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Standing in a River of Love

In 1995, when ministry was not something I anticipated for my life, and I knew next to nothing about Unitarian Universalism, I had a religious experience in the Mississippi River. Vacationing on a houseboat not far from WI, and decided to go for a swim. After I made my way out into the river up to my neck, I turned to face the north. Standing firm on the muddy bottom of this mighty, mythic river, with my arms outstretched to feel the water rushing past me, I was moved by the power of the natural world and my tiny place in it. There was an energy I experienced in that river and it called forth in me a yearning to communicate with my mother, who had been dead for more than seven years. I remember speaking a prayer to her--though I wouldn’t have called it one at the time--asking for guidance for the next phase of my life. I was in my late twenties, just a few weeks away from moving to New York City with my fiancé, but unsure of what I would do once I got there. Maybe having thousands of gallons of river water pushing against and past me led me to hallucinate, or maybe there was something going on that afternoon that defies explanation, but I believe I did see and hear my mother speak to me. She smiled at my questions and said, Mark, you are an artist. I had just walked away from my career as an actor, believing that I wasn’t good enough, nor committed enough, to continue. I am not creative with visual art, nor could I imagine myself being a professional writer or musician. So I didn’t know what to make of what my mother, or my hallucination, was telling me. But I did know I felt at home in that river. So much so that I stayed there for more than two hours, before the setting sun demanded I return to the boat. And I did return. But I wasn’t the same person. My time in the river had changed something important, even if I couldn’t name what it was.

I’ve been thinking about that experience in the Mississippi and my life in ministry a lot lately. It seems I am still standing in a river, of sorts. A river of life. A river of love. 

Back in August of 2007, when I had the good fortune and honor of officiating Iowa’s first (and for 20 months only) legally recognized same-sex wedding, I received a lot of attention from the press. The phone rang off the hook for several hours that day, with reporters calling from all over the country asking for interviews in which I got to express my long-held conviction that same-sex couples deserve the same opportunities to share in the legal, emotional, and cultural benefits that my wife and I enjoy. I had a blast preaching my Unitarian Universalist gospel of equality, justice and love during my five minutes of fame. But, even as I reveled in the glow of my time in the media spotlight, I don’t think I could fully comprehend what this historic marriage might mean for other couples waiting for their chance to legally marry. A few hours later, I started receiving messages of gratitude and celebration from same-sex couples from around the country, including a phone call from a woman in California, who shared that she had grown up in Iowa, and now believed she could finally move back. I began to see that I had been a part of something big. Still, as a heterosexual male, married for eleven years to the love of my life, taking for granted all the attendant legal and cultural rights and benefits of that marriage, I wasn’t really getting it. Not yet. 

In April of this year, when the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples, I figured that the media attention I had received would ensure a steady stream of requests to officiate same-gender wedding ceremonies, and I was right. But I didn’t know what these opportunities would add to my life. I didn’t know how my time in this river of love, as I have come to call it, would change me. But it has. And that’s why, as we near the six-month anniversary of the day when same-sex couples could finally receive marriage licenses in the state of Iowa, I am compelled to share with you some of what I have seen and felt in the flow of love and celebration of more than two dozen same-sex weddings.

Before this spring, after having officiated at least 50 weddings over the years, I’ll admit I was growing tired of them. It’s not that I don’t believe in the value of marriage, or in the importance of a thoughtfully religious ritual focused on the couple and the promises they make, or the significance of their courageous commitment to being in relationship for better or for worse in a culture that is constantly trying to lure us into believing that we are better off fending for ourselves. No, I love being married, I am grateful for its gifts, even those gifts that don’t seem like gifts at the time, and I appreciate the privilege of welcoming people into its challenges and blessings, at least on my good days. But, in all honesty, I was weary of the all-too-common emphasis on wedding production value at the expense of the communication of the commitment and I often felt like a ministerial stage prop in a show filled with clichés. I’m not proud of this attitude I was developing, but it was definitely there, and growing.

I’ve heard it said that ministry is the best seat in the theatre of life. I don’t know if ministry is the “best” seat, but it’s definitely a good one to see all the messy glory of life up close. And nowhere outside of a memorial service is this messy glory more readily apparent than during weddings. No matter how in love a couple might be, no matter how functional their families, no matter how good everyone’s intentions, you can bet that something will not go as planned, someone’s feelings will be hurt, and at least one person, if not several, will have a meltdown of one sort or another. It’s just how it tends to work. 

Of course, this dynamic is a part of many of the same-sex weddings I have officiated, too. For example, when one groom stormed out of the wedding hall for a temper tantrum ten minutes before the start time because the DJ didn’t have his speakers set up yet, leaving the other groom and his mother rolling their eyes in frustration. Or when one of the groomsmen at an outdoor wedding of two women at a rural home near Boone had one too many Busch Lights during the pre-wedding BBQ and decided it would be a good idea to let out a seismic belch during the quiet moment of the meditation, leaving one of the brides to giggle and the other to shoot him an angry glare. Or when one couple, right after their ceremony on my front porch this summer, backed into the car of one of their wedding party as they pulled out of my driveway. Not much real damage done, beyond some acute embarrassment, but I’m sure a fender bender was not part of the wedding day plan. No matter how much we want things to be perfect, something, it seems, will inevitably go wrong. 

While my officiating experiences of the past six months have not proven this dynamic to be exclusive to heterosexual weddings, they have given me reason to re-embrace the whole wedding experience, no matter who I am marrying, no matter how many things go wrong. How could this be? Well, most of the same-sex weddings I have officiated have been for couples that have been committed to each other for many years, if not decades. These couples haven’t just stood by one another through the ups and downs and uncertainties of life; they have done so in the midst of a culture that has often sought to de-legitimize, if not downright deny, their love. The experiences of being a witness to their courage and commitment have made their claim on my mind and heart, and I not only believe I am better for it, but that my unique position as an officiant for so many of these weddings requires that I tell you at least some of what I have seen, that I invite you into the river with me.

I need to tell you about the two young women I married who had fallen in love in a small-town, Iowa high school more than five years ago, who moved to Des Moines together after graduation and who have made a life for themselves. On a magnificent late April evening amidst the blooming crabapple trees at Water Works park, I took my place at the gazebo where, once the ceremony began, they would meet me to say their vows. As I waited for their procession, I struck up a conversation with one of the fathers of the brides. He had not removed his sunglasses and I was wondering if he didn’t want anyone to see him cry. I could sense he was a little unsure about his daughter marrying a woman. But he thanked me for being willing to officiate. Then, something caught in his throat as he said, “You know, all parents really want is for their children to be happy.” By the time the two women came down the aisle, together, big smiles on their faces, lots of family and friends, young and old, basking in the glow of their love, I was the one crying.

I have to tell you that more than half the couples I have married in these six months have raised or still are raising children. The weddings of these couples have all included mentions of love and care for their kids, in direct counterpoint to the doom and gloom declarations of marriage equality opponents who so often tout their concern for children as a primary motivation for their desire to discriminate. Any time I hear this But-what-about-the-children? argument now, I want to broadcast into every living room in the country my memories of the faces of children beaming with pride and affection at the wedding ceremonies of their same-sex parents. Being present for all these truly lovely family moments has made it impossible for me to remain silent in the face of such misrepresentation of the facts. How can any of us tout the importance of family values if we aren’t willing to value these loving families? At one of these weddings a toddler shouted through the final five minutes of the ceremony. He wasn’t crying. He was shouting, as if to say, “Hooray, it’s about time!” At the conclusion, I asked the dozen people gathered to shout, too. It seemed the right thing to do. And it was.

I think of our own Denny and Patrick, who I married in 2006, but who didn’t receive the legal rights and benefits of marriage until they secured a marriage license the day they first became available to everyone. Local television, hungry for a story of a same-sex couple getting hitched, met us at the church for a makeshift ceremony, and in the interview that aired that night, Patrick declared his delight at being married in the eyes of God and in the eyes of state. “You go Patrick,” I cheered at the screen. Of course God affirmed their wedding, both times. After all, what kind of God would stand in the way of equality, justice and love? 

I think of my long-time Chicago-based UU friends, two men who have been together for more than a decade, and who traveled to Iowa so that I could officiate their fourth wedding, as they had already been married at their home congregation, then in Vermont, then in Canada. That’s one advantage of having your loving committed relationship not honored in your home state. You get to have lots of weddings. 

Not really much of an advantage, is it?

I want people to know about the nine couples who traveled to us with their ministers from Unity-Unitarian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota in a motor coach they called the “love bus” for a two hour ceremony of readings, vows and tender moments. One of those couples would not have joined the bus, they told me afterwards, had it not been for their children demanding that they go. Another couple, both women in their seventies who had been together for more than 17 years, wore flower garlands in their hair and were quoted by a reporter saying their wedding at our church was “like a dream come true." Volunteers from our congregation’s human rights working group and Interweave chapter served them like the treasured guests that they were, before the happy couples returned to St. Paul that night for a reception at their own church. Eight hours of bus travel for weddings that would not be legally recognized in their home state, and no one seemed to mind because, for a day at least, these couples were not being treated as second-class citizens. They were treated as though their love matters because it did. And it does.

When our own Walter and David asked me to prepare a homily at the celebration of their wedding this August, I had to ask myself what I could possibly say about marriage to these two friends of mine who, for all intents and purposes, have been living in marriage for 30 years. The only words I could conjure up amounted to a request that everyone present simply reflect on what these two men had been through, how much love they have shared, and how many hurdles they have overcome to simply inhabit their loving relationship. And then I thanked them, on behalf of everyone present, for their example of love and commitment. But what I should have said was: My friends, I am so sorry. I am sorry that it has taken so long for this day. I am sorry for not doing more to bring it here sooner. And I am sorry that I have taken my own marriage, and the privilege I have to welcome others into marriage, for granted, for so long.

Just this week, I officiated a wedding for a couple who have been together for more than two decades. Like many of the same-sex couples I have married, they didn’t want a traditional ceremony. They just wanted me to say a few words and sign the license. They even prepared a script for me, which included a reference to their 20-year-old daughter. I asked, “Why isn’t she here?” And they said, “She doesn’t know about this.” “Why not?” I asked. “We don’t want her to have to lie to her Grandma.”  These two women have raised a daughter, never fully acknowledging the love they share, fearfully never communicating the joy of that love to Grandma, never fully inhabiting their lives. The marriage license I signed for them was from Pottawattamie County. When I asked why they didn’t get one here in Polk County, they said that they couldn’t risk the chance that someone from their work would see the marriage announcement in the paper. Even as I celebrated their marriage with them, my heart ached for all they could not fully celebrate. What has our cultural closed-mindedness done to our sisters and brothers who remain closeted at the expense of their very lives?

And I have to tell you about the wedding I officiated a few weeks back for a couple from Florida. The whole planning process took place via phone and email, so when I arrived at the Iowa Statehouse steps one sunny Sunday afternoon, I wasn’t sure what to expect. About 30 participants were gathered on one of the landings, waiting for my arrival. I met the first groom and looked around for his partner, who was seated on a bench several yards away. As he rose and slowly made his way to the center of the circle with the help of a cane, it was clear that he was living with some kind of degenerative disease that was inhibiting his ability to walk. I wasn’t accustomed to having so many people present for a wedding for an out-of-state couple, so, when the groom finally made it to the center, I asked the gathering how many were from Iowa. Less than 10 people raised their hands. Most of the people there had flown to Iowa from other places, just for this occasion. When we got to the Declaration of Consent, where I ask “Do you take your spouse, to live together in marriage, to love him, comfort him, honor and cherish him in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, from this day forth?”, both of these men, these men who were fighting back tears, these men who had been together for 27 years, would not let me finish. Each, in his turn, interrupted me before I could complete the question with a hearty, “I do.” They weren’t doing this to be funny or cute. They were doing it because they didn’t want to wait another moment. They had waited long enough. 

At the conclusion of the ceremony, I told the men and their friends and families how much I appreciated being present for their wedding and how grateful I was on behalf of all fair-minded Iowans that they had come to our state to have it. We hugged and said our goodbyes and as I started toward my car, one of the men said, “Thank you Mark.” And then he added, almost like a warning, “You know, you were the chosen one.”

I laughed as I waved goodbye, making my way down the steps. He called after me, “I mean it.” I returned to my car and I did what I have done after every one of these same-sex weddings. 

I shut the car door, I sit there in the silence, away from all the people, and I cry. I just cry.

I cry for joy for these couples finally being respected and affirmed not despite their love, but because of it. I cry for the heartbreak that so many of them have, and still will, endure just for being who they are. And I cry in response to the energy and power I have experienced from being granted these precious opportunities as a UU minister to stand in a river of love and commitment, to have my feet firmly planted on the muddy bottom of our shared lives as these women and men--some familiar and some previously unknown--have poured into my life and then past me, sharing their stories, their love, and their lives, and leaving me changed as a result.

I know this isn’t about me, but I suppose I have been chosen. I have been chosen by my willingness to stand in the river, to be a witness to these stories and to do all I can to pass them on. I have been chosen to remind opponents of marriage equality that these are the lives of our sisters and brothers we are talking about. These are families we are talking about. This is love we are talking about. Love in world that needs as much as it can get.

I suppose I have been chosen. But so have you. So have all Iowans. What will we do with the responsibility?

No one knows for sure what the future of same-sex marriage will be here in Iowa. I fully expect there to be focused, well-funded efforts to take away the rights of my newly married friends. But I, for one, will not sit idly by when this happens. I will stand up for them. I will stand up for their loving, mutually satisfying relationships. I will stand up for their children. I will stand on the side on the side of love. Now that I have stood in the river of affection and rejoicing, and have seen the world from the vantage point of justice and equality at last, I have no other choice.

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