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Pigeons, boundaries and the Holy Spirit

Pigeons go where they want. Is that a fair metaphor for understanding the Holy Spirit?
Pigeons go where they want. Is that a fair metaphor for understanding the Holy Spirit?

It wasn’t until the age of 40 that I learned that pigeons and doves are basically the same animal. Scientifically, there’s no difference between the two. And yet...

Doves are beloved. They represent peace. They represent calmness to smooth and quiet our worries and troubles. They are synonymous with the Holy Spirit.

Pigeons? Not so much.  “Rats with wings” a friend called them. They’re pests and quite disgusting. Their poop is everywhere. For a bit of our history, they were believed to be harbingers of diseases (all scientifically proven to be false, by the way). They’re city scavengers that we can’t get rid of.

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Like a dove or a pigeon?

Why are pigeons so much more hated than doves when they’re the same animal?

Colin Jeromack did a study on this and concluded that we humans have “imaginary boundaries” separating order from chaos, civil action from wild nature.

And these pesky pigeons don’t know how to stay in their lanes. They have no regards or respect to our (imaginary) boundaries and borders. They continue to inhabit places and spaces that are ours and should be ours alone.

If they stayed in forests like owls, they’d be tolerable. If they only gathered where dead things are, like buzzards and vultures do, then at least they’re out of our way and we know what spot to avoid.

But no.

They’re in our parks, our parking garages, our school campuses, our church parking lots, our office buildings. They’re in our places of leisure and recreation and everywhere they go, they leave evidence of their presence on everything: benches, cars, statues, our cars, and sometimes even us (I’m talking about their poop).


Honestly speaking though, these “imaginative boundaries” that Jeromack studied isn’t really just limited to pigeons. We get uncomfortable when certain people inhabit spaces that we somehow feel they shouldn’t. The phrase “There goes the neighborhood” comes to mind.


In this season of my life, as a church planter, I actually prefer the pigeon over the dove. I prefer the invader of spaces, the city scavenger, to symbolize the Holy Spirit than the dove of peace and calmness.

It seems that we have this need for our faith life to be neat and tidy. Many of our churches gloss over Good Friday and skip right over Holy Saturday to Easter. Because the pain and torture of Good Friday makes us feel a bit uncomfortable but we go through with it because of tradition.

The uncertainty and darkness of Holy Saturday is so foreign that we barely mention it.

For Christmas, we skip the part of the labor. We rarely (if at all) linger on the pain of childbirth; the messiness of childbirth and also the difficulty of caring for a child. We go from “Mary’s pregnant” to “Silent Night” and don’t think about Jesus being fussy as a baby.

Personally for me — the dove follows the idea of wanting everything to be nice, neat, and a Precious Moments-type of faith. (For the un-initiated, google “Precious Moments Dolls”).

The pigeon represents the messiness, the realness of life and faith.

The idea of the Holy Spirit makes us uncomfortable because she refuses to stay in her lane; because she keeps invading spaces that we thought God would stay out of. This idea resonates deeply within me.

And also just how indiscriminate the pigeon is.

The pigeon does not care what nationality/ethnicity/race you are. It does not care what your economic or social status is — whether your drive a Jaguar or a Kia Soul to work. It doesn’t care if you’re straight or identify as LGBTQIA+. A pigeon will poop on you and your belongings and in spaces you claim.

Of course, the Holy Spirit won’t poop on you. The Holy Spirit will come to you for she doesn’t (and won’t) discriminate.

What is the Holy Spirit?

She represents the presence, the call, the love of God and she’ll stay in your heart regardless of who you are. There’s no space and place you can hide from the Spirit because there are no boundaries that God won’t cross to pursue you.

The flip side of that: the difficulty of the Spirit as a pigeon is that the Spirit will push you to go to spaces and places that may make you feel uncomfortable. The Spirit will challenge you to cross boundaries and borders that you never intended.

The Spirit may (will) call you to invade spaces with goodness and sacrificial love; to be generous and indiscriminate; to intervene, interrupt, and disrupt with goodness and love.

The question posed by Willie Jennings is always in the forefront of my soul: Where is the Spirit leading us and into whose lives? Where is the Spirit leading you?

May we have the courage and boldness to go to the places, spaces, and lives the Spirit is leading us.

Joseph Yoo is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at