Saturday morning was special for Lisa Spencer.
She and her partner of three years, Karen Wennlund, married in a private ceremony a year ago, but on this day they would celebrate in their own church in front of a crowd of friends, with Spencer’s 12-year-old daughter, Isabel, serving as flower girl, bridesmaid and ring bearer. Spencer’s former husband of 16 years sat in the second row and snapped pictures of her wedding.
Spencer and Wennlund were the first of five same-sex couples to marry in a string of consecutive ceremonies at First Congregational United Church of Christ, a church led by the Rev. Pam Shepherd. The event was organized with the local chapter of Join the Impact, a group formed after the 2008 election to encourage President-elect Barack Obama to deliver on his promises of equality to the gay community.
“I’m not a political person, but I believe that in this political climate each one of us has to stand up for what is right,” Wennlund said after her marriage ceremony. “I feel we’re already married, but I wanted to be supportive here politically. Pam was so brave in putting this out here.”
Although Oregon does not recognize same-sex unions, the church decided to perform the ceremonies with its religious authority and let the state worry about the civil side of the marriages.
The four clergy members who performed the ceremonies recently pledged not to sign marriage licenses for any couple, gay or straight, until they could sign the licenses for all.
The day was as much, if not more, about the couples’ commitment to God, their communities and each other as it was about making a political statement Spencer and Wennlund said.
“It’s what our faith leads us to, which is following the teachings of Jesus, which is inclusiveness and love,” Spencer said. “We are all God’s children; we are all as entitled to love as anyone else. This is how we feel our God, who is still speaking, is asking us to live and act on our faith.”
Spencer’s ex-husband, Gordon Enns, said he wouldn’t have thought of missing the wedding of the woman he considers his best friend.
“I was very happy for them,” he said. “I think it’s the way it should be, that religious and political aspects of a person’s marriage don’t need to be based on what genitals they have. It’s a heart connection.”
All ceremonies included a biblical passage from the book of Ruth declaring “where you go, I will go.” The clergy explained that love is not just a feeling, but a lifelong commitment to each other and the community and pronounced that “those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Guests were asked to pledge their love and encouragement to the couples, each time responding with a hearty “We do!” and a standing ovation when the newlyweds were pronounced as married couples.
While the ceremonies took place one after another inside the church, guests outside listened to the Rogue Valley Peace Choir and short speeches on equal marriage rights. Attendees were invited to sign petitions to Obama that requested his support in efforts to repeal a law that defines marriage as a heterosexual union, ending the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military and establishing federal non-discrimination laws in the workplace.
Among the wedding guests was Amanda Caster, 29, who served as a flower girl for Fanda Bender and Sheila Gam. Caster said she wasn’t ready to tie the knot with her girlfriend, Raven Brookner, whom she recently began dating, but the two came to support the couple who are approaching their 30th anniversary.
The day held multiple meanings and provided hope for the future, Caster said.
“For me, it was twofold, to see a couple — who’s been together longer than I’ve been alive — finally walk into a church and exchange vows. And then on the political side of it, it’s an honor to take part and move forward the equality of everybody.”
Bender and Gam were married by a rabbi in California 30 years ago in a wedding to which the state was not privy. The couple said they participated in Saturday’s ceremonies to renew their vows and show their hope for future change.
“Through our love for each other we have grown in ways beyond what I ever imagined could be,” Bender recited to Gam from the vows she wrote herself. “My commitment to you is to continue to love you with all my heart, to live each day fully with you, to be as present as I can, allowing each new adventure in our lives to unfold. I love you forever, my dearest Sheila.”
Church members who attended said they were glad to help with the event.
“I am very, very proud to be a member of a church that is so concerned with love and inclusion of all people,” said Michael Walsh as he sliced the rainbow-covered wedding cake just before the final ceremony. “It’s a spirit of giving and trust and support that’s sorely needed in the world everywhere — so each wedding is a symbol to me of all things I believe in and my fellow members of the church believe in.”
The final wedding — and the only male couple — was the union of Dennis Day and Ernie Caswell. Caswell has performed numerous wedding ceremonies as a priest in the Old Catholic sect, all of which Day attended. He said he cried at every one.
“We’ve been together 37 years, so we’re from a period where there was no thought of marriage,” Day said, wiping his red eyes after walking down the aisle a married man. “I cry at weddings, but I never thought I would be crying at mine.”