Listening to the celebrations happening in New York, with many same-sex couples making formal their commitment to one another in marriage, brings me back to a sunny Sunday afternoon on the banks of the Thames in Stratford, Ontario with a member of my congregation, my partner and José & Bob.
José called on Friday evening, a strong – but tentative – voice on the other end of the phone. He explained that he and his beloved lived in the U.S. and had been coming up to Stratford to enjoy the theatre for many, many years. This year was special, because they knew Ontario had decided that marriage was open to both opposite- and same-sex couples – and they had decided to marry. Would I be able to officiate? He explained that they had gotten their marriage licence but the city’s officiant was unavailable at such short notice. They had gone to many of the churches, but had been turned away. (One of the wonderful things was, he said, they were treated with respect at every church, even though the congregation, priest or pastor explained that they wouldn’t officiate. José said “A number told us that we needed to check with the United Church. Sadly the United Church’s ministers were away.”) They went to the local tourist information centre to see if any suggestions could be found. The young woman they talked with said, “My cousin is a United Church minister in St. Marys. Let me find his number, and you can give him a call.” So here they were, chatting with me.
As José explained their situation, I did some quick thinking. The Board of St. Marys United Church didn’t have a marriage policy other than “the minister decides what weddings they’re going to do.” The only time I could be available was Sunday afternoon. My only issue was that I didn’t officiate at weddings with less than a week’s notice – the whole, “Las Vegas Syndrome” thing. I asked if we could meet to talk about why marriage was important to them. So we got together that night.
Now, part of this story is that I was getting pretty jaded with weddings. I had had a run of them that felt like they were being done for the party – or the show – or the gifts. I was seriously considering saying to the church, “I’m not prepared to do any more weddings for people not active parts of the congregation.”
José and Bob shared with me their lifes’ stories, and their stories of being together. They were in their late-50s, and had been together for 20 years. They had been through rough times with their churches. They had been through rough times with their families. They had been through rough times with their Communities. They had been through rough times with one another. With deep love and powerful compassion they had weathered and grown through and reconciled with three of those four. When the state they lived in had developed a form of civic union, they had jumped at the chance… but when they heard they could be married – that there was a place that wanted to celebrate their relationship the way that their straight friends could – they realized that that was what they really wanted. I was decided – I wanted, deeply, to be part of their celebration.
When we came to the time to talk about the service, Bob looked at José and nodded. “You’ve heard our story. We want to leave that up to you.” They understood that, me being a minister, God-talk would be part of the celebration. They trusted me with that. (You may have guessed that it was the church that the rough times had yet to be reconciled.)
My partner was happy to be one of the witnesses, but we needed another. I thought about the folks in the congregation, and kept coming back to one person. This was one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the congregation. A compassionate, loving woman, who had been struggling with same-sex relationships, her son just having come out. Her biggest fear was that he would be ostrasized from family and community. When I explained the situation, she said, “What have you got up your sleeve,” and then said, “Yes. I’m honoured.”
So the five of us met and sat at a picnic table on the bank of the river. I put on my stole and started in.
There are three things I remember about that service: listening to José and Bob as they shared their promises, seeing their faces as each other spoke; watching the two of them as Shannon, in Spanish, blessed their marriage using an old Cuban prayer (José being a Cuban expat); and the tears rolling down their faces when I closed the service by saying, “Remember – you are beloved of each other. You are also beloved children of God. Never let anyone tell you differently. Go in peace in joy & in love, knowing that you are Christ’s!” For me, it was almost an aside… for José it was a “welcome home.” Later, he told me that the church of his childhood, youth and adulthood had turned its back when he had come out. This had been the first time in decades that anyone had looked him in the eye to remind him he was beloved of God.
None of us were the same after that day. Shannon and I went home with a renewed sense of our place as ministers of marriage. The other witness went home knowing that love could win through difficult times – and that she was excited about who her son really was. And José and Bob were officially living the commitment they had been living for years, and years, and years.
We heard from Bob and José for a number of years after. They celebrated with us when our daughter came to be part of our family. We read José’s books when they came out. We were glad – and remind glad – that God created the space that allowed us to meet, and for us to be part of their joy.
To all the couples bing married in New York this weekend – gay, lesbian, or straight – our prayers are with you. May your lives together be long, and may your love be even longer.