[PHOTO] Santaland, Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning

Being away from home is always hard. And Christmas makes it harder. I spent my Christmas with a wonderful family that welcomed me into gifts, unwrapping and Christmas loving.

[PHOTO] Blessing of the Animals

On a rainy Sunday morning in October, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan saw some unusual additions to its congregation. And many of them had four legs.

A camel towered over everyone in the church. A 25-year-old tortoise lay still in his hold as he was rolled down the aisle. A gorilla clung to her handler’s neck. A kangaroo jumped all the way to the church altar. A llama stopped midway and stretched her long neck. And these were just the more exotic animals. Dogs, cats, a couple of donkeys and even a pig walked down the aisle of the Cathedral on October 7th.

“I have to say although the camel was the most impressive in size; I found some of the smaller animals really fascinating,” said Dean Fogel, who was there with Daisy, his French mastiff. “A couple of the animals I’ve never seen before. I couldn’t even tell you what they were. The kangaroo was definitely impressive, so you know it was great.”

To commemorate the patron saint for animals, St. Francis of Assisi, the Cathedral of St. John has the tradition of opening its large iron doors on the first Sunday in October to bless any animals. Members of the congregation can bring their own pets and many do. The event is incredibly popular and the cathedral sells tickets for seats to the service.

The more exotic animals in the congregation came from Dawn Animal Agency for the event.

“This is an annual event that we participate in,” said Diane Katz, office coordinator at the Dawn Animal Agency. “Some of them are working animals; some of them are brand new babies. We had baby chicks today and a baby pig too.”

The Dawn Animal Agency is a talent agency that runs Sanctuary for Animals in upstate New York. They house over 1,000 rescued and abandoned animals. The animals participate in this procession every year and have for the last few years.

“Each animal has its own story,” Katz said. “We love having them in the procession.”

The yearly event brings thousands of people to the church, many with their own animals. The service is far from what would be considered a traditional Christian service. The music in parts of the service is specially adapted to be in tune with animal ears. The great arches of the cathedral resonated with what sounded like piercing wails to the human ear.

“It’s actually very calming to the animals,” Katz said.

Aside from the animals and the music that catered to them, there were dancers in the service.  And African musicians with huge drums and dancers in bright tunics and jewelry.

Ten-year-old Weston, a student at the Cathedral school, has been walking down the blessing procession for the past five years. His star is Rosie, a bearded dragon.

“I think Rosie had fun today.” Weston said. “She is cold because of the rain but she seems happy.”

Dwight Sole, a handler for Dawn Animal Agency, joked that the creatures seemed right at home inside the church. “You know a lot of people think that animals are people too,” said Sole. “And there’s nothing wrong with it, so why not celebrate it in church?”

[PHOTO] Harlem Week

I spent my first photo journalism assignment at Harlem week. I had the most incredible time there and here are the pictures.