At the time of her retirement in the summer of 2018, the Rev. Nurjhan Govan was hailed as a powerhouse preacher who could move believers with her words and change hearts with her spirit.
The 70-something from Harlem had spent 14 years with Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, the longest-serving pastor at Salt Lake City’s oldest black church. She worked tirelessly to energize and invigorate her tiny flock, and raise money to restore the historic chapel.
Govan was not leaving after retirement, she said at the time. She was “planted” in Utah and would remain in the Beehive State for the next season of her life, with dreams of working as a hospital chaplain or addressing the needs of “sex-trafficked women.”
Two years later, the retired pastor has been forced to move from place to place around Utah’s capital, including spending some months essentially living in her car in Trinity’s parking lot at 239 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (600 South).
The reason for this homelessness? Her 10 pet Yorkies.
Salt Lake County Animal Services impounded her beloved companions months ago, citing her for animal cruelty and other offenses, and now Govan is in a bureaucratic — and legal — battle to win them back.
Animal Services declined to comment, noting the ongoing case is now before a prosecutor, but did send confirmation of the 41 counts against Govan, including 10 for lack of license, 10 for failure to immunize for rabies, 10 for “animals at large,” and 11 for animal cruelty, which includes failing to provide adequate food and shelter.
Govan’s dog saga began shortly after she retired.
She was living in an apartment in Murray, but the manager there decided that 10 dogs were too many for “apartment living” so told her to reduce the number or move.
Govan, who couldn’t bear to part with any of her pets, chose to move.
Next she tried a hotel, but when it found out about her canine companions, she was forced to leave there, too.
Finally, she found a place at Valor House, a shelter for homeless veterans, while a Trinity member and longtime friend said Govan’s dogs could be housed in her garage. But, earlier this year, that arrangement also fell apart.
During these two years, members of Govan’s former church did their best to help her but have been frustrated.
“She asked members to take her dogs, but nobody wanted to take all of them,” says the Rev. Daryell Jackson, Govan’s successor at Trinity. “We knew her situation; we tried to help her sell some of the dogs so she wouldn't have so many, but she refused.”
With that decision, “our hands were tied,” Jackson says. “We couldn’t do too much else.”
It was a cold day in January, when Animal Services officers removed the 10 dogs due to a lack of required licenses and vaccinations — from the home in Avenues where the pastor had kept them, while she was living temporarily at the hostel for homeless veterans.
“I knew I needed to get them licensed and vaccinated, but it was $250 to $300 per dog,” she says, “and I didn’t have the money.”
Somehow, though, she managed to scrape together about $1,500 in the next few months, paid for those services and a judge returned five of her pets to her.
The judge told her, though, that if anything happened to those in her care, animal services would intervene again.
So when one of them, Solar, died, Animal Services presumed the others were in danger as well, she says, and came back on Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day — to remove the remaining four. Govan was away that morning at an appointment at Veterans United Home Loans to boost her benefits, she says, and then going to look at a house to buy, but someone had called the police about the dogs.
Normally, the retired minister would go to the home’s garage each morning, take the dogs out of their kennels to feed and water them, clean the kennels, and then pile them in her car and drive to the church parking lot to pass the time.
Sometime during the day, she would go to an open field, where she would let them run free for 45 minutes to an hour. The rest of the time, the Yorkies would “hang out with me in the car,” she says, where she would keep them warm with blankets.
But, on that winter day while she was out, Govan says, the “pound people” came and took her Yorkies.
Now, Govan has a five-bedroom house in Taylorsville — with the help of the vets’ association and her pension from the denomination — a July court date about her dogs and a public defender.
Typically, animals are impounded because of mistreatment, says her attorney, Daniel Surfass, but Govan “truly cares for these animals.”
Surfass believes they have “a really good case” for getting them back, he says. “It was probably some miscommunication between her and the animal shelter about what was really going on.”
Surfass is working to have the pets returned before the court date, he says, because with all the postponements due to the coronavirus, it could be months before her case is heard.
Still, Govan remains hopeful that one day soon the yapping Yorkies — including Squirt, a “service dog” who helps the hard-of-hearing pastor know when the phone rings or someone is at the door — will be back where they belong.
“After the death of my mother and brother, the last two remaining members of my immediate family,” Govan says, “the pets I acquired — Tiny, Eyes, Eyes Jr., Zion, Solar, Tiger, Squirt, Houdini, Brownie and Dini — became my family.”
During their absence, Govan has come to “know how very dear my pets are to me,” she says. “They come with a propensity for responding in ways intended to ameliorate sadness and ease human suffering … a propensity for healing.”
She took care of them as an owner, the pastor says, “but they also took care of me.”
Govan has learned much about herself — and society — while living in her car. After stepping away from full-time ministry, the lively preacher had considered studying homelessness as an observer, she says, but “the actual experience is nothing quite like I imagined.”
Though her housing predicament was somewhat self-imposed, it was not so distinct from what far too many endure.
“There is a loneliness component, a feeling of being left out,” Govan notes. “I am certain people look down at the homeless with disgust rather than empathy and thus evaluate them as less worthy.”
She can’t think about that now, though. The only issue on her mind is when her “family” will be home.