Originally published by CHURCH Magazine, Summer 2009
– PDF version – Online version –
Witnessing the marriages of couples who ground their love in service and community challenges a priest to hear the universal longing for love.
I am still learning how to love. I discover every day the fragility of my own commitment as an ordained priest and vowed member of a religious community. The setting that has begun to open my heart from my self-preoccupation and even self-loathing is living and praying among our culture’s fragile and neglected people. Here, in our urban parish in downtown Portland, Oregon, people show me their raw belief in God. Life in this paradoxical setting strips me of pretense and reveals my obvious fear of relationships. Ministry here teaches me to live the love that is locked up behind my own breakable heart.
Every day I hear people screaming out to be accepted despite their tortuous history of mental illness or their latest relapse into using drugs. Some people cry out in pain because no one has ever stopped to listen to their history of being sexually abused. Others cry out because they were thrown out of their homes as teens for using heroin. The daily battle on the streets has scared many of them from intimacy and distanced most of them from society’s care or concern. However, underneath all the external hardness of sleeping outside or the effects of alcohol or methamphetamines, there is a common ache, a screeching cry from people to be heard, forgiven, and loved.
I literally heard a stranger crying out one cold, rainy morning as I walked across one of the bridges downtown. I spotted a man carrying an umbrella and briefcase and wearing a gray trench coat. I followed him across the river, blinded by the sharp rain. Out of the darkness, a young man straddling the railing of the bridge yelled out to the hurried businessman, “I’m going to jump!” The preoccupied gentleman ignored him. As I walked closer to the unknown voice, the young man shouted out even louder to me, “I’m going to jump!”
His voice pierced the new day, sharp and penetrating. With raw instinct I bent over the drenched youth, grabbed his arm and pulled him off the railing. He pretended to struggle and fight me. He stabilized his body on the earth. His large, dark brown eyes looked right through me and he screamed in my face, “I just want to be loved.”
We walked to safety, and the police told me he had jumped off a bridge a few weeks earlier. He wanted more than just someone’s attention. They also told me he was not sick enough to be admitted to a hospital for more than a couple of days. I left him sitting in a squad car, but his scream still haunts me.
This cry for help resonates deeply within me. I believe that our relationship with God begins with this sacred cry, the ache of the human heart that begs to be nurtured. I hear and absorb this holy scream because society’s poor are more honest about their needs in the world. The hallowed shriek, the deep passion for acceptance, is not an isolated event or one moment of despair. Desiring to be loved and accepted in our culture is a daily occurrence among our sisters and brothers living isolated, fretful, and anguished lives. This cry of the poor does not end among those who fall among the margins of society.
I carry this scream with me in all areas of my ministry, even in contexts where it may seem to some to be unrelated. I remember the cry of the poor especially when a couple approaches me to be married in the church. I am powerless to fix people’s pain and suffering, but I must always educate people about other people who suffer. I begin discussions with those who come seeking marriage in the church with the fact that all people are seeking love. I remind couples of their responsibility to offer their lives not only to each other, but to the world around them. Then I begin to speak about how even the wedding ceremony can speak of their commitment to their families, the disenfranchised, and the turbulent world around them.
I begin with the human desire to be loved because I so often encounter obstacles in the wedding ceremony itself to the real meaning of marriage. Weddings must not be contained in overspending and selfish overindulgence. The authentic ritual is often lost behind the silk foliage and the ideas of a perfect wedding day. Even family relationships are often stretched to their limits and feelings are hurt when customs and expectations get in the way of the tradition of authentic love.
I realize some weddings in many of our parishes are short-circuited by decreasing numbers of clergy, the rules of the local tribunal, and even local parish requirements for hall rentals and floral arrangements. So often the wedding planner replaces the preacher; the etiquette guides speak louder than the gospel; and arguments over bridesmaids’ dresses overshadow relationships with family and friends.
Years of ministry, however, have given me multiple opportunities to celebrate weddings that celebrate the connection and dignity of all people. These rituals have given the couples and their families a new window into living the Christian life. These weddings continue to show me that love is not bound to family only, but that weddings become the sacrament of vocation and service in the world.
Our present culture faces critical times. We live our vocations in days of economic hardships and job loss. Together we face loving in times of war, forgiving in moments of blame, and unity in days of global transition. Our world and culture depend on us as Christians even more to put love into real action.
I was deeply touched when a graduate school classmate and his fiancée asked me to preside at their wedding. Joe (all names are changed) lived and worked among the poor and met his future wife in a soup kitchen. Their commitment toward the poor formed their love for each other. They wanted the church filled with people from the streets. Their desire was that the rituals speak loudly about the reality of their commitment of service.
On the day of their June wedding people flocked to the church. People who had lined up for soup and bread now lined up around the inside of the church because of the overflow crowd. They were there to witness the love of Joe and Mary and celebrate with others in the parish hall afterward. Some family members arrived with fresh manicures and silk gowns; other guests had not showered for weeks. Some people radiated designer perfume, others reeked of stale alcohol breath.
After reading Matthew 25: 31-46, I walked down into the assembly to begin the homily. My eyes fell on the shy poor and the excited family members. I paused and then asked everyone present to take off their right shoe. Without hesitation people reached for their stilettos or sneakers, the shoe that matched the dress or the worn boot found in the shelter.
I then asked them to exchange their shoe with person next to them. I led them through a reflection of walking in other people’s shoes because God came among us and walked in our shoes. I reminded them that this wedding was a celebration of God’s covenant with us as we learn how to love others.
As the vibrant couple came forward to profess their marriage vows, they sat down on the altar step and slowly took off their shoes. They lovingly, patiently washed each other’s feet. The silent echoes of this generous gesture echoed throughout the room, in every heart and mind. The rich symbol and unexpected washing reminded us all of the humility and risk of love, to put others first in the command of Jesus.
This ritual gesture inserted into the rite of marriage nearly stopped my heart. The reconciling foot care showed me that the couple was serious about living the gospel far beyond the celebration in that church. They staked their marriage on that liturgical gesture, and indicated that their vows would include loving those on the fringe of our culture. Washing feet was not a cute ceremonial addition to their wedding, but a statement of commitment far into the future. I witnessed at that moment my own selfishness, the limits I put on my own young vocation. Their naked, wet feet exposed my longing to serve the people who were sitting in those pews. Their vulnerability connected human concerns and authentic prayer and social justice. Their fairy-tale wedding exposed dirty feet, gathered hungry people, and challenged us all to serve beyond our comfort.
Joe and Mary have worked all these years speaking out on behalf of the poor and raising their daughters with radical compassion, simplicity of life, and prophetic teachings. Even though I have not yet met their children, I want someday to tell them how much their parents have educated me, challenged my own ministry, and taught me to remain humble in front of dirty feet.
Steve and Lori hesitated to speak with me about their wedding preparations. They grappled with their wedding liturgy because they did not have money to pay for many of the cultural and family expectations. They both were invested in parish activities and also wanted members of the parish present during their commitment. Together we decided to celebrate their wedding during the regularly scheduled Saturday Vigil mass.
After the homily, I stood at the sanctuary step and said, “Let those who will be married please come forward.” I could hear all the whispers of questions floating among the congregation. From the middle section of the pews, a young couple stood up and moved out of the seats and came forward. The congregation gasped with surprise and anticipation. When I saw Steve and Lori’s faces as they approached the sanctuary, I started to cry. I saw in them the raw commitment to the people of God who formed them in gospel service and justice. They professed their marriage vows with delicate voices. However, the sound of their promises radiated throughout the church. The congregation fell completely silent with only the sounds of tears.
Steve and Lori’s ceremony seared my memory with fondness and the real meaning of weddings. The couple caught the entire congregation off guard with the unexpected celebration. There was no long-term planning or external fuss or frenzy. However, that moment has remained with me because they professed their vows with clarity of intent, with deep faith and authentic passion for the people they served every week.
Steve and Lori’s simple wedding stands out to me amid all the expensive and chaotic weddings I have celebrated. Their understated presence pierced through all the cultural accessories. The action of the ritual revealed their love to me and their willingness to commit themselves to the community. Their unencumbered ceremony still teaches me that love is stronger than money, expectations, and fantasy. Even in our present days of building smaller homes, making every penny count, and caring for more people without health care, sacraments need to be celebrated with more honesty and intentionality.
A young couple married in our small urban chapel asked their guests to bring to their wedding ceremony white socks, different sizes of men’s underwear, and warm blankets. On the day of the wedding the sanctuary was overflowing with large green garbage bags stuffed with everyday needs for our daily hospitality center. This wedding ceremony gives me hope that the cry of love and justice can be heard in the center of the wedding ritual and into the lives of the newlyweds.
In another parish, Dan and Beth were dedicated to serving many in the community. They wanted to make sure people in the parish had a role during the actual wedding ceremony. We based the entrance rite on the rite of welcome from the rite of Christian initiation of adults. The liturgical ministers, attendants, the couple, and I all stood within the threshold of the church. I welcomed them through the main doors and spoke with affection of their love for each other and their special bonds of service within the community. I then turned to the congregation, who faced the church’s entrance, and asked them for their oral support. I asked them if they approved of this bond, if they would support them today and in the future, and if they would pray for them and their desire for children. I also asked the community if they would support them in living out the ministry of the gospel to serve the poor and disenfranchised. The procession music began, we all processed down the long aisle, and the community exploded with applause and shouts of joy.
Dan and Beth’s wedding remains an icon of community participation. The voices of the poor raised the roof with approval and hope. Their ritual opened the possibilities that marriage is also for the Christian community, it can be a source of hope for people who believe they will never find love for themselves. I hear the scream of wanting to be loved every day. I also hear young couples committing their lives to work with the unemployed, the mentally ill, and former prisoners. Marriage is created in community and must speak to the marginalized and neglected.
I recently met a couple volunteering on a Friday evening in our parish soup line. Every week people from other parishes and students from various high schools and colleges gather to make soup and create an evening of hospitality for our low-income neighbors and our homeless friends. The couple told me they were getting married. They shyly whispered that they were to be married in another parish the following day. I immediately spoke up and said I had never met anyone who would volunteer in a soup line the evening before their wedding. They quickly replied, “Well, Father, this is what we want to build our marriage upon. This kind of service and simplicity is the meaning of our marriage.”
The poor teach me to extend my own vocation beyond my pristine prayer, my selfish use of my time, or my limited understanding of community. The former prisoner teaches me to live a generative life beyond the confines of my own doubt. The mentally anguished addict shows me I cannot put off love until the world is perfect. Young couples who connect their love for one another to service among the poor expand my notions that God’s covenant with us is real, vital, and full of hope in this generation.
Every time I sit down with an engaged couple for the first time, I tell the story of my early morning encounter across the bridge. I tell stories of how married love is lived in our community. We plan and prepare, we discuss and reminisce, and we fill out forms and write down schedules. We prepare for the wedding and the marriage; we explore how their married love will grow beyond their own home. On their wedding day, I stabilize my body on the earth witnessing the couple, listening to their sacred vows, and feeling the depths of us all longing to be loved.