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'Kitty, kitty, kitty'

CENTRAL POINT — Seemingly scheduled as reliably as weekly Sunday School classes, a tuxedo-clad churchgoer of unknown origins has appeared almost anytime vehicles have been parked outside the Central Point Community Bible Church for the past several years.

Arrival of morning and afternoon school buses, for the church childcare program, usually prompts a visit to the church grounds, as do noisy social events and the sound of church hymns or anyone beckoning, "Kitty, kitty, kitty?"

The fact the visitor snoozes through church services and rarely goes inside is entirely lost on church members who clamor to pet the lazy feline whose name is even the subject of debate.

Perched on a rock sculpture outside, heated in recent days by the warmth of spring sunshine, he'll roll over for belly pets and chin scratches for strangers of all ages.

"He showed up with a collar on at one point with some weird name on it, like Xavier or something. But then he keeps losing his collars. The kids are all calling him Churchill," notes pastor Dale Bitterling.

"I finally said, 'No, we're going to call him Nacho, as in he's 'nacho cat,' because we've had I don't know how many people try to take him home. They end up bringing him back when we tell them he didn't need a home."

Whatever moniker the cat permits, Bitterling and church members, depending on who is asked, estimate his tenure at the church property at between two and four years.

"He has to belong to somebody from one side of the church or the other, but we have yet to figure out who," he said.

"It's funny, everyone says, 'Oh, the poor thing is starved for attention!' but he really isn't. He's here because he loves the attention. He shows up in the morning when the kids start to arrive and when they go home, then he shows up for Sunday services, morning and night."

Bitterling said the feline mascot is the recipient of unsolicited veterinary assessments — a seasonal rash that shows up every spring or his need for increased nutrition via scoops of food from church ladies. He even seems to check in with childcare kids when they walk around the building each day.

Friday afternoon, a childcare parent rolled down his window long enough to ask if the cat needed a home.

"We'll take him. He's a great cat," said the man.

Amy Bradley, one of the childcare teachers, applauded the cat's patience with children.

"The kids all check on the rocks for him, and they look in the bushes saying, 'Kitty.' We all love him. He's our mascot, and he's been around for a long time," Bradley said, smiling as a trio of 2-year-olds, Reid, Reagan and Mia, petted the cat on the sun-warmed sidewalk.

Bradley said she had spoken with a neighbor who recently moved away, looking for a black and white cat that may not have been as interested in relocating.

"She put signs up on the poles, but she kept missing him whenever she would come check. I wonder if maybe she hasn't decided he's just happier here with us."

Picking up her granddaughters at the church, Central Point resident Kim Jarandson said the cat was a big part of her granddaughters' experience at daycare.

"I pick them up a lot, and they always see the cat. He's pretty much here every day. He just comes over to get pets, and then he's on his way. He's a really friendly cat," Jarandson said.

"He does seem like he probably has a home, but he's smart to come visit all the kids."

Bitterling, a member of the chruch for more than 30 years and pastor for about 14, said he found the loyal church mascot, at the very least, endearing.

He's quick to point out that the church has no room for additional felines and that the congregation isn't trying to claim its persistent visitor.

In fact, Bitterling admits he figured the cat would have moved along by now.

"When he first showed up, I didn't think he would last very long because so many people wanted to touch him, but he didn't seem to mind at all. It actually seemed like that was what he was here for. For the pets," Bitterling said.

"He's one of the most patient cats I've ever seen. He's never scratched anyone, and if he does get inside the church, he's very respectful and obviously knows how to behave inside a church."

Reach freelance reporter Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Mia Corbett, 2, pets 'nacho cat,' which has turned into a regular visitor at the Community Bible Church in Central Point. Mail Tribune/ Denise Baratta