Guest Blog: Kairos, Engagement, and Marriage in Little Rock
Guest Blog Entry by the Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister for The Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas; May 12, 2014
“There is a creative tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things, and moments come when we can work with it and it can work through us. But the tendency in the universe to produce worthwhile things is by no means omnipotent. (It is not all-powerful; we have to work with it; we have to do our part.) Other forces work against it. This creative principle is everywhere. It is a continuing process. Insofar as you partake of this creative process, you partake of the divine, and that participation is your immortality, reducing the question of whether your individuality survives the death of the body to the estate of irrelevancy. Our true destiny, as co-creators in the universe, is our dignity and our grandeur.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
This weekend I realized I was wrong. I’ve never been enamored of officiating weddings for people who know nothing about the congregation I serve, nor about Unitarian Universalism, but they like the look of our building and grounds, and are under the impression that UU ministers will marry anybody, and the focus of their ceremony seems too much on frills and party favors, rather than on the essence of the marriage, itself. I had even told the board and the Ministry Committee that I would be saying no to requests for weddings from couples who had no relationship to our church. It is true that, when I have been able to do such weddings in the past, that has given a group of people a favorable impression of Unitarian Universalism. But I felt my time serving the UU Church of Little Rock would be better spent on strengthening it as an institution, and caring for its members and friends. This weekend I knew I had to reverse that decision, and be sure that the congregation knew. So I talked with the Church Administrator and the website manager, who then gladly sent out this announcement:
“In light of the recent decision by Judge Chris Piazza of the 6th Circuit Court that the ban on gay marriage in Arkansas is unconstitutional, gay couples were able to obtain marriage licenses for the first time in Eureka Springs on Saturday morning, where 15 marriages were performed. In anticipation of couples in Pulaski County seeking licenses on Monday morning, our Rev. Jennie will be going to the County Courthouse tomorrow to be available to perform marriages for gay couples. She feels this is an historic event in Arkansas and wishes to be part of this joyful occasion.”
Judge Piazza (Bless his heart!) discerned that Arkansas’ previous prohibitions on gay marriage were wrong, just as the prohibitions against the Lovings’ marriage were wrong. He felt deeply that they needed to be reversed. The end of his ruling is exquisite: “The hatred and fears (against the Lovings) have long since vanished, and (they) lived full lives together; so it will be for the same-sex couples. It is time to let that beacon of freedom shine brighter on all our brothers and sisters. We will be stronger for it.”
So Sunday night I drove to the church to create a sample same-gender wedding ceremony and print it out, and picked up everything I thought I’d need, including my credentials to legally officiate marriages in Arkansas. Then I called my colleague, the Rev. Cindy Landrum, in Jackson, Michigan. A similar scenario has recently occurred in her state, and she rose to the occasion. I told her what I had amassed to bring with me, and asked her if I’d forgotten anything. “An ink pen,” she added, helpfully. “Got it,” I said, “I have two!” I did not know how many couples would be there in the morning. The news articles said there would be long lines of people. Cindy said that I might have to do several ceremonies at once, inserting the couples’ names, then sign the licenses all in a row, then do several more ceremonies. I prefer not to do weddings, nor baby blessings, that way. But I was prepared to do whatever would be most helpful. I also asked Cindy how long we might have on Monday before there was a stay. She thought maybe half a day. As it was, after a couple hours, we heard that Judge Piazza refused the stay, so we had all day for the officiating and recording of gay marriages.
The atmosphere was boisterous, celebratory, and amiable. I was given a nametag that said “Officiant” by people with official-looking clipboards. For the first several hours, there were at least fifteen Officiants in addition to me. So we did not have to do “mass weddings;” we were able to give each couple personal attention. Some Officiants were clergy, and some were lay people. I felt that all of us were committed to giving the gay couples the right to be married that they should have had a long time ago. There were writers and photographers from the media all around us, respectfully asking if they could publish our names and pictures. And there were many volunteers and people who had come to cheer us on, offering to take pictures or record the ceremonies on the couples’ phones. Many of them had name tags that said, “I’m an Ally – Free Hugs!” This meant a lot to me because I have been trained to advocate for gay rights, empowered to do so, I would even say charged to do so. But the allies, friends, and family were there because of their deep personal commitment, without any official role to bolster them on. I heard several people say that they have been fighting for this cause for at least twenty-five years. Throughout the day, we all kept spontaneously crying at the realization of the magnitude of the right of gay people to marry in the state of Arkansas. The timing of this wonderful court decision took me by surprise. But the fact that Arkansas is the first Bible Belt state to have legal gay marriages does not surprise me. I have found the people of this state to be christian in the broadest and best sense of the word. When I moved here in July (from Indiana and, before that, from New England) every time I turned around, people were feeding me—delicious food, rich conversation, warm fellowship. I found this astonishing. But, to them, it is simply what they do for someone who is in transition. People here notice when someone is in need, and do what they can to help, to share what they have, to even the playing field. They give people rides, provide home hospitality, and lend a caring ear. So I was not surprised that what I experienced in the rotunda of the courthouse today was an ethos of graciousness. Why on earth shouldn’t gay people be given the same rights of marriage that heterosexual people have?
I first started asking that question back when I was a seminary student in Maine, in the mid-1990s. At that time, I did not have any official role from which to speak up for gay rights. I was a secretary in a small law office in Portland, Maine, and a “temp” at that. The battle my friends and neighbors were fighting then wasn’t even for gay marriage. It was simply to keep discrimination out of the Maine constitution against people who are gay, or perceived to be gay. I went to several “house parties” to learn from the organizers how to most effectively change people’s minds. One afternoon I was walking across a park and a local TV station was asking where people stood on the “No On One” campaign. They asked me, and I said, “I believe people who are gay should have the right to say publicly that the person they love most, and are committed to, is someone of the same gender, and not be discriminated against for that.” The interview was on the news that evening. (I remember I was wearing my black fisherman’s cap.) And I worried that the next morning I would be fired, because I knew that one of the partners in the law firm was a close friend of one of the organizers of the opposition to our campaign.
I was not fired from that law firm. But I still remember feeling, on the one hand, that I had no real power or influence to speak of, yet, on the other hand, I knew I had to speak out in order to be who I really am, in my core values, and also in my network of relationships. The people who came to the courthouse today had been told they were not allowed to ask, “Will you marry us? Legally?” Yet when they heard about Judge Piazza’s ruling, they came to us and asked, and we affirmed and applauded them. I am grateful that today, twenty years after that gay rights campaign in Maine, I now have the influence, credentials, and backing to spend a day at the courthouse of a capital city legalizing gay marriages. I am most grateful to the UU Church of Little Rock for having the resources, decision-making processes, and wherewithal to have brought me here. They were glad and proud about what I did at the courthouse today, and so were the many other people who sent me texts, cheering on me and my couples. There are moments in time when we must dare to claim our “agency” to be a vehicle for what is true and fair and gracious. Alfred North Whitehead said that that agency is divinely-endowed to all people. But it is up to all of us to recognize those moments of kairos, and bravely engage with each other, with systems of power, and with God.
Today I officiated twelve gay weddings. Each couple was unique, and very nice and appreciative. All of them wept. For the sample ceremony I brought with me, I cut out most of the extra words, knowing people would want the briefest of weddings, so they could be recorded before a stay was announced. So what are the essential parts of a wedding when you boil it down? Certainly not the frills and party favors and fancy attire. The couples looked like their most real and comfortable selves, and many came to the courthouse on a break in their work day. But I did say some opening words by way of blessing, including that marriage takes patience and courage. And we took time for the vows, including, “for better, for worse,” and “so long as we both shall live.” Some couples exchanged rings, some did not. But I did say a prayer for each of them. Then a pronouncement, a benediction, the kiss, and the presentation of the newly-married couple. Eight of the couples were women, four of them, men. Two were African American. One drove from Oklahoma. But most of them were from right here in Little Rock. What was the same about all of them is that marriage is really important to them-- important enough to walk into a room full of strangers, several of them with no attendants, worrying that there might be hate-filled protesters blocking their way (for the record, there was only one, and he was shooed away quite early in the day), and risk asking, “Is there someone who will help marry us?” The day has dawned that the majority is saying, “We do.”