Unity Church-Unitarian sponsors 'Love Bus' to Des Moines UU Church.
The nine couples, all members of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, traveled with friends, family, and their ministers, the Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs and the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, to First Unitarian Church in Des Moines, where they had a wedding ceremony. Same-sex marriage was made legal in Iowa effective April 24. Although the marriages are legal in Iowa, they are not yet recognized in Minnesota.
The idea for chartering a “Love Bus” to Iowa came from one of the nine couples, said Janne Eller-Isaacs. Initially 15 couples were interested in going but several had to drop out. Some wanted to wait until marriage is legalized in Minnesota. Others were afraid that they might compromise domestic partnership health benefits by having the ceremony. Eller-Isaacs said that it was a coincidence all the couples that ended up going were female.
A similar bus was chartered by a UU group from Missouri last May, when 17 couples were wed in Iowa City.
Of the nine couples aboard the bus, seven had already had a wedding or commitment ceremony before. One of the reasons that some chose to go through the ceremony again was because it meant a lot to their children.
This was the case for Laura and Linda Smidzik, who have two sons, 13 and 11. The couple, who had already had a wedding ceremony in 1991, had decided to go on the bus to support another couple and their family, without actually participating in the ceremony themselves. When they asked the boys if they would join them, the 13-year-old said, “Why should I go if you’re not getting married?” He had a point, Laura Smidzik admitted. After he left the room she turned to her partner Linda and said, “We’ve got to do it. And she said, ‘Yeah, we do.’ So we jumped in at that point and pulled out our old wedding vows and started to revise them.”
Rhonda and Kelly Kist, who had a commitment ceremony 11 years ago, had a similar experience with their eight-year old son. “There was a moment when we thought, ‘Why don’t we just skip it? ’” said Kelly Kist. “We asked our son, ‘What would you think if you didn’t have to go?’ He just looked at us and said, ‘Absolutely not. We have to do this.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘It’s only fair.’”
When Theresa and Joni Redfern-Hall’s three children heard that same-sex marriage was legal in Iowa, “they were ecstatic!” said Theresa Redfern-Hall, even though the pair had had a commitment ceremony in 1993. “They said, Mom, you’ve got to go!” The children were also instrumental in getting the family to start attending Unity Church last December. “They knew some other kids who were going there and loved it,” she said. “We grudgingly went and absolutely fell in love with the people and the hospitality of the place!” The family joined the church last spring.
During the nine ceremonies, which included readings, vows, and ring exchanges, the Revs. Eller-Isaacs made sure to include the children. Children either stood with their parents or were invited to join them at some point in the ceremony. “As we were exchanging vows, [the children] were standing to the side,” recalled Redfern-Hall. “Then we had Rob and Janne turn to them after we had exchanged vows and include them in a statement like, ‘This is also a time to reconnect to your family. This is about your family and love, and we’re doing this because we love you.’”
Kelly and Rhonda Kist’s son surprised them by asking to be a ring bearer during their ceremony. “We bought a special pillow and put our old wedding rings on it,” said Kelly Kist. “He sat at the very back of the church and watched us. Then Rob called him forward and he walked down with his rings. We had asked Rob to tell him that when we said ‘forever’ to each other, we were also saying that to our family and we were saying it very publicly.”
The moment was not without humor. “He tied the rings in such knots we couldn’t get them off!” Kist said.
First Unitarian’s minister, the Rev. Mark Stringer, co-officiated with the Eller-Isaacs, offering opening words and a prayer. The Eller-Isaacs then led each couple through their own vows.
For many, the wedding ceremony wasn’t just a sacred event; it was an act of social justice. After arriving in Des Moines, the bus drove to the state capitol where a photo was taken of the group holding a banner saying, “Thank you, Iowa!”
Kelly Kist said, “It helped us realize that we were getting married again so that our son could witness freedom. It’s really painful to raise a child and keep explaining that the straight people next door have more rights than we do and that their children get to have married parents and you don’t.”
For Theresa Redfern-Hall, who has been with Joni Redfern-Hall for 22 years, social justice was foremost in her mind when she signed up to go. “For myself and Joni, doing this in Iowa started out being more of a political statement,” she said. “But it became so much more. I didn’t expect it to be quite as moving, impactful, and spiritual as it turned out to be.”
“The profound feeling for me was going with my church,” Laura Smidzik said. “To have ministers who are a heterosexual couple who are married that feel so strongly about this issue that they put full-throttle support on this project. . . . It felt so sacred to me and at the same time was such a profound demonstration of a commitment to broader social justice.”
About forty-four people were aboard the bus, including friends, family, and the two ministers. The four-hour ride was filled with talk, singing, and photographs. “A number of the couples didn’t know one another,” said Janne Eller-Isaacs, “so we gave each couple a chance to introduce themselves to everyone on the bus.” When the bus rolled over the Iowa border, everyone cheered.
Before the wedding ceremonies, First Unitarian Church provided an elegant luncheon. “It was amazing the degree to which the volunteers made it really special,” Stringer said. “It was touching not only to the couples and members of the church community who came but to the ministers. It was such an act of hospitality.”
After the ceremonies and the signing of the marriage licenses, the group boarded the bus for the trip back. The karaoke machine broke so singing was a capella. “When we reached St. Paul, it was starting to get dark,” Kelly Kist said. “Rob started singing ‘Never Turning Back,’ and we all started to sing. It was so beautiful. The lights were off in the bus as it wove its way through town. Then we pulled up in front of the church, and there in front of our church were 250 people and they were shouting and cheering like we were rock stars!”
The outdoors welcome was just the prelude to a party that lasted for the rest of the evening. The wedding reception featured live music, cake, and champagne. Each of the couples had invited friends and relatives to attend.
Stringer said that he has done around 20 same-sex marriages since same-sex marriage became legal in Iowa, not counting the nine from St. Paul. Five or six of the couples had come across state lines for the ceremony. He said that he probably required less of couples in terms of pre-marriage counseling than some of his mainline Protestant counterparts. “These folks have been discriminated against for so long, I’m not going to demand anything beyond their willingness to be legal,” he said. “The average time that they’ve been together for all the couples I’ve married has been 10 to 15 years.”
Kist said that she believed that the more same-sex couples who wed, whatever the context, the easier it would become for those fighting to legalize same-sex marriage to win the battle.
She cited the late gay activist Harvey Milk, “You need to let people know that you’re gay so that people know what gay looks like. What we’re doing now is what he did. Only we’re doing it slightly differently with children and in mid-life and far away from the Castro of San Francisco. It’s exactly the same journey to say, ‘This is who we are. You know and love us. There’s really nothing here to be afraid of.’”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.