the staff at Trinity. His rare presence and means of service are embraced and regarded with great respect. He is particularly appreciated by the homeless community that frequents the Wednesday lunch service.

Oh, and by the way, Hachi is a seven-year-old Siamese cat.

His origins are a mystery. No one knows how long Hachi’s been a resident of one of Portland’s most densely populated neighborhoods.  

A woman found him wandering outside one day with no tags. She instantly fell in love with him and wanted to keep him, but her current cat and husband didn’t. That’s when, after trying everything she could think of to find the original owner but to no avail, she asked some of her neighbors if they would be willing to adopt him. And that is how he came to live with Jennifer, his human soulmate.

“I was like, ‘Ooooh, pick me! Pick me!’” Jennifer recalls. “And I got him!” 

Jennifer’s nickname for Hachi is “Tsing Wu,” which evokes Zen master or Taoist associations. According to kabalarians.com, “Tsing” as a first name gives the person (or in this case the cat) “a very responsible, stable nature.” It describes someone with a “strong humanitarian nature, called upon to assist others with their problems.“ Although in China “Wu” as a surname would be first, it translates to mean “Gateway to Heaven.” 

Siamese are one of the oldest and most popular breeds of cat. Originating in Thailand, they are quite social, known to be loyal, playful, bold, intelligent and affectionate. More dog-like than cat-like in their affections, Hachi possesses these traits in spades.

According to the Clifton Strengths Finder Test, if Hachi were a human, his primary talent would be wooing others with a secondary talent of empathy. Hachi is exquisite at making friends and convincing others to give him what he wants, which usually consists of affection, food, and freedom to explore. 

Charm comes easily to Hachi and has afforded him celebrity status.

“We go for walks together in the neighborhood,” Jennifer gushes. “I love seeing people’s reactions when they see him. They’ll ask, ‘Is that your cat???’ Sometimes they’ve already met him because he’s out and about making friends all day long while I’m at work. In that case they usually start the conversation with, ‘Oh, well, I have a story for you about your cat. I love your cat.’”

Jennifer noticed on their walks how Hachi’s time as a street cat had honed his senses to safely navigate the neighborhood . “I continue to give him maximum freedom because there’s no way he was going to become an indoor cat,” she says. “It was so clear he was savvy and streets smart in terms of not getting near moving cars and being able to cross streets.”

Hachi doesn’t limit his affections just to his ‘hood. For a brief period, Hachi accompanied Jennifer to work with her at a language center on the Concordia University campus. Escorted in a pet carrier, she’d bring him into her ground floor office, put food and water out for him and open the window so he could explore the campus freely while she worked and then collected him at the end of the day.

She received numerous calls from concerned students who “found” Hachi roaming the campus. Jennifer and Hachi replicated their ritual of walking together on campus during her lunch breaks. Soon students fell in love with him. The power of ‘woo’ in action.

There are a few churches in the Nob Hill neighborhood. St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is two blocks southwest of Trinity and Congregation Beth Israel is two blocks to the east. So why did Trinity become his adopted home?

Situated among Nob Hill’s vintage apartment buildings, Victorian homes, upscale boutiques and eateries, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s proximity to West Burnside Street makes it a hub for Portland’s homeless population.

Although Trinity Episcopal offers free lunches on Wednesdays to the homeless community in the neighborhood, that’s where their similarity to other churches in downtown Portland ends.

To be characterized as a ‘cathedral,’ the physical premises of the church must be larger than an average church and have a bishop reside there. Constructed in 1906 mostly from basalt and sequoia, Trinity sits at the corner of NW 19th Avenue and NW Everett Street. With four sets of arched ox-blood red doors laced with black steel filigree, the red and black combination appears strikingly gothic. 

Their approach, however, is refreshingly progressive. The website describes Trinity as an “urban congregation that aspires to radical hospitality” whose “altar is open to everyone...peoples of many faiths and no faith to our worshipping community, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic circumstances, or religious background.”

Trinity backs up the claim of “radical hospitality” with a number of liberal services promoting personal expression, all-ages art classes and art exhibits, world-class concerts, a labyrinth, and mini-retreats featuring yoga as part of their mindfulness practices, not to mention sacred dance. And one Siamese cat minister. Very Portland. 

Without this progressive nature, I doubt the church staff would allow a cat like Hachi to treat its halls like his home. Would St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception open its doors wide to Hachi?Would the Congregation of Beth Israel welcome him?

Regardless of the alternatives for a cat like Hachi, he found his perfect home in Trinity.

Gardner Grice, head sexton at the cathedral and a cat-lover himself, recalls Hachi’s early days at Trinity. “He’s pretty much always been hanging around. And then every now and then he would sneak in behind one of us and would get inside the building. And then he would just go about exploring. And now, of course, he's been everywhere, up to the second floor and all through the cathedral.” 

Gardner says Hachi likes to listen to the Rosales Organ in the main sanctuary.  The Rosales Organ is a multi-tonal instrument meant for more than your standard liturgical musical performance. Taking six years to construct, rising along the back wall behind the altar, the pipe organ emanates a prominent holy presence. Usually cats would hide from such massive sources of sound, but Hachi’s been seen multiple times hanging out in the main sanctuary while it plays. 

Elise Sandusky, the facilities assistant co-manager, Hachi’s other church parent,  and fellow cat-mom, refers to Hachi as “Hachikins”. She first noticed him hanging out in the trees along the sidewalk of the property.

“I was a little bit worried that he’d gotten too far away from home,” Elise said, “even though his tag said, ‘Outdoor cat. I'm not lost.’” Elise texted the number on the tag, verifying with Jennifer that indeed Hachi wasn’t lost. 

On an average day, Hachi follows either Elise or Gardner inside the church. When Elise sees Hachi in his “office” (aka the Stearns Library), she sends in church members to see him. He makes his rounds visiting staff members in their offices or holds court in the library, which Elise explained is where he is often found napping.

Hachi’s also been seen crashing public events at Trinity, such as strolling down the center aisle during a wedding rehearsal, interrupting choir practice and - one of his most public appearances to date - at a Christmas Eve service where he “walked down the aisle, turning people’s heads” and finally made his exit by diving into the foliage of the nativity display. 

For the first few weeks after Jennifer took Hachi in, she started receiving calls and texts from concerned neighbors who had “found” her cat. To mitigate their fears, Jennifer added more ID tags to his collar as a preventive measure to let Hachi’s friends know he wasn’t a stray. Even though Hachi is not a registered service animal, Jennifer added a tag that reads, “Please love me and return me,” alerting strangers to Hachi’s friendliness and the fact that he might “help himself into their home,” as Jennifer states.

Her most recent addition to his tag collection, an homage to his growing plumpness, reads, “Do not feed me,” and on the flip side, “I’m a glutton.”

He is a glutton. And not just for love.

Trinity feeds the homeless at noon on Wednesdays. That is a big day for Hachi. “He pretty much works the line and lets people pet him in exchange for food scraps,” Jennifer says.

And she can’t blame them for feeding him since they receive much joy from sharing their lunch with him. It certainly provides those who are struggling with the feeling they still have something to give an opportunity to share what they have no matter how small. Maybe that’s all it takes.

Entertaining examples of his bold nature are commonly experienced by church members, but Elise and Gardner shared two instances illustrating what Elise refers to as “Hachi’s magic.” In one scenario, Elise recalls, “One time there was a screaming homeless person thrashing around out front like we get a lot- we’re in downtown- and I saw Hachi like walking up to him and I was kind of like ‘Oh no I didn't want the man to hurt Hachi because he was super aggravated. He looked down and saw Hachi, totally stopped and then knelt down and pet him and just totally like snapped out of it.” 

It was probably the closest thing we’ll ever find to a cat-induced exorcism. 

The other instance occurred during a funeral service. Hachi entered right on cue at the beginning of the service, jumping onto the altar as the minister rose and announced, “People of God...”, and upon noticing Hachi, without missing a beat, she added, “Feline of God...”

After the service, Elise found Hachi mingling with the family members. One person was holding him. Elise apologized and was going to remove Hachi from the room but they insisted that he stay. It turned out the family member who had passed away had a Siamese cat and the family was thrilled, regarding Hachi’s presence as a divine omen.

All pets have jobs, just like people. Some of our animal companions are teachers, healers, protectors, nurturers or ministers like Hachi. I find Hachi’s story fascinating since he is the epitome of a cat who knows exactly what his purpose is. Not just to give love but to be love. 

Being an animal communicator gives me access to the secret lives of not only animals but their relationships with their people as well. No pet is just a pet. There is always a greater purpose to the relationship with an animal.

Due to their empathic nature, they may absorb your unresolved pain and help you to heal it in their own singular way, or model joy, forgiveness, or the ability to fully live in the moment. At the heart of their service is teaching humans how unconditionally love.

Like people, pets become distressed when they don’t know who they are or their place in their family or the world. They show signs of dysfunction, stress, or agitation - sometimes overeating, behaving erratically, and becoming restless, depressed or lost. 

When pets are supported to do their job, they’re at peace within themselves. How they do it and for whom is as unique as they are. Their formative years prepare them for their purpose better than any university or online program ever could for a human. Any traumas, hardship or fostering they receive guides their innate potential and ability to perform their service brilliantly. 

I spoke to Hachi about how he sees his place in the neighborhood and at Trinity.

He told me that he considers the neighborhood his home, adding, “I like some of the big beautiful trees in the neighborhood and there are a lot of nice people. And I like to give. I like the physical structure of the church. It’s quiet and peaceful. If there is something in the neighborhood I don’t want to experience, I can go there.” 

When I asked Hachi what he wanted humans to know about what he does, he replied, “There are a lot of sad people in this part of Portland and cats help the sadness go away.” I imagine he is referring to the ability cats have to transmute negative energy whether mentally or emotionally-a type of ‘cat-alchemy’ intrinsic to their species.

Regarding his service to the homeless community that comes for the free lunch on Wednesdays, he said, “They need justice in their lives. Some need help, some need uplifting. I bring that. There are a couple of men there who are different from other human beings. They glow. They glow in their eyes.”

Fearless and boldly generous- like the nickname Tsing Wu suggests- Hachi powerfully wields his innocence injecting much needed love into the hearts and minds of humans around him.

“Animals have a lot of grace to them because they don’t have the edges that humans have,” Hachi shares. “There are people in my ministry or community who are very sad. I don’t try to make them not sad or change them. I offer myself as a means to love.” 

To clarify, I asked, “You mean as a means for them to love you?”

“Yes, and I love them. It’s about love. Sometimes love gives things people don’t want but it gives anyway. That’s what I do. I must give love. It’s who I am. I do it because I must in order to be myself.”

Radical hospitality indeed.

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