How do I describe one of the best moments of my life? It was my daughter’s wedding two months ago. The phrase that comes to mind is: “All are welcome.”
The wedding week started for me on Wednesday. I flew into Baltimore early because a two day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail was planned as a prelude to their wedding. We were in their kitchen that afternoon talking about wedding details.
I asked my daughter Sarah, “How will the pavilion in the park be set up?”
“We’re setting up 150 chairs in a circle under the pavilion roof,” Sarah explained.
“Where will the two of you be sitting - in the center?”
“We haven’t decided yet, have we Ali? But it’s possible we’ll just be sitting in random seats on opposite sides of the pavilion.”
I retorted, “You won’t be sitting together? Why would you do such a thing? The whole ceremony is about the two of you and your relationship with each other. You two should be in the center together.”
“Dad, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not about us” Sarah said. “It’s about ‘the community’. It’s about everyone in the community having an equally valued place,” she explained passionately.
I just shook my head. This was not going to be your ordinary wedding!
The wedding on Sunday was the most unique service I’ve ever attended in my life. Sarah and Ali introduced the service by talking about the ‘priesthood of all believers’. They adapted an Episcopalian service to include parts for over sixty different people. These were people they had contacted ahead of time to take part in the service. Each of us had a few lines to say. Seated in the round, with Sarah inconspicuously at one end of the pavilion and Ali at the other, we stood up at our seats and spoke our lines loudly.
What a joy to listen to everyone share their lines of Scripture or prayer! I especially appreciated the four year old little boy who said very deliberately, “And God is love.” His sister said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The three sermon-lessons were shared by different lay people who spoke with such wisdom and knowledge about the Scriptures.
The Psalter reading was a unique experience. There were many people present from the bilingual Montessori public charter school where Sarah teaches in Washington D.C. Therefore, half of our Psalter reading was in Spanish and half of it was in English.
The end of the service featured Sarah and Ali moving from their seats on the opposite ends of the pavilion. They met and shared very simple, heartfelt vows they had written for each other. Sarah and Ali each talked about the specific ways they were committing to share their love for each other as 175 people listened, many with tears sneaking down their cheeks. I was crying like a baby.
Let me share one more story that once again highlighted – “all are welcome.”
On Sunday, the wedding day. Sarah sent me out early that morning to check the porta-johns by the Liberty Pavilion at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. While I was there picking up trash around the area, I noticed a man sitting in the pavilion. It looked like he lived there or at least spent most of his time there.
“My daughter’s getting married here today.”
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Wow, the garbage cans by the pavilion are overflowing.” I observed.
“You ought to call the city to tell them to pick that up.”
“Maybe I will,” I said, “You’re welcome to join us at the wedding this afternoon.”
I drove back to Sarah’s to report. Sarah told me, “The city won’t pick up that trash today. You’re going to have to bag it up Dad.”
I told Sarah about the man at the pavilion and how I invited him to the wedding.
“What’s his name?” was her first question, immediately giving him value.
“I don’t know.”
“You need to ask him his name, Dad. Then he can come to the wedding.”
I went back to the park with garbage bags. While I was working on getting the trash from the cans into the bags, my new friend came over. “Let me help you,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Johnnie, with an ‘ie’ on the end.”
“Johnnie, my daughter really wants you to join us for the wedding and dinner right here at 4:00 this afternoon.”
“I’ll get my suit jacket and be here. Thanks.”
When I arrived back at the pavilion in the afternoon, Johnnie was there with his suit jacket on. He watched us as we set up the 150 chairs for the wedding. As the guests waited for the ceremony to start, Johnnie was in one of those chairs.
After the ceremony, we all enjoyed a potluck of food provided by Sarah’s many local friends and guests. Johnnie ate next to me. I asked him, “Did you get a chance to meet my daughter Sarah?”
He said, “I sure did. She came over and talked to me for the longest time. She made me feel so welcome."
I thought about my daughter doing this on what was probably the busiest day of her life.
"She’s a good girl, you know.”
I fought back tears once again on this special day in which “all were welcome”.
My daughter’s witness led me to find the courage to sign her marriage license in spite of the potential consequences to my life and ministry. A complaint was filed the next day by my district superintendent to my bishop. I am presently in the supervisory response process hoping we can find a ‘just resolution’ instead of a church trial. Pray for the United Methodist Church that it might someday be a place where “all are welcome.”