Friday, February 18, 2011

Tape it back together-one couple's wedding story

“Pastor, we want to get married in the church, will you marry us?”

Both R&J are homeless and alcoholics. I have known them for over a year now, as the territory where they run intersects with the church. R's uncle is also homeless and alcoholic; he makes the church portal his bed from time to time, with a reluctant permission from the church. (He refuses to stay in the shelter, but there have been many nights when it is too cold for him to stay outside and we make him go to the shelter by getting him into one of our cars and driving him there).

R&J have been together for over 20 years and in that time produced a son, now 18, who has little to nothing to do with them; "have I showed you a picture?" J asks me almost every time we see one another. They say he is embarrassed of them--and that he refuses to associate with them until they clean up their act.

Last August is when they first asked me to marry them. I said it would be an honor; come by and see me sometime and we'll talk about it. Several months passed when I didn't see them--I was in Cuba for one month; then for some reason they weren't around. When we did run into each other, it most often was with respect, and the reminder--”We want to get married, and we want you to marry us.” “Great come by the church, and let’s talk.”

R is 50. He has beautiful blue eyes, which he frequently covers up with the mesh hat he wears on his head. I assume he is bald because underneath his mesh hat is a white wrap. Rarely does a smile disrupt the inscrutable countenance he maintains. Still, he reveals innocence and longing in his gaze every time I see him. I trust him.

J admits her life has not gone the way she had hoped. She has bounced around from job to job and house to house. She is the one who insists on being married in the church by me, rather than through the courts by a judge. In spite of the hard experiences she has lived through, she maintains sweet demeanour. She smiles as much as does cuss.

This past Sunday, they came by the church after 11 worship and told me they were ready. They wanted to be married right then and there. I strongly urged that we wait to at least sit down and talk about it. Finally, they relented and said, “OK, Tuesday, we'll come by your office at 10.” They handed me their marriage licence, asking that I keep it until then. They told me it had been ripped in half because they got mad at each other, “We can tape it back together.”

Tuesday at 10:05 they come to the office. Alcohol was J’s perfume. If R had been drinking he hid it very well. They shared with me more of their story: drugs, alcohol, and fighting had led them to the place they were; they wanted to do better.

“I'm going to be honest with you Chester, the reason we want to get married today is because I'm probably going to do jail time here. Thursday I go to court for not complying with some tickets I've gotten, open container, stuff like that. that's why we want you to marry us now, cause we want to be married when i go to jail."- pleaded R.

In the back of my mind, I think of church polity; my reputation; can condone their marriage by saying some prayers and signing some paper. In the back of my mind is Trasie having told me that she witnessed a man hitting a woman, and she thought it might be them, but wasn't sure. What is the role of the church? What is the role of the priestly office in this situation? Here is a couple that wants to be "married" by the church--a couple that has been together for over 20 years.... In God's eyes, they are married. In the back of my mind was doubt; how was I holding the keys? Who am I to withhold a blessing and hope for them?

I go to look at the marriage licence; they had had it since September 1. J and I tape it back together with scotch tape..she really smells, and shakes as she holds the tape.

"We need two witnesses if we're going to do this thing," I told them. "Go get someone..." they say to each other... "But, we don't want just some drunk as a witness," they agree. I do, too

Just then, a woman from the church drove up to drop off some things she had purchased. I go in and share with her what is going on. A formal social worker, she comes and sits down with the couple in the office. She puts her social worker hat on and lays into them: "What is your plan to support yourself? Do you always want to live like this? What kind of jobs have you held in the past? I think there are things you aren't telling me that are underneath what's going on?"

I was surprised by her aggressive and forthright interrogation, certainly a different style from my own, but R&J both answered and were not put off by her; actually they went deeper in sharing about their life and relationship. Wow! They don't want to die from alcoholism, they don't want their lives to end up like this. They are hopeful they can turn things around, they want to participate in church, they want their son to be proud of them....

After about 30 minutes of grilling, the church woman lets up, turns to me, and smiles as she nods her head. She would be a witness; she would give her blessing.

Now we needed one more person. J when out to see who she could find. She’s back in like 2 minutes with a sober woman who is also on a road to recovery. I ask this woman if she is willing to be a witness, and give her blessing. She says yes. “I’ve known them forever; go for it.”

I stand up: “Okay, we are going to do this, but I want two promises. One, that when the time if right, we have a bigger celebration and service of worship at a later date; and two, that you commit to encourage and support one another, and not drag one another down; which means putting yourself in a healthy environment around healthy people. In other words J, if R is in jail, you need to be in this church every time the doors are open, and not drinking with your buddies.”

They agree. I grab a book of common worship, and a dawn a stole. They do not have rings, so I suggest they write a note to one another, which could just say, "I love you" and I hand them some paper. They loved the idea. They used a red pen. "R has better handwriting than I do," says J. Their notes written, I begin with the liturgy. After 30 seconds, they are in tears. They can't believe it, I can't believe it. Eventually, both of the witnesses are going for tissues for themselves and for the couple. At various points they are laying their heads on top of each other. They are hugging each other. As they said their vows, they were crying. We all were crying. It was moving--powerful.

We signed the papers, took some pictures with J's disposable camera. And they were now "husband and wife." It didn't take J long to remind R this..."Hey, you're married to me, now!"

May God bless R&J in this new way of being in relationship with each other. And may God and the church help them, as they help themselves, on a road to shalom in their lives.


  1. Much more than "interesting." I'm currently trying to reconcile mentally to a family marriage ceremony being planned for this summer for which the "budget" must be at least $100,000. How much more blessed in God's eyes is this marriage.

  2. When I think about my own wedding ceremony...which was not cheap and had over 300 guests present...after experiences like this one, I know we would do it differently now. I really have to wrestle with how to honor the desires of couples and honoring God.