What Makes a Marriage Sacred? Reflections of a Pastor
On this President's Day I find myself in deep reflection, laughing, crying, cleaning the house as I often do when there is so much to feel. As you can imagine it has been a week to remember here in San Francisco.
It all started Wednesday, when the Mayor announced that he wanted to explore making same-sex marriages possible in San Francisco and by Thursday the first license was issued to Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon—after 51 years of commitment to one another. It was a civic ceremony, no clergy were present, and as marriage license provides civil recognition and civil rights to couples we at MCCSF only felt a little left out.
Of course, Metropolitan Community Churches have been doing sacred marriages for over 30 years, many other congregations of people full of faith celebrate them too—as a matter of fact even with thousands being married this week at city hall there are so many more who are refusing the offer, saying, "we never needed a piece of paper and until the rights are real we are not going to bother." Still, many, many came—more than I think than anyone anticipated, more than I anticipated.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (www.nclrights.org) was careful to issue advisories to everyone—consult with your lawyers before you do this, be careful if you are an international couple, we do not know what is going to happen, legally, from here, even if you do get legally married your marriage will probably not be recognized if you go through with this—if you participate you may end up in court—then the news warning that domestic partnerships could be dissolved for couples who get "legally married."
Still, they came, more than the city could handle. By Thursday afternoon I had performed what is very likely the first legal same-sex marriage in the United States at the Church (5:20pm) for Rusty and Mark. I have known the couple for over three years, two men raising their 5 year old daughter (D.J)—they didn't care that the courts might stop the marriages at any second, just that they had talked of marriage in the church and this event made it clear that now was the time. If there was any chance this could protect their family, their daughter, they were going to do it. I asked the daughter if she understood what was happening, and she said, "my daddy and papa are getting married"—clutching flowers tightly in her hand, and "someday I get a wedding dress!" A wedding dress is not every little girl's dream, but it is not an uncommon one.
Perhaps that is why so many waiting in line the last few days dressed for the occasion, an economic boom weekend for wedding shops in San Francisco.
On Friday I rushed to city hall with the certificate in hand for the wedding on Thursday night, trying to have it certified and filed before the court could halt the proceedings, and indeed the court session did come to order early in the day. I found out that the city had shortened the 6-week time period between filing your license and getting a copy to about 5 minutes. I dropped off the license, they said "how many copies" and I bought two. One for the couple, and one for my scrapbook. The Senior Pastor (check out the sermon on February 15, 2004) was reflecting that she never sees those certificates framed in straight households, supposing some take the right and recognition for granted in so many ways. Regardless of the outcome of the fight to come, I suspect many certificates will be framed and hung on walls as evidence of this weekend of truth telling.
Hundreds of people in line on Friday, and I felt called to stay. I expected protestors and wanted to be a visible clergy person for those who may be troubled—for those who may need to see someone—and on and on people came. I was also there for our congregation, many of whom came to reaffirm vows made years and years ago in church or to one another. They had sacred marriages, but not civil ones, and the civil act of standing up together—straight and gay—was very powerful. People drove by honking horns, straight couples came to volunteer as witnesses to gay ones, so many knowing this was just the right thing to do. It was a line that snaked through city hall down hallways seldom used and around three sides of the large block.
I performed marriages for seven couples that day; none had been together less than seven years, and six of the families had children they were raising. I found myself reflecting that when "focus on the family" says they want to protect families, they mean only their own. So much harm is done when society forces children to be careful who they tell that they have two mommies or two daddies—children suffer so much more than parents do. Today, children were proud, children were Americans with the same rights as any others, children watched their parents promise faithfulness, honesty, respect—spouses for life. Some will say that is the action of our families forming that is harmful, and I disagree, love is God, and from God, and not harmful, discrimination is. I just kept thinking it was such an honor to be present for each couple.
There were other clergy there too, I talked with a Methodist Minister who will surly be brought up on Ecclesitical charges by her church and may loose her license, a rabbi, and an Episcopal Priest. I saw a lot of clergy in line too—waiting for their own license and certificate. Some "in the closet" at their own churches. At one point a clergy friend, needing to leave for the day and not able to return, shouted from the elevator "See you in court Terri!"
Funny, I've never been an "activist" in a way that could land me in court.
I've always been a "work within the system" kind of girl. Still, I do not regret for a moment any of this week—except that I did not get to city hall sooner, failed to call the press on Thursday to be present at that MCC wedding, hesitated. Let fear live for a moment. Love casts our fear, love creates action, and it is love that finally moved my feet to be where I need to be, with my people.
As Rev. Nixon said on Sunday "not all marriages are sacred", and to what extent has "marriage itself become an idol" to some. Some would have us worship the form, instead of the substance. Just because a man and woman are married does not automatically free that marriage from abuse, or make a household safe for children. I say to those who use an authoritative voice to deny dignity to gay families: have you kept the promises made to your own? The average legal marriage doesn't last long in America and it is quite a stretch to blame that on homosexuals, although I've read all the position papers that try to do so.
What makes any relationship sacred is the promises we make and keep with one another, the way we love and act from love. I believe that goes for all our relationships. I saw so many loving families this week, families of choice, no shotgun weddings, no "I want to marry a millionaire" winners, and no Las Vegas wedding chapel with Elvis presiding. I saw no one taking marriage promises lightly.
Just two weeks ago I was with my girlfriend, Eileen, in Boston meeting many of her friends and her family. One of her friends met the man of her dreams just two months ago, they just got engaged, and everyone was so happy for them.
On Friday, couples who have loved for years and years exchanged vows; they have been keeping their promises for years, despite the lack of encouragement from society or the church at large. Still, some want to disapprove.
You can all breathe now, Eileen and I talked about it and we are not ready to marry, yet. It did not happen this weekend.
On Friday afternoon the court ruled there would be no irreparable harm done in letting the ceremonies continue and volunteers were deputized, arriving in droves on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to continue to serve those who would come. They came from other states, and even countries. The hotel industry, not to mention restaurants, got quite a boost—oh, and so did the city at $100 a license. I honestly don't think that is why Mayor Newsom made this happen. I truly believe that he "a straight San Francisco Boy" felt it was time and it was right. Funny thing was, Harry Britt told them not to, that the country was not ready—but clearly, we were.
Protestors appeared for a few hours on Friday, but as the rain began, they left. Meanwhile, couples stayed in line, some for 7 or 8 hours, just waiting for their chance. A couple was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle (2/16/04) saying, "I sat in line for Pink Floyd tickets all night, why wouldn't I sit in line for marriage? We've been together 15 years. We have raised a family."
On Saturday, Valentine's Day, the ceremonies continued. I stood beside Joe and Eric (5 years) and one couple, together 10 years with children and parents in tow, Bonnie and Georgia—they have been together 16 years. They came up the elevator and made the man at the top find me, they had heard earlier that I was there. I was struck by how many couples cried, so many had made these promises years before in churches or with friends—but the power of telling the truth and hearing that the words "now by the power of the State of California", it was so freeing, and affirming, and just. My girlfriend hung out with me all day, that is one of the ways I know she is a keeper.
Sunday was a blessing of unions, and one certificate was signed with applause for Barb and Barbara—their wedding was just this year—and today, the Senior Pastor is standing at City Hall blessing marriages while I am at home reflecting. Tired, worn, full of thankfulness for this moment in time. Regardless of what is to come, if this goes to court, if I go to court, if the marriages are recognized or not, we as a community will not forget these past few days. For just a moment, we had the opportunity to make the same public declarations of love as any other citizen; "With this ring, I thee wed." The state can throw out the legality of the proceedings, but they cannot cancel the hearts joined over so many years, nor the commitments made, in love, to one another. We are forever changed by this moment of equality. We will never again simply settle for less in fear of action.
It is my hope that someday the children, so many of them, who were participants in this week's events will look back, asking, "what was the big deal Dadda and Papa, You mean gay people haven't always been able to marry? That's stupid." However, I hope that they will never take justice or the right to love and equal rights for granted, choosing instead to honor their promises, and to love with all their hearts.