Vernice and I catch the bus from the neighborhood that takes wedding participants to the warehouse bar: we look like everyone else. We begin to quietly identify some of the people we’ve heard about – Justin’s Aunt, Andrew’s sister. We speculate that they think we are a couple: Vernice is in a red polka-dot dress and heels; I’m in matching men’s clothes with a bolo tie and cowboy boots; like other guests, we have hats.

The bar’s in a converted warehouse, and since the wedding is May 3, it has a Kentucky Derby theme. The planning has included a Facebook page where people are posting photos of the hats they’re wearing. We fit in.

We arrive at the bar, greeted by a drag queen dressed in the costume Audrey Hepburn wears at the horserace in My Fair Lady. Someone directs us to the bar for mint juleps. The big-screen TVs are on to watch the derby. Family and friends are laughing, the grooms are introducing people to one another. We meet the families we’ve heard so much about.

Now Justin and Andrew lead the crowd outside for a big group picture, and Vernice & I work alongside the bar staff to turn the room. While they re-arrange tables and chairs, we pull from our bag the table runner, candle, cross, Bible; we set the stage for the ceremony.

Everyone comes back in and is seated as we wait for the grooms to be ready. We signal the DJ for the entrance song and Vernice & I walk in. People had no idea we were the pastors. Andrew & Justin follow; we stand at our makeshift altar table.

We begin.

They’re a young couple, fairly new in our congregation. As we met over the last few months, they asked us to share “some of what we do on Sunday morning” at their wedding – because here’s the thing: they love Broadway United Methodist Church. Since they’ve started attending in the last year, they are telling their friends all about it – how meaningful it is to them to find a church home, how significant it is to them to have God back in their life.

So we began the conversation with the couple to explore their life together, to discover their roots in a faith tradition, and we learned that they both grew up in the Roman Catholic Church; faithful young Christians; deeply faithful families; a profound sense of the holy.

But these two young altar boys grew up, and they realized that being “different” was actually “gay” and they were told that gay and Christian didn’t go together.

They believed that.

Their lives went on. They moved to the big city. They attended church when they went “back home” and visited families on weekends or holidays.

And one day they discovered a congregation not too far from their home; they came in, heard scripture, prayed, sang, were greeted with a welcome that threw wide the doors of God’s love. Somebody even handed Justin a tambourine. They knew at once that they had found a church home.

As we had planned this wedding – where they were to be surrounded by family and friends – they wished to share with them the hospitality and unconditional love of God that we celebrate every Sunday. They asked us to say the words of welcome we say each week. They asked us to share a dialogue about scripture in the way we sometimes do in Worship on Sunday mornings. They asked us to pray, to bless them, to include their families.

We use a version of the opening “celebration of community and connection” we say every week in Worship, Vernice beginning, me ending:

Welcome to this family of God, this community of faith. We celebrate that we are an anti-racist institution, and an open and affirming and reconciling congregation. We celebrate that we are black, brown, tan, rose, white – all the colors in God’s creative rainbow. We celebrate that we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, and straight. We are queer. We are questioning. We are transgender, intersex, female, male, gender fluid and gender creative. We are every age. We are every economic location and every theological location. We bring many things to be together as family: we are living with HIV & AIDS, we are living with disability, we are living with mental illness, we are living with addiction and in recovery; we are living with joy and we are living wounded; we are in healthy relationships and all kind of families – we are married, single, partnered. We bring all of who we are as we gather to praise God and we claim the first name, the first identity given to us, the one that comes from God: we are beloved. Welcome to this beloved community.

The room is quiet, attentive.

We continue with the ceremony, which includes a time with children. We talk with the nephews of the grooms about how they now have two uncles.

A reading follows, from Justin’s sister Jessi who is deaf and uses ASL – it’s a poem her brother has chosen; we hear the interpreter read the poem as she signs and we realize in this moment we’ve changed the narrative of who needs an interpreter.

Andrew’s Mom reads the second poem; later she tells me she hadn’t imagined how we were going to tie lyrics by Garth Brooks together with everything else.

After the readings, Vernice & I read scripture – the familiar 1 Corinthians 13. We talk about responsibility and accountability, and extravagant love.

They’ve written their own vows: magical, personal, intimate, loving, honest, faithful. And when Andrew – who had planned this behind Justin’s back – asks Justin to close his eyes, and everyone present makes the ASL sign for “I love you” to show Justin just how much he loves him, we literally see the new love language Andrew is learning.

We hope to capture how wide and expansive God’s love is, even as we glimpse an extension of that love in Andrew & Justin’s love for one another. The bar is sacred; the grooms invent wedding as evangelism. Everyone in the room becomes our “church” right then, becomes the beloved community we seek to create, becomes the radically inclusive body of believers who name each other family.

They had said to us, as we met in premarital counseling and prepared the ceremony, “let’s have the ‘I do’s’ after the vows.”

“The ‘I do’s’?” we asked.

“You know,” they said, “where you ask us something and we answer: “I do!”

So we asked them: “Justin and Andrew, do you promise to keep the vows you’ve made this day before God and God’s people gathered?”

“I do” they whispered, hands clasped, tears still running down their faces.

“Try that again,” Vernice said.

“Let us hear you,” I prompted.

“I do!” they nearly shouted, and the room burst into applause.

After the ceremony, the first dance, the toasting of a groom’s father and best friends, we handed out business cards to folks who were asking where our church was located. We described our morning Worship and told the time and the bus stop. We explained church history to a few Roman Catholics who wanted to know just what “Methodist” meant.

“I love that opening you did,” said one of the groom’s mothers.

“Why doesn’t every church service begin that way?” she wondered aloud. “All of our churches would be growing if people came in and heard that, and knew that – without a doubt – not only are they welcome, they are loved by God.

“Do you think that’s possible?” she asked me.

“I do!” I proclaimed.

. . .

To join the movement for marriage equality in The United Methodist Church, join the campaign at RMN’s Altar For All. 

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