by JS Stephens
Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved
Comments, questions, or answers to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Although the characters are products of my vivid imagination, the truth is that the situation is all too real. Ministers have lost their license for following their hearts and performing same-sex weddings, even in states where it is legal. I'm not saying which denomination, but let's just say they've been in the news quite a bit for the last year for this very issue.
Sharon Flowers nervously adjusted her collar, fussing until it was seated perfectly under her deep purple sweater. She brushed her short, rich brown hair until it gleamed, setting off her light brown eyes perfectly. "Showtime," she muttered under her breath as she reached for her coat.
The house was filled with family and friends, ringing with laughter and merriment. Joy Flowers surveyed the living room, making sure that everyone had plenty to eat and drink before she sat down in her armchair. She smiled happily, noting her daughter, Sharon, trying to be nonchalant as she waited for the perfect moment to pop the question.
When Sharon first came out in college, Joy and Rick had been aghast, wondering where they had gone wrong, but over time, they had come to accept Sharon's girlfriend, Heather Blackburn, as a member of the family. Joy found it funny now that she and Rick had completely missed the signs that Sharon preferred girls to boys, even though Sharon had always mooned over her friends and ignored boys. No matter now, Heather was the perfect counterpart to their daughter, honey blonde to dark, measured to impetuous, stable career to contract jobs, planner to impulsive.
Rick ran a hand over his still dark hair, finding himself almost as nervous as he thought his daughter was. He still remembered the night nearly 40 years ago when he proposed to Joy, taking a chance that this daughter of privilege would marry a poor associate pastor at his first appointment. He was still amazed that Joy had said yes, and that she willingly gave up so much to follow him from church to church. He smiled at his beautiful wife, heart melting with love and tenderness all over again.
Joe Flowers, Sharon's younger brother, stood up with his glass of wine, catching his sister's eye. She nodded slightly, so he called out in his authoritative baritone voice, "May I have your attention, please?" The general noise level diminished as he looked around, waiting for all eyes to focus on him. "My sister has something she'd like to say. Sharon?"
Sharon stood and looked around at the gathering, at the dear friends and family who had gathered to celebrate New Year's Eve at her parents' house. She finally turned to her beloved partner, carefully getting down on bended knee. "Heather," she said, "we've been together for twelve years, and I'd like to make it legal now. Would you do me the honor of marrying me?"
Heather stared at her beloved for a few seconds as she reran the proposal through her head. She drew in a shaky breath, leaned forward to capture Sharon's free hand, and answered, "I accept, Sharon, oh, I do fully accept your proposal."
They sat there, grinning at each other until Joe bellowed out, "Kiss her, you fool!" The tension was broken as the women kissed to prolonged applause and whistles. "It's about time she up and married you," he added with a gleam in his brown eyes.
"Oh, shush, brother," Sharon laughed as she came up for air, "it took you long enough for Jill to propose to you!"
Her sister-in-law snorted. "I figured after a couple of years I was entitled," she said, "but at least we could have gotten married at any time. So, any plans yet? When? Where?"
"No, not yet," Sharon replied, looking fondly at Heather, then turning back to Jill. "We'll make those decisions together."
"I do not recommend March, still too cold, although we did have to marry during our spring break" Joe teased.
"I was a poor schoolteacher, and you a poor coach," she jibed back. "It doesn't matter when you get married, we'll be there."
Rick and Joy glanced at each other, happiness mingled with apprehension. They loved their daughter and her partner, but worried about the possible repercussions from a public wedding. And what if they wanted Rick to perform the ceremony?
Heather and Sharon didn't realize that there would be so much to planning a wedding, even a small one. The first hurdle was finding the right time and the right venue. Luckily, one of Heather's friends owned property outside of the city, complete with a multipurpose building that they often rented out for parties. The second hurdle was who would officiate at their wedding.
Sharon sat in her father's office at the church, discussing plans several weeks after the proposal. Rick tried to be as gentle as possible in breaking the news to his daughter that he could not officiate. "Sharon, you know the church law as well as I do, if I perform yours and Heather's wedding, I'll be charged with breaking church law and probably lose my license. I only have a few years before retirement. I love you both dearly, but no matter how much my heart says yes, my head has to say no."
"Even if it was a private ceremony?" Sharon asked, stunned. She did know church law, but it never occurred to her that her father could be defrocked for doing part of his ministry.
Rick sighed. "Sharon, I don't like it any better than you do, but I do have some suggestions. I have several friends who are ministers from more accepting denominations, and they could do the ceremony."
Sharon ran a hand through thick short hair, trying to take it in. She had given up her childhood dream of her father presiding over her wedding years ago when she fell in love with Heather, but now when she thought it would be possible, reality and prejudice slammed that door shut again. "But Daddy, it's not fair," she complained, "how can the church charge you when it is legal for me to get married in this state?"
"Sharon, I think it is completely wrong and archaic as well, but other ministers who live in states where same-sex marriage is legal have lost their licenses for performing the ceremonies." He drummed thick fingers on the desk, trying to come up with an alternative other than having someone else do what he should do for his daughter. "I know it's not fair, honey, and I know I did your brother's wedding, but I just can't risk it."
Sharon slouched back in her chair, looking like she was twelve instead of thirty-four. "I guess I understand, but I was hoping we could find a way around this."
"So, have you told Heather's parents?" Rick asked.
Sharon frowned. "Not yet, they still refer to us as 'roommates' after all these years. We'll tell them soon, although I personally think they won't come."
Rick could hear the profound hurt in his daughter's voice, and it broke his heart. He wasn't much better than Heather's parents. Oh, he and Joy had accepted their daughter's partner years ago, and he had struggled for several years to reconcile it with what he had been taught. "I'm sorry, Sharon, but I can tell you several ministers in other denominations here who would perform the ceremony."
"It's okay, Dad, I'll just get someone else to do it. I'll talk to Heather about using a different minister. Give me their names and contact information, and I'll check with them to see when Heather and I can visit them." Sharon sighed. "I do love you, Dad, and appreciate your acceptance, even though the church is totally wrong."
"I love you too. Give Heather my love," Rick said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to leave soon for a staff meeting." He made a face. One of the dubious joys of being the senior pastor for a large congregation was the many meetings he had to attend.
"Okay, Dad. Are we still on for dinner with you and Mom tomorrow night?" Sharon asked.
"You bet," Rick said, face lighting up with glee. Somehow the foursome had developed a tradition over the past few years of meeting once a month for a long, leisurely dinner out at a nice restaurant that Sharon and Heather insisted on paying for. Rick sometimes felt like he should be paying, but realized that was "old school thinking", as his children were quick to point out. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
Heather flopped down on their brown leather sectional sofa, grabbing the remote from the storage section between the chaise lounge and a recliner. She turned on the TV and cable box, surfing aimlessly, hoping to find something worth watching now that the football season was over. She checked her phone again for messages, wondering how Sharon's meeting with her father went. She had warned her partner that they'd have to get someone else to do the ceremony, but Sharon had held out hope that her dad could find a way.
She ran tired fingers through her shoulder length honey blonde hair, absently noting that it was time for a trim. Nothing on TV but news, reality shows, and reruns of NCIS. She landed on the navel investigative show, soon immersed in the mystery that the special agents were solving.
As soon as the episode was over, she reluctantly turned off the TV and wandered into her office. As she logged back in to work, she thought about their long relationship and how their talents complimented each other. For example, Sharon was quite good at repairing small engines, like lawn mowers and edgers, but absolutely sucked at building anything. Heather had figured out how to replace the siding at the back of the house last summer, but Sharon did all the painting. Sharon usually cooked, but Heather was the one who methodically did all of the laundry and housework.
"Honey, I'm home. I met with Dad, then ran by the grocery store," Sharon called out as she burst into the house.
Heather jumped up to help her partner with the bags of groceries, ferrying them into the kitchen as Sharon went back for the next round. She started unloading the groceries, wondering what she would find. You never knew what Sharon would bring home. As Sharon came in with the last load, Heather asked, "So how did the meeting go?"
Sharon started unloading bags as she answered, "Well, there's this little sticking point of the church absolutely prohibiting ministers from performing same-sex weddings. If this was the last church Dad served, it would have been fine, but this one is more conservative and powerful members would have kittens if they found out."
Heather was quiet for a moment, then asked, "So what do we do now? Is it legal for your parents to attend the wedding? Or would that get your dad in trouble as well?"
"I'd have to look at the church laws, but I think just attending shouldn't be an issue." Sharon started stuffing bags in their storage box, adding, "It's not fair. This is one of those denominations that fought for civil rights in the 1960's, but because we're gay and not black, we don't deserve civil rights and happiness. If I hear the phrase 'incompatible with Christian teachings' one more time, I'll explode!" she groused.
"At least your family accepts me," Heather pointed out, "unlike mine, who is still waiting for me to 'come to my senses' and marry a man."
Sharon went to her beloved, taking her in her arms. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, I get a bit wrapped up in this. Your parents are good people, just prejudiced against us."
Heather snuggled against Sharon, seeking comfort from her stocky partner. "I wish they understood. I've come out to them repeatedly, and they just refuse to admit that I'm really 'one of those', and still refer to you as my roommate. I guess since we started out pretending, they latched on to that as a way to avoid accepting us as a couple."
"I guess we should have come out earlier, but it was so scary," Sharon said, "but at least you've never had any issues at work, and I've never lost any clients."
"We have both been pretty quietly open for years," Heather agreed, "and when I mentioned us taking vacation for our tenth anniversary a few years ago, my boss didn't bat an eye, he just said have fun. Still, I wish my parents were as accepting as yours, Sharon."
"Mom came around a lot quicker," Sharon pointed out, "I think being in the insurance industry meant she was exposed sooner to the idea of gay and lesbian couples being ordinary. Dad, however, took a while to come around, having to overcome both his upbringing at what he learned as proper theology in seminary school. But he's come around quite well."
Heather kissed Sharon lightly. "Girlfriend, as much as I love to gab with you, I'm getting hungry, so let's fix dinner or we'll never get to eat tonight."
Sharon waggled her eyebrows suggestively, offering, "Or, we put this away, go out to dinner, then come back for dessert."
Heather smiled broadly at their code phrase. "I thought we were taking your folks out to dinner tomorrow night, what about our budget?"
"We can afford it, I picked up another client today," Sharon said, nuzzling her partner, "the cutest little girl, just needs some social adjustment before she can start school. Come on, I'll tell you all about it over dinner, please?"
"You have me convinced," Heather said, pulling away so she could finish putting away the groceries. "So, where do we want to go eat?"
Joy walked into the house, dropping her briefcase and purse on the bench in the foyer before hanging her coat on the rack. "Rick, I'm home," she called out.
"In the study," he called back, "come on back."
Joy kicked off her loafers and wriggled her toes before walking to the study. It had been a very long day, and she was bone tired. Her last appointment was a young man who did not seem to understand that his insurance would only cover so much of the damage to his car, and that she was constrained by his policy as to how much she could authorize in payment to the shop. I suspect he was texting before hitting that pole, but there's no proof, she thought sourly. She let her shoulders droop momentarily before squaring them again and arranging her classic features into a pleasant expression.
Rick had multiple books open on his desk, and multiple windows open across his monitor and laptop screen, and was scowling fiercely. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't," he muttered as she entered the study. "Oh, hi, honey, long day?" he asked, rising quickly to kiss her hello.
"Yes," she answered simply, moving into the warmth of his arms. They stood for a moment, simply enjoying the closeness and comfort before Joy pulled away, plopping down on the couch. "My day sucked, how about yours?"
Rick sank beside her, taking her hand in his. "About the same. There's trouble brewing in this congregation, Joy, and I'm at a loss as to what to do. I thought it would be so great being moved to the same city as where our children and their families landed, but it's been a big hassle. Plus Dr. Winston Carlisle died today, so I had to meet his family at the funeral home just before lunch. I wound up never getting lunch, so now I'm starved and don't feel like cooking. Want to go out?"
Joy laid her head on his shoulder, sighing. "Not really. Hey, let's call the girls, see if they have any plans. Maybe we can con them into picking up dinner and bringing it over."
Rick chuckled, reaching up and patting her cheek. "Nice try, honey. I'm sure I can rustle something up, even if it's canned soup and cheese sandwiches. Wouldn't be the first time we had soup and sandwiches for dinner."
She simply laid her hand over his, then lifted her head. "Sounds okay. Didn't Joe bring some sourdough bread from his bakery yesterday?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes, he did, and yes, there's still enough for sandwiches. You go change and I'll get supper started," Rick offered.
"Sounds heavenly," Joy smiled, kissing him briefly before rising. "I'll met you in the kitchen in a few minutes."
A bit later, the two were deep into conversation about their respective days. "I tell you, Joy, it was very strained talking to the Carlisle family today. Winston and Harriet's youngest son, Adam, was there with his partner, Mark, but the rest of the family kept ignoring any contributions they tried to make. The whole bunch followed me back to the church, insisting on talking about the service right then, which is why I never got lunch, I didn't get out of the meeting until nearly 3:00, when I had to go to the worship planning committee meeting. Adam and Mark were insisting that they be mentioned as a couple, just like the other children, but the rest of the family wanted Mark mentioned as a 'family friend'."
"Didn't Adam and Mark get married last year?" Joy asked as she reached for the apple slices.
"Yes. They got married in the local Unitarian church because they couldn't get married in our church." Rick looked pensive, turning matters over in his mind. "You know, I talked to Heather briefly yesterday, and she and Sharon have asked the Unitarian minister to do their ceremony in May."
"I hadn't heard, but I've been swamped with work," Joy confessed. "Who's the pastor there now? I forget her name."
"Darlene Young, remember her? She was an associate briefly here before she came out and had to change denominations. Darlene was lucky enough to get called to a growing church here. It still bothers me that such an up and coming woman had to change her entire life just because she realized she was attracted to women." Rick fiddled with his soup spoon, then looked at his wife. "Am I being a coward by letting Darlene perform our daughter's wedding instead of doing it myself?"
Joy laid down her sandwich, looking back at Rick. "What are you talking about?" she asked uneasily.
"I mean that I've been doing a lot of thinking today. Here a family doesn't want to acknowledge the husband of a son in his father's obituary and eulogy, a colleague had to leave our denomination to follow her heart, and I'm treating my daughter unjustly by not performing her wedding. I did Joe and Jill's wedding, why can't I do Sharon and Heather's? It's not fair to anyone, you know."
Silence stretched between them for nearly a minute before Joy asked softly, "Rick, are you seriously considering throwing away your career by officiating at Sharon and Heather's wedding?"
"Yes," he answered, "I am. I can no longer believe in a God who pigeonholes his children, saying some are worthy of the sacred bonds of marriage and others are not. We pick and choose what part of the holiness code we follow, except when it comes to outdated ideas about men laying with men and women laying with women. I've been studying this issue, and Joy, I'd very much like to be a good father and a good minister and perform my daughter's wedding. Will you stand with me?"
Joy thought about it for a moment, weighing the matter in her mind. "I'd sound like a terrible mother if I said no," she mused, "but I have to be honest, I'm apprehensive about what this will do not only to your career, but to our family. You know this will cause a stir, that we'll get hate mail and calls."
"Yes, but so did my father when he decided to stand up for civil rights. He risked his life being a minister in the south at the time, but eventually the church came to its senses."
"At least we're not in the south," Joy commented, "although you'd think people would be more liberal here. Why couldn't they decide to get married when you were still at your last appointment?"
"It wasn't legal yet," Rick reminded her, "although we could have had a ceremony for her. All right, I have sprung this on you, Joy, so I'll give you a day or two to decide."
"Thanks, I think," she responded. Joy picked her sandwich back up, adding wistfully, "Why can't these things ever be logical?"
Rick smiled. "Because, my love, we are not Vulcans, thus are not bound to logic," he teased.
"Humph." She bit into the sandwich, content to enjoy the flavors and wiping all decision-making away for a few minutes.
Heather gripped Sharon's hand as she rang her parents' doorbell. "Steady, girlfriend," Sharon murmured, "I'm here with you."
She smiled sourly, then schooled her face to a more pleasant expression as her mother opened the door. "Come in, what a pleasant surprise," Mildred Blackburn said, opening the door wider. "George, the girls are here," she called out as Heather and Sharon entered the house. "How is work going?" she asked, leading them into the den.
"Fine, Mom," Heather said as they followed her into the den.
"What a pleasant surprise," George said as he stood up, hugging Heather and shaking Sharon's hand. "What brings you here during the week?"
Heather and Sharon sat on the love seat, facing the twin recliners where the Blackburns settled, waiting for them to speak. Heather glanced at Sharon, who nodded slightly. Taking a deep breath, Heather said, "Mom, Dad, we'd like to invite you to our wedding. It's Memorial Day weekend, and we're having it at Brian and Kathie's place outside of town. We're hoping you will come support us."
Mildred looked puzzled, asking, "Who are the grooms? Are you having a double wedding?"
"No, Mom, we're marrying each other. It's legal in this state now, as of last year, and Sharon asked me to marry her at Christmas. I accepted, and we're making plans now. Will you and Dad come to our wedding?"
George looked uneasy. "You girls are marrying each other?" he asked doubtfully, "isn't that just sissy boys and tomboy girls that do that?"
Oh, brother, Heather thought, here we go again. "Dad, there are plenty of gay men and lesbians who look perfectly normal. Yes, I am marrying Sharon, we've been married in our hearts for twelve years, so we want to make it official and legal."
Mildred turned pale as the implications started sinking in. "You'd introduce yourselves as married?" she asked, "How will I explain that at church?"
Heather started to spit back a reply, but Sharon interjected quickly, "We know this is hard for you to understand. My family has been accepting for years, but my dad is now facing the issue of whether or not to officiate. If he does, he could lose his license. If he doesn't, he feels like he is going against God's plan for my life. We just ask that you understand that we truly feel that God has put us together, and has called us to be married not only in our hearts, but legally as well."
Mildred and George looked at each other, thinking over Sharon's words. George finally asked, "But doesn't God prohibit your relationship? I thought it said in the Bible that men should not lie with men and women with women."
"The Bible also talks about beating your wife, keeping slaves, and not mixing different types of materials together. The Old Testament prohibits eating shellfish, but in the New Testament, Peter was told to eat of the unclean food, that whatever God created was good. God sent Christ to help us understand his word, to renew our covenant to be his people, to love others as ourselves. How can we love others as ourselves if we reject others?" Sharon asked.
Mildred shook her head. "I just don't understand, why can't you girls just leave well enough alone? It's been hard enough for us to explain you being roommates all these years, why push it now?"
Heather answered, "Mom, for one thing, we're women, not girls. We're thirty-four years old, not twelve. For another thing, the only reason we initially said we were roommates was that it was safer to pretend, but things are changing now. I've been honest at work about my love for Sharon for years now, and my co-workers are all clamoring for invitations to the wedding. Sharon has never had any issues getting new contracts, even though she's been out for years as well. I have a picture of us on my desk, just like anyone else, and no one says anything about it. Times are changing, Mom."
George scratched his chin, deep in thought. My little girl really is one of those women, he thought sadly, but at least Sharon is good with her. Sharon was the first one to notice that our grandson was Asperger's, and made sure we got the right help for him. "I'm still not sure I believe God wants women to be together, but obviously we can't stand in your way," he said reluctantly. "I guess this means no more grandchildren?"
Heather bit back a sarcastic reply, opting for a light-hearted, "We did give you grandcats. Jorge and Mildred love you!"
George smiled unwillingly. I do like those rascally cats, even though Mildred was upset at their names at first. "True. But what will we tell your brother?"
Heather relaxed for the first time. "We're talking to Tom and Katie at dinner tomorrow night, but they've been fine with us as a couple for years. Tom figured out I was gay before I did."
Mildred was at a loss as to what to say, but she had always suspected. Even as a little girl, Heather was more attached to her girlfriends than to her boyfriends. "I can't say I approve, but I will not stand in your way," she blurted out. "I'm curious, who will wear the dress and who will wear the suit?"
The tension broke unexpectedly at the question. Heather and Sharon exchanged glances, and Sharon answered, "Mildred, we're both wearing dresses, beautiful cream sheath dresses with short sleeves. They are quite stunning." She pulled her phone out, tapping the screen until she found the picture. "Want to see?" she asked as she walked across the room.
Mildred reached for her glasses, taking the phone, looking at the picture. She finally looked up and said, "They are beautiful, Sharon, and I'm surprised. I've never seen you in a dress."
Sharon smiled. "It's what I'm doing for love," she said.
Tom, Katie, and their ten year old son, Benjamin, sat in the restaurant waiting for Heather and Sharon to show up. Benjamin was consulting his watch frequently, announcing the time and how many minutes late they were. Katie was uneasy, watching her son, hoping he would not fly off the handle at the schedule going awry. "Sweetie," she said for the third time, "remember, they called and said they had been caught behind a wreck and would be late."
"But they are supposed to be here already. Sharon said they would be here at 7:15 and it is now 7:26. They are eleven minutes late." Benjamin looked toward the door. "We cannot order food until they arrive. What is the schedule?"
Before Katie could answer, Heather and Sharon burst in through the door, obviously looking around for their party. Tom waved his arms and called out, "Over here!" They nodded and started making their way through the maze of tables.
Hugs were exchanged among the adults while Benjamin impatiently waited for his aunts to be seated. "You are twelve minutes and thirty-six seconds late," he intoned, looking at his watch. "What is the schedule now?"
Sharon replied easily, "Remember our discussion of adjusting schedules? You tell me how we need to shift to accomodate our late arrival."
The boy furrowed his brow, thinking hard. Finally, he glanced up briefly, answering, "We can shorten the discussion about what to eat by three minutes, the greetings by three minutes, and the general eating process by six minutes. Now we need to account for two more minutes."
"Well done, Benjamin. As soon as the waiter comes-"
"Waitress. Her name is Marcy," he corrected.
"Waitress, Marcy, comes over," Sharon amended smoothly, "Heather and I can tell her what we want to drink. Do you know what you want to eat?"
The boy tugged on his bangs, then opened and shut his menu. "Cheeseburger no pickles fries water no lemon," he answered in a rush.
"Very good," Sharon praised him, earning a quick glance from the boy. She opened her menu, glancing through the offerings, then shut it again. "Everyone else know what they want?" she asked politely.
Once everyone had ordered, Tom asked Heather, "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company tonight? Not that we mind, we love seeing you ladies, but we're curious. You usually don't see us on a weeknight."
Heather took a deep breath and said it almost as calmly as she had rehearsed it. "We're getting married over Memorial Day at Brian and Kathie's farm. They have a large covered pavilion for entertaining, and have promised that we can have it there."
Tom looked at his older sister, dumbfounded. "You're what?" he asked, not sure he really heard her correctly.
Benjamin parroted, "Aunt Heather said, 'We're getting married over Memorial Day at Brian and Kathie's farm. They have a large covered pavilion for entertaining, and have promised that we can have it there.' That is what she said." He looked puzzled, commenting, "I thought you were married. You act married."
Tom and Katie looked at their son, not quite sure what to say. They were temporarily sidetracked by the arrival of the meals, giving them time to digest what had just been said. Finally, Katie said cautiously, "So you are getting married. Legally married?"
"Yes, legally married," Heather confirmed, "Sharon asked me over Christmas and I accepted." She turned to her nephew and explained briefly, "At one time, it was not legal for two women or two men to get married, but the laws changed. Now Sharon and I will marry."
He cocked his head, thinking as he cut his burger into quarters and arranged his fries in four precise piles, arranged by size. "Okay. Does this mean you will have babies?"
Sharon almost laughed at the logical progression of questions, but kept a neutral face as she answered, "Heather and I decided long ago that we did not want to be parents. We are just fine with being your aunts." Benjamin nodded, satisfied with the answer. He devoted his full attention to eating his meal, alternating between burger quarters and fries.
Tom waited until his son was fully engaged to ask, "Have you said anything to Mom and Dad? How did they react?"
Heather swallowed her bite of chicken before answering, "We went to see them Sunday afternoon. They were puzzled, then confused, then reluctantly accepting, at least on the face of things. Mom liked the dresses we picked out, Dad seemed to be a little relieved that we would get some more legal rights, but they both still want to hang on to denial. Dad even asked if we would divorce if the other found a man to marry."
Katie looked at Heather, incredulous. "He really asked that? No, strike that, I can see him asking that."
Tom asked, "I hate to pry, but will this have any effect on your jobs? Heather, the company you work for seems pretty liberal, but Sharon, since you freelance, could it hurt you?"
Sharon shook her head. "No, and even if I never got another school district job, there's plenty of individual families who need therapists working with autistic and Asperger's children. The two school districts I contract with already have non-discrimination clauses covering this, so there should not be any issues."
Heather added, "I've been taking Sharon to company events for so many years that it's a moot point. I've had her picture on my desk forever, and no one bats an eye when I introduce her as my partner."
Benjamin suddenly looked up from his plate. "You will have to call Aunt Sharon your wife. You will be Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Flowers. I want to be in the wedding."
Taken aback, Heather asked, "As what?"
He actually met her gaze as he answered, "As your piano player. Someone has to play the piano."
Sharon smiled. Typical answer for Benjamin, she thought, and he can play anything he hears extraordinarily well. "We had not discussed music yet, and I don't think our friends have an outdoor piano, Benjamin, but we will talk to you about the music."
"I can set up my keyboard as long as you have an outlet or I have batteries," he pointed out.
Heather quickly added, "We will see if there are any outlets for you, Benjamin, if not, we'll talk about options."
Benjamin finished his last pile of fries and started rocking his his chair, looking around the area. "Where is Marcy? We are off schedule, she should be here for us to order our apple crisps now. We always order apple crisps after we finish eating. Where is Marcy?" His voice started escalating as he rocked harder, looking for their waitress.
Tom grabbed the back of his chair as Benjamin almost tipped it over. "Steady, there, buddy," he said soothingly, "we can get back on schedule, right?" Heather saw the waitress and caught her eye, motioning for her to come over as Tom tried to redirect his son. "Come on, Benjamin, think about the time. How far off were we when we started?"
Marcy came over, asking cheerily, "Did we save room for dessert?"
Benjamin would have completely knocked his chair over if Tom had not kept it steady. "Yes, we will order apple crisps, please," Tom answered, trying to keep Benjamin focused.
"Dad, you said it out of order. Marcy is supposed to tell us what is on the menu for dessert, then we all order apple crisps. I like it with vanilla ice cream, Mom takes a bite of mine, you order yours without ice cream, and Heather and Sharon split one and order coffee. It has to be that way."
Marcy recognized the situation and squatted down next to Benjamin's chair, taking out her order pad. "All right, young man, I'll tell you what is on the menu. Tonight we have apple crisps with or without vanilla ice cream, cheesecake with raspberry drizzle, molten chocolate cake, brownie sundaes, or key lime pie. What would you like?"
Benjamin said precisely, "Apple crisp with vanilla ice cream." He looked at his watch, announcing, "We are still five minutes off."
Katie quickly interjected, "Remember, we are adjusting the schedule. Where will you adjust your routine at home to make up the five minutes?"
He pondered this for a moment, then answered, "I can take a minute each from brushing my hair, petting the dog, folding the blankets, laying out my clothes, and washing my hands." Once decided, he started relaxing. The rest of the table quickly placed their orders.
After dinner was over and the bills settled, the two families walked out to the parking lot to say their goodbyes. Tom hugged his sister and said quietly, "No matter what people say, I'm eternally grateful that you brought Sharon into our lives. She has made a huge difference in getting the right help for Benjamin. I guess I can get used to actually calling her my sister-in-law."
"Thanks, Tom, that means a lot to me. We'll let you and Katie know when we have more definite plans." She hugged her brother hard, then reached for her sister-in-law.
Benjamin looked at his watch again, then bumped his shoulder against Sharon. "Aunt Sharon, I will start practicing my keyboard. I will email you the list of pieces I am playing."
She smiled and said, "Thank you, Benjamin. Heather will ask her friends if their pavilion has electric outlets." He flashed a rare smile, then leaned his head against her for a moment before diving into the car.
Joy sat in her office, listlessly going through emails. Monday mornings were the toughest, with new reports, claims forms, communications, and so on. She was seriously thinking of going after that promotion to district manager. It would mean a pretty significant bump in pay, very little field work, and managing lots of people. She was currently the manager for the office, but wound up still doing a lot of the work instead of managing. Although she still enjoyed field work, it was getting harder to have the long hours and constant travel.
If she secured the promotion, Rick could officiate at Sharon and Heather's wedding, and not worry if he lost his credentials and was forced into early retirement. Even without the promotion, they would only lose a few thousand a year, but they would have to move. No more housing stipend or parsonage to live in, they'd have to lease or buy their own home.
The phone rang, startling her out of her reverie. "Joy Flowers," she announced.
"Joy, this is Mack Benton, how are you doing this morning?"
Joy smiled, Mack was the regional director and an old friend from college. "Doing well, Mack, how are you? How are Betty and the kids?"
"Doing fine, thanks for asking. We're expecting our first grandchild any time now, so we're very excited. Doug says that Morgan could go into labor at any time. But exciting as that is, it's not why I called. Did you know that the district manager's position is open?"
"Yes, I was just thinking about it," she said smoothly. "Why do you ask?"
She heard him chuckle on the other end. "Because I've already had requests from a couple of offices to promote you. When you took it temporarily last summer, things ran better than they had in years. So why don't you hurry up and send in the application?"
"I'll do it this morning," she promised. "So, you're ready to be a grandfather, how exciting."
"Yeah, it took long enough, I tell you. Between Betty and me not having kids until we were in our late twenties, and Doug not marrying util he turned 30 last year, it's been long. How's your family?"
"Doing well. Joe and Jill are doing great." She paused, wondering how to announce Sharon's news, then just decided to do it. Mack would find out soon enough. "Sharon and Heather are getting married over Memorial Day."
"Finally getting married? That's great, I know you and Rick are fond of Heather," Mack boomed from the other end. "Of course you'll want a few days off for the wedding. Where will it be?"
Joy relaxed, glad that she had such a great regional director. "Out of town, friends of the family's farm. It has a great covered pavilion where they entertain frequently in the summer, complete with chairs, tables, a small stage, and a small kitchen at the back. There's a small building in back with dressing rooms and bathrooms, so it will be fantastic. Just a small wedding, friends and family."
"Great! Is Rick doing the honors?" Mack asked.
Joy fiddled with a pen as she answered slowly, "We've talked about it, but no conclusion yet. It's against church law for a minister to perform a same-sex marriage, so if he does and is turned in, he can lose his appointment, his credentials, and be forced into early retirement."
Mack sighed on the other end. "That's completely wrong. Tell you what, drop everything and get that application filled out. We need you at the district level. I warn you, though, it might be rough, I just forced the last manager out. I think he was cooking the books, so you might inherit a mess, but I have faith in you, Joy. Oh, and good luck with the wedding. Are they registered anywhere?"
"Not that I know of, they've owned their house for about seven years now."
"They still need something. Anyway, get cracking, Joy, and we'll talk again soon. Goodbye."
"Goodbye, Mack, and tell Betty hello for me."
"Thanks, and same to Rick."
Joy replaced the receiver, turning to her computer, calling up the application. "Here goes nothing or everything," she muttered as she started typing.
The process went quickly, and Joy was offered the promotion by the end of the week. The day she accepted, she went home, eager to tell Rick the good news. She burst into the house, calling out, "Honey, I'm home!"
"In the kitchen," he called back. Joy smiled, dumping her stuff in the foyer, walking quickly to the kitchen. "Hello, sweetheart," he said breathlessly after she kissed him thoroughly, "I guess you had a good day."
"That I did, Rick, and I have fantastic news."
"Do tell," he said as he slid the chicken in the oven. "Let's sit, I just have to let the chicken bake, and I'll pop the rice in the microwave when the chicken is ready to come out."
Joy sat, smile playing across her thin lips as she reached for his hands. "You know that promotion I applied for? I got it! I'm the district manager now, which means more money, more hassles, but drastically fewer days in the field. I'll still be in the same building, but move into a bigger office, and the raise will be enough to cover any difference should you have to retire early."
He looked happy, but puzzled. "Love, why would I retire early?"
Joy's clear blue eyes sought his dark brown ones as she explained, "You know how we talked about the consequences if you performed Sharon and Heather's wedding? Well, with this promotion, we can take that chance. Rick, I've been thinking about it, and I really don't think God expects you to stand by and let Darlene do the ceremony instead of you. It's our daughter, and if we don't support her, we'll be very bad parents."
Rick was stunned. He had started to think that he could not take the chance, no matter how strong the feeling was that God was pushing him to preside over this wedding. "So you'll stand with me?" he asked, wanting to make sure.
She nodded. "Mack Benton called earlier this week and pushed me to apply for it. When the regional director personally calls and insists that you apply for a promotion, you do it." Joy chafed Rick's hands between hers, looking at their joined hands. "Besides, when I married you, I knew that I was not just following you, but following wherever God led you to do his work. It's time for us to stand up for not only Sharon and Heather, but all of the other similarly situated couples. It's time for this congregation to understand that tolerance is not enough, Christ calls us to love and accept everyone. Open hearts, open minds, open doors means inviting and accepting all."
Rick freed one hand to wipe the sudden tears of joy that welled up. "My beloved, you do now that when we follow this path, it is likely that someone will complain and I'll be charged with breaking church law."
"Yes, but also remember that Jesus didn't call us to back away from confrontation" she commented. "We can't point out the specks in others' eyes until we remove the logs from our own eyes, Rick. I know it means that there is a good chance we'll have to move, so I've also called a friend of mine who is a realtor, and have her starting to look for us a house to rent or lease, as a backup plan." Joy squeezed his hand, adding softly, "It's time we stood up for Sharon and Heather's rights to be happily married, not just in their hearts, but in the eyes of the state as well."
Rick leaned over and kissed Joy. "Thank you. It is also possible that no one will find out."
"With this congregation?" he snorted. "The last appointment, yes, it would be kept quiet, even celebrated, but here? This congregation is close enough to splitting over the program the youth started feeding the homeless that you breaking the law might be the final straw."
"You are so astute," Rick said. "I do love you. I am so glad I married you."
"You'd better be, you're stuck with me now," she teased, lightening the mood. "The timer is dinging," she added.
"Gosh, the chicken!" Rick spluttered, jumping out of his chair to pull the chicken out of the oven.
A few nights later, Rick called Sharon and asked if she and Heather could meet at the house for dinner. Sharon readily agreed, and the time and date was set for Sunday evening. "Boy, it's much easier to have Sunday dinner with my folks than when Dad did that stint as a youth pastor," Sharon commented to Heather as they walked up the freshly shoveled pathway. "I wonder what Dad wants to talk about," Sharon asked as she rang the doorbell. "He was pretty mysterious on the phone."
Rick opened the door, grinning from ear to ear. "Come in, ladies," he said, hugging each in turn, "Joy will be home in a few minutes. We have great news to share with you both." He led them to the dining room, where he had been setting the table. "I'm going to wait until your mom gets here to take everything out of the oven, but I will go ahead and put out the salads," he said. "Sit, sit."
Sharon and Heather shed their coats, hanging them on the rack, then followed Rick into the dining room. "What's going on, Dad?" Sharon asked.
He just smiled mysteriously as he started filing the water glasses. "You'll just have to wait. How is working going for you two?"
"Fine," Sharon said, "I have a pretty full case load, but I have some really cute kids this semester."
Heather reached for her glass. "Doing all right, thanks for asking, Rick."
"And your family?" he asked.
Heather took a sip, then answered, "Well, Mom and Dad waffle about attending the wedding or not, but Tom, Katie, and Benjamin will be there. We had dinner with them recently, and Benjamin is very jazzed about providing music."
Before anything else could be said, Joy breezed into the house, calling out, "Sorry I'm late, I had a meeting that lasted longer than expected." They heard the thump of her briefcase in the foyer, followed by footsteps. "Let me get into something a little more comfortable, and I'll be right back," she said after sticking her head through the doorway.
Several minutes later, Joy had changed into chinos and a sweater while Rick finished bringing out the food. She slid in, kissing Rick and quickly hugging Sharon and Heather before taking her seat. "I apologize for being late, this new position means more meetings that I anticipated. But believe me, the next one will be shorter, I'm going to require that an agenda be produced before the meeting and followed during the meeting. Rick, will you say grace?"
Rick asked the blessing, then started passing around the food as he said casually, "We're glad you could make it on such short notice. We have some good news that we think you'd like to hear. First, Joy can tell you her news."
Joy helped herself to the pot roast as she announced casually, "I am now the district manager for the insurance company. All of the offices report to me, and I report to the regional director, Mack Benton, whom I went to school with ages ago. It means a new office, a pay jump, regular hours, and some extra hassles, but so far not too bad. Rick, your turn."
Rick beamed, rubbing his hands together excitedly. "Sharon, I know we talked a while ago about who would do your wedding, and I recommended Darlene Young. Well, Joy and I decided that that is not what God wanted us to do, so instead, I am performing your wedding, and Darlene will assist, if you two wish."
There was stunned silence in the room for several seconds, then Sharon asked carefully, "You mean you will risk your career to perform our wedding? We were fine with Darlene doing it, we're acquainted with her socially."
"That's right, Rick, we don't want you to risk your position," Heather quickly seconded.
Rick just shook his head an smiled. "No, my mind is made up, I want to do your wedding. I did your brother's wedding, and by all rights, should have been able to do yours at the same time. I feel very strongly that the Holy Spirit is leading me this direction, and God is providing by Joy's promotion and pay raise. We can make that back by cutting back on going to movies and eating out, and retirement would give me more time to explore more recipes."
"Dad, you know that this congregation is not welcoming, so if word gets out-"
"Yes, charges will be brought up before the bishop, I'm well aware of that, Sharon," he interrupted. "I'm also aware that you and Heather left that church soon after they pretty much hounded out that unmarried couple who had a baby. I know it was before I was appointed, but change is brewing, and I truly believe that God wants me to help it brew."
Rick looked fondly at his daughter, adding, "I've lived through this before. My father was a strong supporter of civil rights in the 60's, and we narrowly escaped having the parsonage burned down around our ears several times. This was before most women worked, so if he had lost his position, there would have been no fallback, since my mother didn't work and had not worked since she was in college. If my father could shepherd neighborhood black families into a lily white congregation, I can shepherd in gay and lesbian families into a very straight congregation. If not, shame on them for not understanding, and shame on the church for not following what I truly believe is God's will."
Heather asked, "Does this mean you want us to come to your church?"
Rick shook his head as he reached for the salad dressing. "No, Heather, I'm speaking generally, I know of several couples who keep their relationships quiet so they will not be asked to leave." He snorted. "Jesus did not come to make us comfortable, he came to shake us out of our comfort zone, to love and care for each other."
"Sounds like a sermon series, Dad," Sharon said wryly.
He laughed sheepishly. "True, honey, very true. Maybe it is a series, maybe I'm being called to challenge the status quo. So here's the crux of the issue: do you two want me to perform your wedding, or would you rather have someone else do it?"
Heather and Sharon looked at each other, then at Rick. "Dad, I've always dreamed of you blessing my marriage," she said, "but I never dreamed it could come true. I want you to do it, but I don't want you to lose your job. We don't have to publicize it, just have the quiet wedding that Heather and I are dreaming about."
"With my nephew adding to the music list daily," Heather added, breaking the tension of the moment. "Rick, I admire you and Joy, and I really want you to bless our marriage."
Joy spoke up. "It sounds like a plan. Rick, you and I had better go shopping for clothes."
He looked puzzled. "I'll be wearing my robe, why do I need new clothes?"
She smiled sweetly. "I didn't say anything about your new clothes, did I?"
"Oh," he said, light dawning, "your new clothes. Duh, mother of the bride clothes."
"You're pretty wise, Rick," Joy said with a smile.
The plans took shape in fits and spurts. Friends volunteered to provide decorations, refreshments, and flowers. Brian and Kathie confirmed that they had enough chairs and tables for the pavilion. Benjamin kept refining his wedding music list, and Rick started working with them on the vows. It seemed that all that was left was to buy the rings and to plan the honeymoon.
Sharon met Heather at another jewelers after work one night to try to find the perfect rings. They had shopped the traditional stores without success, had gone to the gay part of the nearest big city, but now were trying a small family shop downtown. "Here goes nothing," Heather muttered as they walked in.
The owner of the shop, Jerry Becket, scurried out from the back room, greeting them warmly. "Good evening, welcome to Becket's House of Jewels. How may I help you?"
"We're looking for wedding rings," Heather said, watching closely to see what the older man's reaction would be.
"Traditional, or something unique?" he asked, smiling. "Please, have seat," he said, indicating two comfortable chairs in front of one of the display cases. "Would you like to have any tea? I've a kettle on, and was about to pour myself a cup."
"That would be nice," Sharon said, smiling at the elderly gentleman. He smiled and went to the back of the store while the women started peering through the glass. "Yellow gold, rose gold, white gold or something like it, silver, all sorts of rings," she said, feeling overwhelmed again."
They looked at the variety of bands, wondering if they would ever make a decision. They had a budget, and had ruled out traditional diamond bands as too expensive, but still wanted a little traditional look. "Remember that store in the gay part of town?" Heather asked, "trying to get us to buy bands with dragons on them? Or Celtic knots? That's just not me."
Jerry returned with a tray, a kettle, three cups and saucers, tea bags, and assorted sweeteners. "I ran out of milk, I hope you don't mind, ladies. Pick your tea, and I'll pour."
Once they settled back, sipping their tea, Jerry asked, "Did you have anything in mind?"
"We were thinking white gold, but it might still be expensive," Sharon said slowly, "and we'd still like some sort of gems, but we don't have the biggest budget in the world."
"I have an idea," Jerry said, setting his cup and saucer down, and standing up. "I'll be right back." He raised his voice a little. "Gilda, dear, Mrs. Blankenship just walked, would you take care of her?"
Sharon's hackles rose as she shifted just enough to see Mrs. Blankenship, the nosiest busybody from her parents' church. The woman came from money, married into money, and thought she should run everything. "Oh, God," Sharon mumbled before she could stop herself.
"Mrs. Blankenship, what a pleasure," Gilda said, gliding up to the fur draped matron. "Please, come sit, I'll have your bracelet out in a moment. We were able to replace the diamonds with matching cut and quality, and I believe you will be quite pleased." The elegant assistant manager winked at the two women over the matron's head.
Jerry came back in with a small tray of bands, laying it on the case between them. "These are the newest styles I'm carrying, made for me by a dear friend of my grandson's," he said, "I think you will like these."
The women looked at the assortment of yellow and white gold bands with different configurations of black and white diamonds, swirls, etchings, and other decorations. "They are lovely," Heather said, looking them over.
The owner smiled, reaching to pluck two out. "I thought of you both when I bring this tray out. These are white gold, but very reasonable. Comfort band style, easy to wear. Give them a try."
The women each tried on a ring; white gold, three inset diagonal channels of black and white diamonds. One band had white diamonds on the outer chanels with black diamonds in the inner channel, the other band similar but with the color of the diamonds reversed. "Wow," Sharon said softly, "wow." Heather nodded, transfixed.
Jerry smiled at them, asking, "Do you like the rings?"
"Yes, very much," Heather finally breathed, "they are perfect, even fit perfectly."
"I'm glad, ladies," he said, "not everyone can carry off these rings and look perfect. I'll give you a good price, too, for the set."
"Sold," Sharon said impulsively. "When can we pick them up?"
"When is the wedding?" he asked.
Heather answered, "In six weeks."
"Since I had these in stock, I can sell them to you tonight," Jerry said, reaching into a drawer under the counter. "Now, if you ladies will follow me, we can attend to the purchase details."
As they followed him to the back of the store, Mrs. Blankenship suddenly looked up from the tray of necklaces she had been looking at, calling, "Why, Sharon Flowers, whatever are you doing here?"
Sharon gritted her teeth and replied, "What are you doing here? How is Mr. Blankenship and your son, Leo?"
"All well, thank you for asking," she replied, smoothing her beehive and getting up. "I see you and your roommate are looking at wedding rings, did some man finally snare you?"
Gilda tried to redirect her customer. "You asked what lengths the chains came in, ma'am. I'm happy to report that we do have 18 carat gold 24 inch chains in stock, and can add the emerald pendant to one tonight. It will match your bracelet and the earrings."
"Thank you, dear. Now, Sharon, dear, let me see your rings," Mrs. Blankenship said, determinedly pushing forward.
Heather, Sharon, and Jerry all exchanged glances, and Heather shrugged slightly. "No groom, Mrs. Blankenship," she said with a lightness she did not feel. She felt Heather's comforting hand resting on her back, giving her courage. "Heather and I are getting married." She took the boxes from Jerry, opening them for the older woman to see. "Our wedding bands," she announced quietly.
Mrs. Blankenship stared uncomprehending for a moment, then turned beet red as it sank in. "Sharon, do your parents know what you are doing?" she whispered.
"Yes, and Joe and Jill are coming, and Heather's family is coming." Sharon had to stop herself from blurting out more in her irritation.
The silver haired matron kept staring, finally saying huffily, "Well, what is this world coming to? I'm sure your parents are quite embarrassed at your thumbing your nose at God's plan, with your father a minister! What is this world coming to?" She grabbed her fur coat, flouncing out of the store.
The foursome watched her depart, silent until Jerry started laughing. "Maybe she will never come back," he said, shaking his head. "I swear, that woman causes me nothing but trouble, always trying to haggle me down on price for custom settings, when her husband is willing to pay full price." He sighed. "Ah, well, ladies, you bring me luck. Tell your friends to come see Becket's and I'll give them a ten percent discount on wedding rings."
"Really?" Heather gasped.
He smiled. "Yes, really. It is time I expanded my clientele, hey, Gilda?"
"It is," the younger woman replied smoothly. "Mr. Becket, what do you say I make us another round of tea?" she asked, smiling.
"Excellent," he said, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Now, ladies, shall we finish our transaction? I'll throw in a discount for you both, just to show my gratitude." He smiled. "Gilda, if you would bring out some cookies with the tea, I'd be most grateful."
Benjamin sat at the sunny kitchen table at his grandparents' house, busy with his list. "What are you working on?" Mildred asked as she sat down with a small plate of cookies.
"A list of music for Aunt Heather's wedding," he announced, "I have 'Moonlight Sonata','Canon in D', 'Ode to Joy', and 'The Wedding March' for the processional and now need to complete the list for the recessional. Aunt Heather says she has a friend who will sing during the ceremony. I need songs to play for the recessional."
Mildred took a cookie, nibbling it to give her time to think. She and George had been going back and forth about the wedding, whether or not to attend. One the one hand, it was their daughter's wedding, but on the other hand, it was two women getting married. Obviously Tom and Katie had no problem with it, since Benjamin was playing for the wedding.
Benjamin frowned as he wrote another title down. "What is the schedule of a wedding, Grandmother?" he asked.
"It depends on the minister and what the couple wants," Mildred answered, "your parents had a short wedding, but my wedding was longer."
The boy persisted. "What are the parts? I need a schedule to time the music, Grandmother. What is the schedule?"
Mildred eyed another cookie, but decided against it. She wracked her memory for weddings she had attended, finally answering, "Well, there is usually the processional, where all of the attendants come down the aisle, followed by the groom, then the bride. The minister usually greets the people, then the bride and groom recite vows, a prayer is offered, sometimes music, a short sermon, then exchange of the rings and final vows. The minister usually offers a final prayer or blessing, then announces the newly wed couple and gives directions for the reception. So it can be anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour or more. I'm afraid you'll have to ask your aunt for more details."
He thought for a moment, then asked, "Which one is considered the bride?"
"Oh, heavens, I don't know. I think they will both be brides," Mildred answered.
He turned it over in his mind, then decided, "They will come in together if they are both brides. You and Granddad and Aunt Sharon's parents will follow. I will time the music for everyone to march down the aisle."
Before Mildred could say anything, George came in the door, carrying a small sack of items from the hardware store. "What's for dinner tonight?" he asked as he snagged a cookie.
"Hamburgers and potato wedges," she answered, standing up to greet him.
"Cheeseburgers," Benjamin corrected as he carefully detached the sheet from the tablet. "We start with small salads, then have cheeseburgers and potato wedges. We have water to drink, followed by cookies for dessert. After dessert, we watch the basketball game until Mom and Dad come to pick me up. They should arrive by 10:15 tonight, so we can be home before 11:00. It will be past my bedtime, but they said it was okay because it is a Friday night."
"Thanks for the schedule update, Benjamin," George said, smiling. "Mildred, do I need to help you with anything?"
After Tom and Katie had picked up Benjamin, Mildred and George sat at the kitchen table, sipping their evening cup of chamomile tea. Mildred broached the subject that had been uppermost in her mind all evening. "George, are we going to Heather and Sharon's wedding?"
He cradled the mug in his hands, absorbing the warmth of the tea. "I thought we decided that it was against what our church taught," he said slowly, "why, have you changed your mind?"
She sipped her tea, corralling her thoughts. "Well," she finally said tentatively, hHow can we turn our backs on our daughter? Maybe, just maybe, it is better for us to show our love and support than to turn our backs on her."
George sipped his tea, remembering. "True," he said slowly, "and Sharon has been so good to her, and to our family. I'm not sure we'd see as much of Heather as we do if it hadn't been for Sharon insisting." He turned the mug in his hands, then made a decision. "We'll go, Mildred. We owe it to the girls to be there."
Mildred smiled. "I feel we are doing the right thing, George."
He smiled at his wife. "I agree. Let's go to bed now, we'll call the girls in the morning and tell them we'll be there."
Time was flying. Rick Flowers felt the pressure of the impending deadline of his daughter's wedding, and was working on the final arrangements of the vows, rewriting them to make sense for two women instead of a man and a woman. The rehearsal was in a few days, and he promised to meet with the women before the rehearsal for their final approval of the service. He was startled by an unexpected knock on the door. "Rick, can I interrupt?"
Rick looked up, seeing Daniele Hardy, the church administrator standing in the doorway. He motioned for her to enter his office. "Daniele, what can I do for you?" he asked the church administrator.
She sat down uneasily, twisting her fingers together. She took a deep breath, and said, "You know how Leo Blankenship has been coming in at odd times lately? I mean, going back to the music office, even when he doesn't really need to be here?"
"Yes, you've mentioned it," Rick said, puzzled.
"I think I know why," she said, "I went back to the music office to install the new firewall on the computers back there, and noticed that the hard drive on the computer Leo uses was really full. So I took a look, and Rick, I'll never live down this horror. I found hundreds of pornographic pictures. I shut it down and come straight to you."
"Oh, dear God," Rick said, "are you sure it was Leo?"
"Jane uses her own laptop for everything, and Lane and Blythe usually use the other computer, even though it's older, because it has the program for writing music. So it would have to be Leo."
The senior pastor dropped his head in his hands. "I guess we need to call the police, then," he groaned. "I can't believe this."
"I can," Daniele said quietly, "I've had this weird feeling around him lately. I guess the saving grace is that they were not pictures of children."
"Okay, thank you, Daniele," Rick said. She left the office as he picked up the phone to call the police.
A short time later, Detective Rolf Hugo and a small group of crime scene technicians arrived at the church. "Thank you for calling, Reverend Flowers," the tall, lanky detective said as they walked toward the music office, "we've actually had the young man under surveillance lately, having finally traced his user name back to his apartment. He's been quite active in some chat rooms where these types of pictures are traded or sold."
Rick unlocked the music office door. "This way, detective," he said. "Our administrator says that Leo has been using the computer on the left."
"Thank you. Who else uses this office?" Hugo asked as he fished out a small pad and pen.
"Jane Grandy, our youth and children's choir director; Lane Kimball, our adult choir director; Blythe Sweet, our church organist." Rick answered promptly, "but they either use the other computer or their own, according to Ms. Hardy."
"I see. We will need to take the computers into evidence, you understand."
Rick suppressed a sigh, it had been hard enough to get the donations for the computer hardware and special software, how would they replace them while the computers were gone? "Do you have any idea who long it will take to get the computers back?"
Hugo shrugged. "Could be a few days, could be a few months. We'll try to move quickly on this, Reverend Flowers. We do appreciate your cooperation." As he spoke several techs walked into the room. "These computers," he said, indicating the towers.
One of them turned on both computers, asking, "Sir, are there any network logins?"
Rick shrugged. "I'm not sure, but we do have wifi here. You'd be better off asking Ms. Hardy, she set up the network since we can't afford an actual IT staff person."
The woman nodded, watching as the computers booted up. "Good for our case, no login," she said, pulling two external hard drives from her bag. "I'll go ahead and back these up now, I'll check back with you in a few hours," she informed the detective.
Rick sighed wearily. "Thank you, Detective, and please let me know if we can do anything else to assist you."
Hugo stood up before commenting, "Perhaps you should pray for the young man's soul and consult a good public relations firm. There will be fallout. Good day, sir."
"Good day and God bless," Rick said. As soon as the detective left, he picked up the phone. "Daniele, I'm glad I caught you," he said, "we need an emergency board meeting tonight. Can you arrange that?"
Doris Blankenship was in shock. First, police swarmed their house, looking through everything, claiming that their son was dealing in pornography! Second, the news of Leo's arrest was the lead story on the news. Third, the church fired their son, saying that they could not afford to have a suspected pornographer around the children of the church. She stared at the door, waiting for Justin to come home.
Her husband finally arrived home from his business trip the next day, finding Doris in the den, staring at the TV, almost empty wine bottle on the side table, empty glass in her hand. "Doris, I'm home," he announced brusquely. "I've been getting emails since yesterday, what in heaven's name is going on this time?"
She looked up blearily. "Leo was arrested for having a few dirty pictures and fired by the pastor," she said slowly, "I can't believe it, Justin, our boy arrested and on the local news."
Justin sank down on the love seat, looking at his wife with a mixture of disbelief and weariness. "Arrested? What evidence did the police have? Did you call our lawyer?"
"I did call our lawyer, but he said he'd have to find a criminal defense lawyer, he can't help us with this. Justin, the police searched his old room here, and the landlord says they searched his apartment, so I don't know what to think. They wouldn't tell me what they found here, but the crime scene people gave me receipts for everything they took. They even searched my laptop, but I guess since I bought it after Leo left, he never used it. Justin, how will we hold our heads up? And that Reverend Flowers couldn't fire him fast enough, just for being arrested!"
Justin loosened his tie, mind kicking into gear. "Well, Doris, I hate to say it, but I would have fired him too. There's a lot that I'd say wait for the trial, but this is serious. I'm sure Rick and the board felt it was more important to protect the children than to keep a suspected pervert on staff."
Doris stared at her husband, saying a quiet, but angry voice, "He's innocent until proven guilty. The church washed their hands of him without a trial, Justin, they believed that our son is a pervert."
"Look, I just want to go take a shower and unpack. We'll discuss this at dinner, Doris. What do we have here?"
She looked at him blearily, trying to think. "Not much, I was planning to go shopping today, but I couldn't, not with this hanging over our heads," she said.
Justin stood up, picking up his overcoat and briefcase. "I guess I'll call out for something, and then we'll discuss this." He turned to leave, then looked at her sharply√ü. "And you'd better cut back on the wine, I don't need you blabbing all over the place about this."
She waved him off. "Blab, huh?" she muttered as he left. "They hurt my baby." She eyed the empty bottle, wishing it had enough for another glass. Reluctantly, she picked up the empty bottle and glass, weaving her way through the house to the kitchen. "I'll get them," she announced to the kitchen, "they can't hurt my baby like that."
The day of the wedding had finally arrived. Almost everything was going off without a hitch: flowers, food, drinks, decorations, chairs, tables, even the keyboard for Benjamin. Benjamin was rocking from side to side as last minute adjustments were made. He wanted the service to start exactly on the dot, and was eyeing his watch for the countdown. Finally, at promptly 2:50 pm, he started playing the prelude, gratified that the gathered friends and family settled down. It would not be correct if they continued to talk.
At precisely 3:00, he started playing the wedding march. The attendants walked down the aisle side by side, splitting to stand on their respective sides up front, then Heather and Sharon finally came up the aisle hand in hand, beautiful in their off white dresses. Benjamin was pleased, everything was adhering to the schedule so far.
Rick nervously adjusted his stole one more time before taking a deep breath and addressing the guests. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We are gathered here in the sight of God to join these two women in holy matrimony, in the eyes of the state and the eyes of their families. Will you please stand for the opening prayer?"
The service went off without a hitch. The brides managed to get through fine, but Rick had to fight through tears of job toward the end of the ceremony. Joy stood with tears streaming down her face, and Benjamin wondered why everyone was so upset. He almost missed the cue to start playing the recessional music, annoyed that it was several minutes later than scheduled.
"Congratulations!" Joe and Jill trilled together. "I can't believe my sister is finally legally married," Joe added as he hugged and kissed his sister. "I think this is the first time I've seen you in a dress since my wedding."
"Only because I forced her to be a bridesmaid," Jill laughed as she took her turn, hugging her sister-in-law. "You ladies are beautiful," she added, reaching for Heather.
"Thank you," Heather said, blue eyes sparkling with delight. "I never thought this day would come either, but here we are, with both of our families."
"Speaking of families," Sharon said, "here come your parents, Heather."
"Okay, you two, it was a beautiful wedding," Mildred said, "congratulations. Sharon, your father did a wonderful job with the wedding."
"Benjamin was terrific with the music," Sharon added, smiling. "Mildred, George, thank you for coming and supporting us. It means a lot to have you here."
George said gruffly, "Well, we couldn't miss our only daughter's wedding, now could we?" He briefly hugged each woman, then moved on to Rick and Joy. "Good job," he said, shaking Rick's hand.
"Thank you," Rick said, smile splitting his face. "I was more nervous than our daughters, to be honest. At least it wasn't as bad as the first wedding I performed. The poor groom fainted halfway through, and the bride got the hiccups after he recovered."
"Sis, you look great!" Tom said enthusiastically as he hugged his sister and swirled her in a circle. "I'm so happy for you I could burst!"
"Thank, Tom," Heather replied, squeezing her brother hard. "It's great to be able to count on your support."
Katie hugged each woman in turn, adding, "Now we can say, 'welcome to the family' officially, Sharon! Benjamin had talked nonstop about the ceremony for the past week."
The almost eleven year old looked gravely at both women, then tentatively gave each a stiff one-armed hug. "I picked the perfect music," he said, "we started on time, but the ending was off schedule by three minutes." He paused, processing something, finally saying, "I have always called you Aunt Sharon. Since you weren't married before, does that mean I should not have called you aunt? But I can now, since you are married to my Aunt Heather."
Sharon looked at him, making sure she had his full attention before answering, "It's very complicated, Benjamin, but know this, I have always loved Heather, and have been married to her in my heart since before you were born. This ceremony made it legal, but does not mean that I loved her any less before we married."
He cocked his head, thinking. "Like when Dad was late with the car registration?"
"Something like that," Sharon agreed.
"Oh." The boy processed the answer, then announced, "Dad is waiting to see what food you have. I will take him to the buffet table." With that, he took off, not even waiting to see if his father followed.
As afternoon started sliding into evening, Benjamin hooked up his laptop to the speaker system and started the first playlist. He had worked hard with his mother on choosing the best playlist for dancing, although he didn't quite understand why she insisted that the song for Heather and Sharon's first dance be "Secret Love".
"Our song," Heather said to her wife as they glided out to the dance floor. "May I have this dance?"
"For the rest of my life," Sharon answered, grinning. She was so glad that they took dance lessons before the wedding, now they could dance together, taking turns leading, without tripping over each other's feet.
As the song wound down, Rick came on the floor to claim a dance with Sharon. Tom bumped his dad, saying, "You should go dance with Heather. It's Katie's dad danced with her at our wedding."
George looked at his son, then out to the floor at his daughter. "Well, okay," he grumbled, "just this once." He walked over, holding out his hand, asking gruffly, "Will you dance with me, Heather?"
"Gladly, Dad," she said, sliding into his arms. They danced in silence for a verse, then Heather noted, "You dance well, Dad, why didn't I know about this?"
He chuckled, loosening up. "Our church forbids dancing, so you never saw me take your mother out dancing. We danced up a storm before we were married, before I joined the church with her." He gracefully swung her around, guiding with a light touch. "Since you kids have been gone, I do dance with your mother at home, so no busybodies will see us and report back to the membership committee."
"They would do that?" Heather asked, surprised.
"Absolutely. I've seen people kicked out for all sorts of reasons," he answered, "from dancing in public to divorcing, even women who were being beaten by their husbands."
"I had no idea," Heather said, "I hope you don't mind me saying so, but I'm glad I'm not a member there. We'd be kicked out in a heartbeat."
As the song came to an end, he said, "Yes, you and Sharon would be, and we'd be kicked out for not guiding you back to the straight and narrow path. But, for now, I am going to boldly dance with your mother." He kissed her cheek, then went to hunt up his wife.
Rick and Joy took advantage of the music, dancing to a slow song, happy to celebrate with their daughter. "I thought you were about to cry toward the end," Joy teased her husband.
"I almost did," he confessed. "I never thought I'd get to see Sharon marry her true love, but here we are, and she did. There is something so special about being able to perform both of your children's weddings, something sacred." Rick spun Joy around, both laughing, reveling in the moment.
People danced together far into the evening, couples, parents and children, friends, in-laws, and acquaintances. It was a wonder-filled time, almost magical, as people danced for the sheer joy af it. Finally, Benjamin announced, "Last dance of the evening," as the strains of "Some Enchanted Evening" wafted over the loudspeakers. Heather smiled, holding her hand out for Sharon, and the brides danced together by themselves for the last dance. "I love you," they said simultaneously at the end of the song. "Jinx!" Sharon laughed, guiding her wife toward the buffet line as the last notes rang out.
"This is wonderful, my love," Heather said as she picked up a plate. "I'm starving, everyone else has been snacking for hours."
"Yeah, but we'll be the ones who can still zip our clothes in the morning," Sharon laughed. "I can't believe we're finally married!"
"Me neither, sweetheart, me neither." Heather said as she filled her plate. "Let's sit down. I haven't worn heels in ages, so my feet are aching."
"Mine too, love, but you looked radiant," Sharon said, smiling.
"You do too, my love," Heather agreed.
Doris Blankenship was horrified. Her beloved son, Leo, was being held in jail until the trial. Justin was no help, going off on another business trip, refusing to do anything to mitigate the problems. How could she hold her head up? She drank another glass of wine, thinking. The criminal lawyer refused to talk to her, citing attorney-client confidentiality. She tried to see Leo this morning, but he refused to talk to her. Where had they gone wrong?
All she had been able to find out was that the pastor was the one who called the police. "He should have called us first," she said out loud, pouring another glass of wine, "I'm sure there was some sort of mixup. Maybe it was Lane Kimball's stash instead. I never trusted him, he moved back in with his mother when his wife left him." She took a long drink of her wine, anger and embarrassment growing. "None of our friends will return my calls now, and it's all Rick Flowers' fault," she reasoned. "Why, his own daughter flaunts God's word by living a perverted life with another woman."
She finished the glass as a thought struck her; who did the ceremony? A cruel smile crept across her face as she reached for her phone. Doris called her high school friend, Emma, who worked in the county clerk's office. "Emma loves good gossip as much as I do," she muttered. "Emma, darling," Doris said as her friend answered, "I have a question, can anyone find out who officiated at a wedding? Yes? Would you be a dear and look up a recent license for me?"
Several minutes later, Doris smiled as she disconnected. "I'll get you, Rick Flowers," she cackled, "I'll turn your life into a living hell. How dare you accuse my son of perversion. Well, the bishop will soon know that you support perversion in your own family." She hiccuped, reaching for the wine bottle. "Damn, empty," she grumbled. "Better hide it."
Bishop Jeremy Neal sifted through his piles of mail, barely glancing at most of it. Advertisements, cards, reports, the usual stream of paper that crossed his desk. Most of it could be recycled or shredded, but sometimes there were reports he needed to read thoroughly. He went through quickly until he came to a letter that caused him to pause, then reread it carefully.
"Dear Lord," he prayed, "please don't let this be true." But the proof was with the letter: Rick Flowers' bold signature as officiant for a same-sex wedding. "Not Rick," he moaned softly, thinking about his long ago seminary classmate. Rick was one of the most powerful, dynamic speakers he'd ever heard, even as a student. He and Rick had kept a casual friendship for years, but his hands were tied. Article 2702(b) clearly called performing same-sex marriages a chargeable offense, and this was barely at the start of the six year statute of limitations. "Oh, Rick," Jeremy said, "I have to bring charges. I have no wiggle room on this."
The bishop sat for several more minutes, numbed by the revelation. If it had just been an unhappy church member who threw out the accusation, he could probably get doubt thrown on it, but he also knew that Rick, like his father before him, would proudly own up to what he did, and would see it as a just and loving act. "Your daughter," Jeremy said, rereading the license, "you performed your daughter's wedding. Dear God, what will I do?"
Justin came home from his trip, exhausted and apprehensive. He hadn't heard much from Doris, which could mean that she was hiding from the world, drinking heavily, or causing mischief. She hadn't even updated him on their son's situation, which he found ominous.
He steeled himself as he unlocked the back door and walked into the kitchen. "Doris, I'm home," he called out. Silence. Justin wearily dropped his briefcase on the bench by the door, hung up his overcoat, then picked up his suitcase. He slowly walked to the master suite, wondering what he would find.
Doris was sound asleep, dead to the world. Justin sighed, wondering again briefly why he stayed married to her. She had been so beautiful, such a wonderful wife and companion, but she had always been prone to gossip. It just got worse after her wreck several years ago, and sometimes he wondered if her personality change was due to undiagnosed brain damage. He quietly set his suitcase down in the huge closet, then started undressing. Maybe a shower, then bed. He had been cooped up on that plane several hours longer than expected due to delays.
Justin showered, put on clean pajamas, and decided to go catch up on some news before he turned in. He went to his office to boot up his computer when he saw several crumpled pieces of paper near the trash can. Curious, he picked them up and smoothed them out, absently reaching for a pair of readers on the desk. All thought of sleep fled when he read the rough drafts that Doris had printed out, drafts of a letter to the bishop accusing Reverend Flowers of breaking church law. Another letter was addressed to the church finance committee, stating that they would be withdrawing all financial support due to Rick Flowers' sin of performing his daughter's wedding.
"Poor Rick," he murmured as he sank into his chair, "Doris has it in for you now." Why would she go gunning for the pastor? He thought for a few minutes, then realized it was connected to their son's problems. "Doris, you are playing a dangerous game, and now it's up to me to stop it," Justin grumbled. "How could you do this? I like Rick, he stirs the pot, but that's what a good minister does, is keep us from being complacent." Justin sat, slowly swinging back and forth, pondering what he could do. Had she sent the letters already?
Justin started looking around, heart sinking when he saw the stubs tossed into Doris' basket. He picked them up, confirming his worst fears: Doris had sent registered letters to the church and to the bishop.
The shit was truly about to hit the fan.
Daniele Hardy turned pale as she read the letter from Doris Blankenship. "Withdraw all support, financial and otherwise?" she gasped. But the most damning was that Mrs. Blankenship stated she was filing a complaint against Rick with the bishop. Daniele had only been in the job for a couple of years, but she had already heard about ministers being defrocked for this very thing. Why are you making a big deal about this? I've attended several same-sex weddings of my friends from school, she thought, none of them have made my marriage to Ethan any weaker. She picked up the phone and punched in Rick's extension. "Rick, I need to show you something," she said, "and it can't wait."
A few minutes later, Daniele handed the letter to Rick. "I don't know how Justin Blankenship will react, but she is bound and determined to ruin us," Daniele said, running a hand through dark auburn hair. "I knew she would be angry when you fired Leo, but you had no choice, the contract every staff member signs clearly states that they can be fired immediately for these types of offenses. Our counsel agreed to the action, Rick."
"I see," Rick said, laying the letter down and rubbing his eyes. "And it says she has forwarded a formal complaint to Bishop Neal. He's the type that will act, even if he personally believes the church wrong on this stance. He would have made a good lawyer, the way he adheres to the letter of the law. Damn."
She resisted the strong urge to chew her thumbnail as she asked, "How did she know about this?"
"I'm not sure how she got wind, but it's not like Sharon and Heather are closeted. They are wearing wedding rings..." He trailed off, another thought interrupting. "I'll bet she somehow figured it out and got a copy of the marriage license. I signed it, so my name is on public record as having officiated. Well, that sinks any case I could make."
"So why is the church still enforcing this? I mean, it's legal in this state, why can't you perform a legal wedding?" Daniele asked. "That doesn't seem right to me."
"No, it doesn't," Rick agreed, "but I knew the moment that I agreed to perform the wedding that this could happen. Joy and I talked about it before I told Sharon and Heather I'd do their wedding, and agreed that we could live comfortably if I had to take retirement. We had even started looking for a house to lease or buy before the wedding, just in case we had to vacate the parsonage."
Daniele's dark eyes widened. "Gosh, I didn't think about that! This is terrible, and if they really do stop their donations..." Her voice trailed off as she thought furiously. "Before you came two years ago, we asked to not have an associate reappointed to save on one salary, due to a drop in donations. We had hired college students as our choir directors and accompanists so we wouldn't have to pay full time salaries for two directors and one accompanist, and we had to raise the rates for the after school program. Now if we lose you as well, I don't know what we'll do."
"Another senior pastor will be appointed," Rick said dryly, "but probably a younger, cheaper, pastor. Someone with experience, but much younger and cheaper. Look on the bright side, Daniele, it might be what this congregation needs, a newer, fresher approach to ministry."
She snorted. "Right. If there is any silver lining, it will be that we won't have these kinds of letters coming in again."
Rick perked up. "What do you mean, these kinds of letters?"
Daniele replied, "Mrs. Blankenship is always writing and complaining about something, or demanding that we change the way we do things. That's why we put the big lectern and chairs back up front, because she raised such a fuss about the 'indignity of ministers roaming about' while preaching. We had a service for homeless on Sunday mornings, but she rounded up some of her cronies and managed to get that stopped. We'd been offering our gym for an after school program, but she didn't like the neighborhood children here, so we suddenly had visits from the city about permits." Daniele got up, closed the door, and added, "Mrs. Blankenship has done more to drive off the youth than any other member, so this could be a blessing in disguise. Except for losing you, if this comes to trial."
"I see," he said, leaning back in his chair, lacing his fingers across his lean belly. "So, is there any chance we can use this in our favor? Did you save the letters?"
"Yes, I have a special file in my safe with all of her letters, emails, and other written complaints. I also have testimony from those who she has driven away, explaining why they stopped coming."
Rick swung in his chair gently, thinking. Eventually, he said, "I'd like to think that this pattern of behavior could sway a jury of my peers, but I doubt it. I'll still stand accused of breaking church law, and I'm not included to lie and promise not to do it again."
Daniele smiled. "Although it will be really hard if you have to leave, I applaud you, Rick. Someone needs to stand up and say, 'Hey, all should mean all, not just straight, white folks with money.' If Mrs. Blankenship had it her way, you'd have to be a professional with a good salary or inherited money to belong here."
"Thanks for your support," Rick said warmly, "and keep praying. You never know when the Holy Spirit will finally get through at general conference, and we can get this changed."
Daniele rolled her eyes. "About the same time that Mrs. Blankenship puts on sackcloth and ashes and apologizes for the lives she has torn apart," she stated bitterly.
Rick leaned forward, picking the letter back up. "Would you make copies of this, please? And I guess I'd better reread the laws on how church trials are conducted so I'll be ready. Thanks, Daniele."
"You're welcome, Rick," she answered as she picked the letter up. "Maybe we should leak this information to the board, let them know that we are receiving threats."
"Good try. Now I really need to get back to whatever task I was avoiding before you come in," Rick said. Daniele nodded, leaving the office, shutting the door behind her. Rick drummed his fingers for several minutes, then picked up the phone, dialing Joy's number. He might as well tell her now.
Sharon and Heather snuggled as their heart rates slowed back to normal. "Married sex is even better," Heather gasped as she pulled the sheet up over them, "of course, married sex on our honeymoon is the best."
Sharon kissed her wife languidly, then dropped back on the pillow, taking Heather in her arms. "It is," she said happily, "and I'm glad that we were able to afford two weeks in Colorado."
"And we might even get out of the hotel room today," Heather laughed.
"Now, we spent time out yesterday," Sharon chided, "we walked up and down LoDo, and the day before, we went to the Denver Art Museum."
"And today?" Heather asked, snuggling against her wife.
"Okay, so we came back to the room after breakfast and haven't left," Sharon said, "but we will go out to eat tonight. All this exercise is giving me an appetite." Heather waggled her eyebrows, causing Sharon to laugh. "I meant for food, woman," she growled, sliding her hands down Heather's lovely body.
"So how about Garden of the Gods tomorrow?" Heather asked, laying back down.
"Sounds good. We'll check the map, see which makes more sense, Red Rock Amphitheater in the morning or afternoon, and if the two are close enough for one day." She glanced at the clock, adding, "I think this day is pretty well blown. We can do pizza tonight, walk there from our hotel."
"Yummy!" Heather said, bounding out bed. "I'll go shower. I'm starved."
A short time later, they were finally showered, dressed, and out the door, having decided that they would visit the Denver Botanical Gardens instead of driving all the way to the other destinations. "Beautiful," Heather said as they started walking through the gardens, "Absolutely beautiful." Sharon took her camera out of her bag, taking pictures of the flowers as they wandered through the different sections, lost in the variety of plants and settings.
A couple of hours later, they stopped to rest in a gazebo, using Sharon's camera to take selfies for posterity. "Great weather, great day, great companion," Sharon murmured as she showed Heather the shots.
"Yes to all of the above," Heather agreed. "So, pizza next?"
"Sure." Sharon stashed her camera in her bag, reaching for her phone to check the map. "Huh, voice mail from Mom, wonder what's going on?" Sharon asked, tapping the icon and lifting her phone to her ear. She listened intently, turning pale as the message played out.
"What is it?" Heather asked, alarmed.
Sharon pocketed her phone, turning to her wife. "Mom says that Doris Blankenship sent a letter and a of our marriage license to the church and to the bishop, demanding a trial. Since Dad signed it, there's proof that he did our wedding. Damn."
"What does this mean exactly?" Heather asked.
Sharon took her hand. "It means, my love, that Dad has been accused of performing a same-sex marriage, which is one of those chargeable offenses that could ultimately get him suspended, fired, or stripped of his credentials."
Heather's eyes widened. "I know you mentioned the possibility, but we were trying to be so careful."
"Yeah, well, not careful enough," Sharon said bitterly. "Let me call Mom back, see what's going on."
Joy answered her phone just as she pulled into the garage. "Hello," she said, fumbling to put the car in park and turn off the engine. "Oh, Sharon, you didn't have to call back so soon," she said. "Yes, that old biddy went looking for a way to get your dad in trouble, he fired her son after porn was found Leo's computer in the music office. We know it is pure vengeance, but the bishop has to act on the charges. Dear, I just got home, can I call you back in a couple of minutes? Ok, love you."
She tossed her phone in her purse, gathered her belongings, and went inside, dropping everything on the kitchen table. "Rick, are you home?" she called out, walking through the house. No answer. She went back into the kitchen, checking the whiteboard on the refrigerator for messages. Sure enough, a note from Rick saying he had a meeting at the church and would be home late. "Damn," she swore softly.
Joy wandered to the master bedroom, quickly changing into shorts and a t-shirt before dropping on the bed and calling her daughter back. After Sharon answered, Joy explained, "I really didn't want to interrupt your honeymoon, but I thought you needed to know what was going on." She quickly outlined everything that they knew, concluding, "You don't need to cut your trip short, I know you have another several days. But I didn't want you to be blindsided in case it made the news. It's made the local paper already, and there is the predictable hubbub over the whole issue. The congregation is in an uproar, and Doris threatened to pull her contributions. Justin Blankenship, bless his heart, stepped up and said he would still pay their pledge, regardless of what happened."
"This sucks, Mom," Sharon said.
"I know, baby, but Doris remembered seeing you and Heather buying your rings, so she went looking for proof that your father officiated. Frankly, Rick had been trying to find a way to get rid of Leo anyway, he had shown up buzzed several times for rehearsals, and he found an empty liquor bottle in Leo's desk several months ago. It's a mess, dear, but please finish your honeymoon."
"How's Dad holding up?" Sharon asked anxiously.
Joy wiggled her toes, sighing deeply. "He says he's fine, but this is tearing him up. He's angry at Doris, but he's more angry at the church for not having the guts, as he put it, to face the issue head on and listen to the Holy Spirit and stop treating LGBT folks as sub-humans. His exact words." She heard the back door opening and Rick calling out. "That's your dad now. I need to go, but we'll call back later. Love you both."
"Love you too, Mom."
Joy disconnected, laying her phone on the nightstand as Rick entered the room. "Well, the pastor-parish relations committee called a meeting, and they are divided. Half want me gone immediately, the other half wants to file charges against Leo and Doris to kick them out of the church. It's a royal mess, Joy." He dropped heavily on the bed next to her. "Did you get ahold of the girls?"
"Just finished talking to them," she acknowledged.
"So they know what we're up against?" Rick asked, laying back.
"I talked to Jeremy Neal today. As bishop, his hands are pretty much tied. The irony is that if he had been the one to see the wedding, or knew of it, he could charge me with breaking the laws, but then mete out whatever punishment he felt fit, like a short suspension, but I keep my credentials. But since a church member brought forth the charge, and refuses to settle for anything less than my complete professional destruction, his hands are tied. He has to convene a trial, Joy, although he says he agrees that the laws are unfair and antiquated." Rick laid his arm across his eyes, exhausted to the core.
"Your father preached against segregation, how did he handle that?" Joy asked.
Rick answered, "He was lucky in some ways, we were not in the deep south, and the people were a little more willing to hear his message. He received threats, but he truly believed that there was no logical reason for segregation to continue in the church. He also had a fairly young congregation, and some were wondering why their black friends were not welcome to worship with them." Rick sat up. "I sure wish Dad was still alive, I'd talk to him about this. But, like him, I truly believe that I am being led to fight this good fight."
Joy kissed him, holding his face in her hands. "My beloved, I will fight with you," she said, "so who cares what Doris Blankenship says?"
Rich smiled. "I do dearly love you, Joy," he said, placing his hands over hers, "you know this will be rough."
She chuckled. "I knew what I was getting into when I married you, Rick. I'm just lucky that I've been able to work for the same company in different locations for all these years."
"Well, my beloved, I hate to bring this up," Rick said, dropping his hands, "but what do we feel like doing for supper?"
She grinned. "What I feel like is cookies and ice cream, but what I will do is fix a salad."
"It's hard being good," Rick grumbled with a hint of a smile.
It was the first Sunday morning after Sharon and Heather returned from their honeymoon, and Heather was staring out at birds swooping in and out of the birdbath. "Good morning," Sharon said as she stumbled into the kitchen, reaching for her coffee, "you're up early."
"I am, I've been thinking," Heather replied, "that we need to go to church."
Sharon almost dropped her coffee cup in astonishment. "We what?" she spluttered, not sure she heard correctly.
Heather held up a hand. "Hear me out, Sharon, will you do that?" Sharon nodded, sitting down and reaching for an English muffin and the butter. "Your father is putting his professional life on the line for us. It's public knowledge now that he did our wedding, so why not show people what he is fighting for? We're reasonably good-looking, professional women, middle-class, boring. So why not show up and support him?"
"This is the woman who swore not to set foot in a church except for weddings and funerals?" Sharon asked in disbelief.
"I did say that, honey, and there's a lot that I disagree with from both denominations we grew up in, but I say show people that LGBT folks are not evil, but ordinary. We own our home, we pay taxes, we contribute to society. Why not show that?"
Sharon thought about it as she munched her muffin. She swallowed and answered slowly, "I guess we should. Which service?"
Heather smiled. "The 11:00 service, of course. That will give us plenty of time to shower and dress properly."
"Okay, under one condition."
"What's that, Sharon?"
She heaved a long-suffering sigh. "You won't make me wear a dress!"
Heather laughed as she reached for Sharon's hand. "No, beloved, I will not make you wear a dress. Just wear one of your nice suits, and it will be fine. I'll wear a skirt and light sweater, we'll be just an ordinary couple."
"Who just happen to be two women," Sharon finished.
"Exactly. You catch on quickly."
Sharon nodded, reaching for a sausage link. "Viva la revolution!" she cried out.
Rick Flowers looked out at the congregation, quite startled, but pleased, to see his daughter and daughter-in-law toward the front. He smothered a proud smile, pulling his mind back to the service. The last notes of the prelude died out and Rick stepped up to the pulpit, opening his bulletin and calling out, "Will you stand with me for the call to worship as printed in your bulletin?"
He also noticed that Doris and Justin Blankenship were in their accustomed pew, and that Doris was looking daggers at the happy couple. Justin leaned over, whispering sharply in her ear, face set in hard lines. Doris glared at her husband, missing most of the call to worship. "Amen. Now will you turn in your hymnals to our first hymn, 'O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing'."
Rick thought that the service would go on forever, and he was sweating under his robe. He smiled at his family, noting it was finally time to get up and deliver the sermon. He took the wireless mike and transmitter out of the pulpit, slipping the transmitter on his belt as he hiked up his robe, then adjusting the mike over his ear. Give me strength and let me speak your words, he prayed silently.
He walked away from the pulpit, feeling every eye on him. Rick smiled at the congregation, then started off his sermon. "Good morning, church!" he called out. His greeting was echoed, and he forced himself to go on. "You may be wondering why I am in front of you instead of behind the pulpit this morning, " he said. "Well, by the end of the sermon, I may be wondering the same thing."
He saw Sharon nonchalantly slip her arm behind Heather's back, a gesture he saw so many men make every Sunday. He smiled at his daughter and continued. "I'll not beat around the bush. A few weeks ago, Bishop Jeremy Neal received a letter, charging me with breaking church law. I am here to tell you that it is true. Yes, I did joyfully celebrate the marriage of my daughter, Sharon Flowers, to her long time partner, Heather Blackburn. I consider it an honor and privilege to have conducted this ceremony, just as I considered it an honor and privilege to conduct my son Joe's wedding to his lovely wife Jill nearly eight years ago."
He saw Doris Blankenship sitting stiffly, anger written across her face and body. He smiled at her, continuing, "My father faced a similar crisis in his ministry. The youth of his church asked him why they could not invite their friends to church, and he had the sad duty of telling them that it was because the church was segregated, that, frankly, blacks and whites were not to worship together. But they persisted, saying they wanted their friends to worship side by side with them, for Paul had proclaimed that in Christ there was not male or female, no slave nor free, nor any artificial division, just all children of God. My father thought about that, and arranged to have the youth invite their African-American friends to church with them."
He walked slowly from one side to the other, letting that sink in. "Today we are faced with a similar question, why can't we let our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered friends and family worship with us? Why do we draw the line of marriage at only men and women? If two women or two men fall in love and want to join their lives together, who are we to say that God does not bless their union? Why do we say they are children of God, but deny them the most loving and intimate of relationships? I say it is time to throw off the chains of prejudice, and welcome one and all. We should have open hearts, open minds, and open doors for everyone, with no reservations or footnotes."
Rick walked back to the pulpit, picking up the Book of Discipline. "This book says that I am guilty, yet it also tells me that I must minister to everyone, regardless of race, gender, national origin, marital status, and so on. I cannot in good faith withhold ministry from LGBT people, and that includes conducting the rites of marriage. Yet I stand before you, telling you that the Holy Spirt has assured me that I am right, and that Christ came down to tell us to love one another, and did not say only if they are our race, our creed, our economic status, our sexual orientation."
He looked around slowly, seeing a mixture of shock, outrage, and pride on the faces of his congregation. "I invite you to examine your hearts as I have mine, to study God's word, not just a few scattered verses, to decide for yourselves that we can no longer permit this kind of blatant discrimination in our midst. Amen."
Rick deliberately sat down on the first pew, next to Joy, like had had in his last three churches, bypassing the "thrones" behind the pulpit. There was first a shocked silence across the church, then a low buzz of whispers as the lay leader got up to lead the congregation in the final hymn, "Blest Be The Ties That Bind".
The custom was that Rick stood at the back of the sanctuary after the service to meet and greet people as they streamed out. During the last verse, he walked slowly up the center aisle, accompanied by Joy. There was a sudden commotion as Sharon and Heather scooted out of their pew and joined them in their journey. The last note was sung as the ushers opened the doors, with Rick and his family taking their places just outside the door in the narthex.
"Thank you for coming," Rick said, eyes shining with pride, "we appreciate it so much."
Heather said, "You are sacrificing so much for us, Rick, we had to come support you." Sharon nodded, swallowing hard. "Good sermon."
"Thanks," he said as the first members reached him.
The next half hour or so was almost unreal. Some people hugged Rick and proclaimed their support, others castigated him for supporting unnatural relationships, and others said they were honestly torn as to what to believe. Others quietly thanked him for firing Leo Blankenship, saying they had seen him buzzed in performances or around the church.
The last people in line were Justin and Doris Blankenship. "Peace be with you," he offered as they drew close.
Justin glared at his wife, who glared back. "Reverend Flowers," Justin said, "despite what Doris has done, I support you. If she wants to leave this church, fine, but I'll still support it and you. I've been telling her for the past year that our son was in trouble, but she refused to believe me."
Doris muttered, "I still say someone planted those pictures."
Justin spat back, "Oh, yeah? So someone planted porn on the church computer, on his computer at his apartment, on your computer he uses at home, and the stash of hard core magazines in his bedroom? Not likely, Doris, not likely at all." He turned back to Rick. "Is there any way we can make this charge go away?"
Rick shook his head. "No, sir, but I appreciate you asking. When Mrs. Blankenship sent the copy of Sharon and Heather's marriage certificate with my signature on it to the bishop, that constituted enough proof to seal my doom. I'm just waiting now, a trial starts in the next few weeks."
"Good thing," Doris muttered.
Justin clenched his jaw, hissing, "Back down, woman, don't make this any worse than it already is." He turned to Sharon and Heather, offering his hand. "Congratulations, ladies, and may you have a better marriage than I do." He shook their hands, then turned to his wife, taking her elbow. "Let's get out of here, Doris, you've caused enough trouble."
"Well," Joy said, "that was a surprise." She looked around, seeing that the ushers were finishing gathering the stray bulletins and attendance pads. "Girls, did you want to come to the house and eat lunch with us?"
"We'd be happy to, Mom," Sharon said. She took Heather's hand, adding, "We'll see you there in a little while, I want to go change into play clothes."
Joy laughed, leaning over to kiss her daughter's cheek. "Some things never change," she said. "We'll see you in about an hour, then." She kissed Heather's cheek, then turned back to her husband. "Let's go get ready, Rick."
Justin Blankenship was very upset. He had just gotten off the phone with Bishop Neal, finding out that only Doris could withdraw the complaint, and she was determined not to. "But she's doing this deliberately, to punish Rick for firing our son," he told the bishop, "and frankly, Leo needed to be arrested. I never told my wife about catching him with girlie magazines when he was in high school, or that I managed to get a DUI mitigated. Doesn't that count for anything?"
But the bishop was firm. "Sir, it doesn't even matter that Rick and I were in seminary together, or that we've been friends for nearly 40 years, I still have to proceed. Your wife refuses to budge, or I would have options. I'm very sorry for your situation, but I have to follow the law, or I'll be in trouble."
Justin was now reviewing his options for his life. He had put up with Doris's petty ways for years, ever since that bad wreck. Maybe he should have insisted that she go to more specialists, or go to AA when he caught her lying about her drinking. He used to drink socially, a glass of wine with dinner, but had quit completely when he had a bout with gallstones. He had begged her to stop drinking as well, but Doris always said, "I'm not drinking too much, just a glass of wine now and then."
He looked at the memo from his attorney, outlining his options. If he started divorce proceedings, he knew that Doris would be vicious and find a lowlife lawyer who would try to take him to the cleaners. Thank God he never had affairs, and screwed around on this business partners. His finances were meticulous, his records current, even his vaccinations and flu shots current! It would cost him a pretty penny if he wanted to go through with a divorce, but his attorney assured him that he would come out fine in the long run.
Would the threat of divorce stop Doris?
Justin stuffed his papers in his briefcase, shut down his laptop, shoved it in his briefcase, and looked around. Everything was neat and orderly, just like he liked it. His long time secretary, Susan, would be pleased when she came back from vacation that he had not messed up her filing system. Justin allowed himself a brief smile, what would he do without Susan? "Time to go home," he said to the empty office.
"I'm home," he announced as he walked into the house.
"Oh, there you are, you are late, and we have reservations to eat with the Waltons," Doris said, meeting him in the living room, still fastening her bracelets. "I still can't believe that sermon Rick preached the other day. Imagine, wanting more perverts in the church."
Justin stared at her, incredulous. "More perverts? You mean, other than our son?"
Doris glared at him. "That was a mistake," she snapped.
Justin dropped his bag and suit coat on the couch. "Right, a mistake. Doris, I have been catching Leo with alcohol, drugs, and smut since he was in high school. We should have been harder on him, made him go to counseling. For that matter, maybe we should go to counseling, see if we can figure out what to do about your drinking and destructive streak. Your gossip is hurting people, and you need to stop it now. Go withdraw the complaint against Rick before you cost him his career."
She waved a hand, dismissing his concerns. "I don't care if it is legal, those two women are making a mockery of God's word."
"And you're not? What part of being without sin before casting stones do you not get?" Justin asked angrily. "What part of love your neighbor, or taking the beam out of your own damned eye have you forgotten?"
"Get ready, dear, the Waltons are important people, and can help us win more business," Doris huffed.
Justin stared at her. "I can't believe how hard you are. I loved you at one time, but you've become this bitter woman who delights in destroying people. I've had enough. Doris, I want a divorce."
Doris opened her mouth to say something, but stopped. She gaped at him for an eternity, the words sinking in. "Divorce?" she repeated hoarsely.
"Yes. I want a divorce. No argument. No sneaky attacks. I'll be generous, leave you this house, your car, your things, give you half of my money, set up a fund, whatever, I just want my peace." Justin snatched up his briefcase and coat, heading for the bedroom.
"But what about tonight?" she asked anxiously.
"Go if you want to, I'll be packing. And if you dare change the locks or do anything to my clothes and my stuff, you'll get absolutely nothing," he snarled. "I've just had enough of you. I've had enough of Leo, too. I'm packing a bag and going to a hotel overnight, and going to text my lawyer so he'll have the papers ready in the morning." As he spoke, he stomped off to the master bedroom, grabbing an overnight bag and packing enough clothes and toiletries for a few days.
Doris stared after him, shocked beyond belief. "Justin-" she started to say.
He zipped his duffle bag, hoisting it over his shoulder. "No. Just let me have some peace, Doris. Remember - I'll be generous if you don't fight me." He walked out, leaving her collapsed in a heap of bewilderment.
Sharon held Heather in her arms on the couch, just enjoying the warmth of her beloved wife in her arms. She still sometimes was amazed that they had made it through all the odds, through their initial ups and downs. She smiled, thinking about their first date, which neither realized was a date at the time. They had gone to see a movie, and sat very close the entire time, hands colliding in the popcorn bag. One date led to another, and they finally kissed out of curiosity for the first time in Heather's apartment. When they both landed jobs in Heather's home town, they moved together, eventually buying a house together.
The time they'd spent here was much longer than anywhere Sharon had spent growing up, as a minister, Rick had been moved every few years. It put a strain on the young couple at one point because Sharon, who had started working freelance, wanted to move about, but Heather, who had lived in the same house her entire life until college, was content to stay in one place. They had compromised by taking vacations out of state when they could afford the airfare and the time.
"What are you thinking about?" Heather asked, "You are uncharacteristically quiet."
"You. Us. Our life together," Sharon replied, squeezing her beloved. "How happy I am with you."
"I am happy with you, too, Sharon," Heather replied, smiling. The smile faded as she asked, "Have you heard anything else from your parents lately?"
"Yes, Dad says that because some of the bishops in this area are such hardliners, there will be a trial. The details are being worked out, but a panel was convened to consider the charge and the evidence, and the matter is being referred to the next level. This is all happening at lightning speed, even though Dad says Bishop Neal isn't crazy about pursuing it, and Justin Blankenship tried to get his wife to withdraw the charges."
Heather thought a moment, sitting up so she could turn and face Sharon. "What happens from here?"
"There are more committee hearings, and eventually a trial may commence. At this point, Dad can be suspended pending trial, and the committee keeps on doing investigations and such. If it goes to trial, a panel or jury gets picked, and so on. Similar to civil courts." Sharon rubbed her chin, still thinking. "This could take anywhere from six months to a year, I think."
"So there's hope?" Heather asked.
Sharon rolled her eyes. "This conference is pretty conservative, so I doubt Dad will get a fair shake. The best thing that could happen is that Doris withdraws her complaint, although I don't see that happening. She seems to be convinced that Dad set Leo up on the pornography charges, but it was the church administrator, Daniele, who discovered the stash initially. There's a pretty big uproar going on."
Heather thought a moment, then commented, "I feel bad for your parents. All we wanted was to get married, and to live like ordinary people. I feel like we pushed him into this, and it's our fault that he's in this mess."
Sharon kissed her briefly, stroking the side of her face. "No, Heather, if it was anyone's fault, it was mine, I asked Dad to do the ceremony, but then thought about it and said he didn't have to. Dad and Mom decided together to do this, knowing full well that he could be tried for this so called crime." She chewed her lip for a few seconds, then asked, "Do we want to continue to go to Dad's church, show our support?"
Heather played with Sharon's fingers, thinking. "Well," she finally answered slowly, "I guess we really should. I left my parents' church years ago because I couldn't stand their attitude about women, refusing to let women be leaders, or to even teach Sunday School. My brother did the same thing, after he and Katie married, and they wound up going to a more liberal church. I can't imagine what it would have been like, trying to raise Benjamin in that atmosphere."
"True," Sharon said. "Well, I'm pretty tired, I think I'll head to bed."
"I'll be there as soon as I shut down the house," Heather replied. "Love you."
"Love you too," Sharon replied with a grin.
Bishop Jeremy Neal met with the Committee on Investigation to go over the charge and hopefully get everything settled before a trial commenced. He shook hands all around, then opened the meeting with a prayer. They had called both Doris Blankenship and Rick Flowers to the meeting, as per the laws, but only Reverend Flowers showed up. Mrs. Blankenship merely sent in a written statement accusing Flowers of performing same-sex marriage, and included a another copy of the signed marriage certificate.
The committee considered the evidence and put forth the question to the accused, "Did you perform an illegal same-sex marriage?"
Rick proudly answered, "I did." He, Joy, and several church members had discussed this point for days, and finally decided that no matter what the consequences, Rick would tell the truth. "What father would pass up the chance to preside over his daughter's wedding?" he asked.
Jeremy groaned internally, he had almost hoped that Rick would not be so forthcoming. He asked, "You did this, despite knowing the penalties involved?"
Rick nodded. "I did, Bishop Neal, for I consider this prohibition to be illogical and unchristian. If I had said no, I would be discriminating, for I was able to perform my son's wedding and no one said anything about that. So why should I have to discriminate between my son and my daughter?"
"Because this is a chargeable event," one of the members said, "and you have admitted your guilt."
"Admitted that I did this, yes, but I do not feel guilty. That prohibition should no longer apply, much as the military decided that the prohibitions should not apply. Are we to be behind the military in our social ministry?" Rick asked.
"But you admit that you performed the ceremony, in violation of Article 2702(b)," another minister said.
The arguments went back and forth until Rick finally asked, "So where is my accuser? Don't I have the right to face my accuser?"
Bishop Neal answered, "Yes, but unlike the secular courts, we cannot compel people to attend, we can only send summons. Mrs. Blankenship sent her written testimony, which has already been read into the record."
"I see," Rick said, frustrated, "and I have submitted testimony that I believe she is doing this solely because I fired her son for good cause."
"Where is her son?" one of the ministers asked.
"In jail. His criminal trial starts next week; he is facing charges of buying and selling pornography, and for buying and selling various illegal drugs." Rick crossed his arms defiantly.
"Still, you swore to uphold all of the laws of the church, and you broke this one."
"Yes, and I believe that Jesus would be stunned as to why we feel so free to discriminate against our LBGT members, family members, and friends," Rick retorted.
After more spirited debate, the committee closed their meeting for the day. "You will hear from us soon," Bishop Neal promised.
Time marched on as Rick and Joy awaited the outcome of the committee investigation, and Rick dealt with a congregation that was splintering from the pressure. Several families left, some without a word, others plainly stating that they could not support Rick's stance on same-sex marriage.
The trial was set for fall. Sharon and Heather were attending church regularly to show their support for Rick, and in doing so, inadvertently set off additional waves within the church. They tried to find a class to attend as well, but were politely rebuffed from several until they found The Misfits. The Misfits was a collection of people who did not feel at home in any other classes, and followed no set curriculum, but instead discussed a hodgepodge of topics ranging from current events to the role of art in worship. Ages ranged from college to retirees, married and single, different backgrounds, different faith traditions.
Sharon and Heather finally found their home within the church.
"How is the trial going?" Sharon was asked one morning as she and Heather sat down.
"Not well," she replied, "the evidence is stacked against Dad, even though he keeps insisting that since same-sex marriage is legal, he should be able to minister to gays and lesbians by performing the marriages. In fact, he helped celebrate the marriage of two of our friends yesterday. James and Greg have been together almost as long as Heather and I have, and were delighted to finally get hitched legally."
"That's great," said Renee Harper, a local family lawyer. "So how has this affected our congregation?"
"You know, it was pretty bad for a while, we lost some members, but in the past few weeks, we've started actually gaining members. The more publicity Dad gets, the more who are flocking to hear him preach. Heather and I noticed last Sunday that there's a growing number of LGBT people attending, and being open about who they are. But the administrative board is split, with some wanting Dad to resign to protect the church, and others wanting Dad to keep fighting. It's a pretty tense time right now."
Heather added, "I've had people at work asking about this, and Sharon actually lost some business for a little while, but now she has more referrals than we know what to do with. My company has always been fairly left of center, and this has actually benefited me. HR asked me to head up an employee LGBT group, and we've had people coming out of the closet right and left. It's nerve-wracking, because I've never been the type to be really out, but it's affirming at the same time."
Renee nodded. "That happens sometimes. I've noticed a surge in business with newly married same-sex couples looking for estate planning, which has been great. They find out that I'm a member of this church, and assume I'm safe to talk to."
Larry Diller, owner of a computer repair shop, asked, "Has anyone heard what is going on in the Blankenship divorce?"
Renee answered, "I can only talk about what has come out in open court, but it seems that Justin was willing to be very generous with Doris as long as she didn't fight it. But she's fighting tooth and nail, and he's fighting back. Meanwhile, Leo was convicted of a multitude of charges, and has been sentenced to jail and probation after that."
Jan Newman, the nominal class leader, rapped her pencil lightly on the table. "Class, I hate to disrupt this fascinating discussion, but are we ready to begin?"
"Sure, sorry," Renee said.
"Let us open in prayer," Jan said.
Doris Blankenship waited nervously at the jail for her turn to go see Leo. My poor baby, she thought, stuck in this horrid place. Her thoughts were interrupted by a guard calling her name. She quickly rose and followed him to the visitation room, sitting down and staring at the phone and plexiglass.
Leo came in a few minutes later, slumping down in the chair opposite. He picked up the receiver, greeting her in a dull voice. "Hey, Mom," he said, "it seems I screwed up."
"I'm working on finding you a lawyer for an appeal," she rushed to say, "I'll do what I can to get you out of this terrible place."
Leo laughed dully. "No, they didn't make any mistakes, Mom, I'm a loser."
"What do you mean?" Doris asked suspiciously.
"I mean that the cops got it right. That was my stash of porn at the church and at my apartment. I've been dealing drugs, drinking heavily, everything they accused me of, Mom." He shrugged. "No big deal."
Thunderstruck, she blurted out, "Why? What did we do wrong, Leo?"
He picked at a hangnail, not meeting her eyes. "I don't know, Mom, it started out as curiosity in middle school, to see what naked women looked like." He chewed a thumbnail for a few seconds, continuing, "I wanted to major in music, see how far I could go, but you and Dad insisted that I major in business and minor in music. I wasn't happy, and it just snowballed."
"But you played for the church choirs, wasn't that enough music for you?" Doris asked, bewildered.
"Let's change the subject, how's Dad? He hasn't come to see me lately," Leo commented.
Doris forced herself to say, "He's divorcing me, Leo."
Her son nodded. "I'm not surprised, neither one of you has seemed happy for years, and you're always ragging on him about something, just like you did me. What happened to make Dad blow up?"
She looked away, embarrassed, whispering, "I turned Rick in for performing his daughter's wedding, and would not withdraw the complaint. Your father begged and threatened, but I thought I was doing the right thing."
Leo's eyes widened. "Oh, Mom, you didn't!"
"He hurt you!" she exclaimed harshly. "What was I to do? I found out that he performed that wedding for his perverted daughter, and I had to turn him in!"
Leo looked at her oddly, chewing his nail again, then forcing himself to stop. "Mom, Rick's a good man. He's been here to visit several times, asking how I'm doing. You know, the whole visit in jail stuff from the Bible? I can't believe you did that, Mom."
"I thought it was the right thing," she said faintly.
He snorted. "Yeah, you just overreacted and lashed out at him. Hey, I screwed up, and I'd been practically flaunting my addictions, kind of screaming for help, but you and Dad were too wrapped up in your worlds to hear me. Well, I'm paying for it now, but at least there's group therapy that I'm going to now."
"Time's up," the guard announced, looking at his watch.
"Bye, Mom, I love you. Give my love to Dad, and don't be so hard on him," Leo said abruptly before he hung up. He stood and walked out, leaving her holding on to the receiver, stunned.
Doris slowly replaced the receiver and walked out of the prison. She drove home, her mind in turmoil. Rick, visiting Leo and trying to help, even after firing him? Even after she turned in the complaint? She mulled it all over as she pulled into the garage.
The garage leading into an empty house, that is. Doris walked through slowly, setting her purse and keys on the kitchen table, not bothering to take them to the bedroom like she usually did. Justin had made good on his threat to move out, and had taken his share of their belongings. She sank down on the couch in the living room, kicking off her shoes.
She brooded a long time, thinking about what her son had said. "But Rick didn't have to fire Leo," she tried to convince herself, "and Justin didn't have to divorce me." She sighed, standing up to go hunt for a bottle of wine and a glass, but deciding against it for once. "I'm drinking too much," she confessed to the half-empty house, "and I've ruined my life. I wish I had my husband back, had my son back." She walked around aimlessly, finally losing the battle to avoid the bottle. "Just a glass or two," she said, pouring the rich red liquid into the glass. "Just a glass to settle my nerves."
The trial started with the reading of the charges against Rick. "Richard James Flowers, you are accused of violating Article 2702(b) by performing the same-sex marriage of your daughter, Sharon Joan Flowers, to her wife, Heather Lee Blackburn. How do you plead to this charge?"
Rick stood up and said proudly, "Not guilty."
"Then let us proceed," the presiding officer said.
The trial was fairly short; evidence was entered in the form of the signed marriage certificate. The prosecution was short, ending with the question, "Why did you perform this marriage? Why did you break covenant with the church?"
Rick answered gravely, "I do not believe that I broke covenant with the church, rather, it broke covenant with my daughter and her wife. Our denomination has failed to show lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgendered people that they are beloved children of God. If I cannot fully minister to this population, then who is failing, the church that wants me to discriminate, or me, who wants to show them God's unfailing love? If the rules are putting a barrier between God's love and his children, then it is our duty to break these rules, and to repeal these rules, not to prosecute those, like me, who are ministering to all, and saying from the heart, 'All are welcome here.'"
"No further questions," the prosecutor said.
The presiding officer asked, "Are you ready for the defense?"
"Yes," said Rick, who chose to represent himself. "Ladies and gentlemen, we pride ourselves on our open table policy. All are welcome to God's table, we say every time we celebrate holy communion. If this is true, then why do we draw artificial lines? Jesus himself disregarded social status, eating with whomever he pleased, telling those who would punish others to examine their own sins, and to only cast stones when they were without sin. Well, I believe that this trial is akin to casting stones. My daughter is just as important as my son, and deserves the blessing of her church in her marriage, just like her brother deserved the blessing of the church in his marriage. Christ came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and said that Kingdom was in us all. He didn't say it was only the ones who followed the law to the last letter, but for all. I am a minister, and I am doing my best to minister to my congregation, but if you cut me off on this, then I am no longer able to fully minister to all. This church must change or die."
The jury looked uneasy as the presiding officer said, "Is that all?"
"Yes." Rick sat back down, waiting defiantly.
"Then it is up to the jury to deliberate and bring back the verdict. This trial stands adjourned."
"We tried," Joy said, taking Rick's hand.
"We did," Rick agreed.
The deliberations went on for hours, then the jury finally came out. Rick and Joy stood, holding hands, as the foreman handed the verdict to the presiding officer. "Richard James Flowers, the jury finds you guilty of breaking church law by performing a same-sex marriage, as prohibited by Article 2702(b) of the Discipline. However, if you will admit your guilt and swear never to break the Discipline again, the verdict will be set aside."
Rick took a deep breath and said, "I thank you for the offer, but I must refuse. The Holy Spirit has led me down this path, and I must continue on it."
"Then the jury will deliberate on the penalty. We will reconvine in the morning at 9:00 am."
Heather took the day off so she and Sharon could go for the sentencing testimony. On the drive up, they talked about the trial so far. "Dad says it was open and shut from the start, and that the jury had already made up its mind that he was guilty. Now the real question is the penalty phase."
"So what are the options?" Heather asked, deftly merging on the highway.
"Anything from a short suspension to having his credential stripped. Heather, it doesn't look good, but he and Mom have been planning for this since he decided to marry us. Unless they strip him of his pension, which is rare, they would do okay, but they'd need to move. Mom says she has a friend quietly looking for a place for them to buy, since they are pretty sure that he'll lose his church one way of the other."
"I agree, but it would be nice to know that they were staying put instead of moving every few years. When Joe and I were kids, we moved an average of every three years, so we went to about five different schools, and moved just before our senior year of high school." Sharon smiled. "That turned out to be a good thing, though, since Joe and Jill met that year. He stayed there for college because of Jill, and I moved here for college and met you. It all works out in the end."
Heather thought for a moment, then asked, "Was it difficult to move so much? Our only move was to the house my parents are in now. Dad rented a small house until I was five, then he was able to buy this one. That would have made Tom six, he is thirteen months older than I am."
"It's all I ever knew, so it didn't seem that hard." Sharon glanced at her map. "We'll get off in another couple of miles."
"Thanks, babe. You know, we never talked much about why we both drifted from church. Once I fell in love with you, it just didn't feel right going, since the church I grew up in didn't even think women should work outside the home. Did you know that in the early years, Mom and Dad thought that you kept me from finding a husband?"
Sharon groaned. "Yeah, I got that feeling, and they kept denying our relationship. So why did Tom and Katie change?"
Heather signaled a lane change, then answered, "They did go to my parents' church for a while after they married and found jobs here, but Katie had grown up in a more liberal church, and felt uncomfortable. Plus, there were several older ladies who kept hassling Katie about working, so they just quit going. Good think, I can imagine how it would have been with Benjamin."
"He struggles enough with the church they found, and it's pretty accepting of people with disabilities and other conditions," Sharon mused. "This is our exit."
Heather followed the exit. "One block or two?"
"Two, then turn under the highway and follow the street until you run into the end. About six blocks, it looks like. Five story office building, has a sign out front, Mom said. We can park in the back lot." Sharon fell quiet, allowing Heather to concentrate on her driving. Are Mom and Dad scared? I'm scared for them, this is all Dad has ever known, is being a minister. What will he do? Mom still has a good job, but what can Dad do? she wondered.
They arrived, pulling into a spot. "Well, this is it," Heather said nervously.
"Yes." Sharon took Heather's hand, squeezing it. "Thank you for coming with me today, Heather, it means a lot. You're okay with me testifying about us today?"
"I am," Heather replied, kissing Sharon's hand, "I'm even willing to get up and testify if Rick needs me to."
"I love you, Heather Blackburn. I'm sure glad you married me," Sharon said, voice husky with emotion. Heather smiled at her wife, then let go of her hand. "Okay, beloved, let's go find out where we need to be." Sharon glanced over a few cars. "I think Mom and Dad just arrived." They got out of the car, walking over to the Flowers, exchanging hugs.
"Thank you for coming," Rick said as he stepped back, "I really appreciate this. How can anyone look at you two and say I was wrong?"
"Oh, I'm sure they'll say that we're deviant and more," Sharon said, "it's just a matter of if the jury can look past their ingrained prejudices and accept that the world is changing before their eyes. So, are you prepared for whatever is decided?"
Joy spoke up. "Yes, we are. No matter what the outcome today, we will move into our own house, we found one and put in an offer this morning."
"Fast workers," Heather said, "so when did you meet with your agent?"
Joy smiled. "The wonder of email, the internet, and electronic documents, dear. We toured the house this weekend, and our realtor put in the bid this morning after we called her. We signed preliminary documents and uploaded them this morning before we drove over here."
"That's exciting, Mom," Sharon said, "whereabouts is this house?"
"A few blocks from Joe and Jill's house," she answered, "not that we were deliberately looking in the area, it just came up. It will also come in handy."
"Handy?" Heather asked, puzzled.
Rick grinned. "Yes, handy, for Joe and Jill are finally becoming parents. We'll be grandparents!"
"You mean my brother has finally spawned?" Sharon asked incredulously, "I thought they'd given up on having children."
"It is a miracle," Rick said, "and we thank God for it. So let's go in and face the judge and jury, shall we?"
The family entered together, sitting together in the large room where the trial was being held. They were surprised to see Justin and Doris Blankenship sitting in there, carefully sitting a chair apart. They also saw several other members, some supportive, some strongly opposed, as well as the biggest surprise, George and Mildred Blackburn. Heather wondered what her parents were doing there, but didn't have a chance to ask before the proceedings were called to order.
The presiding officer rapped his gavel lightly, calling for order. "We will hear first from witnesses in support of the prosecution, then witnesses in support of the defense." He slid his reading glasses on his face, looking at the witness list, calling out the order."
Rick wasn't too surprised by the first several witnesses, they were all members who were claimed that he was ripping the church apart, and that he should be stopped. "Reverend Flowers," concluded the last witness, Avery Wilson, "you should be ashamed of yourself for bringing all this on our heads. Man was not made to lie with man, nor woman with woman, the parts just don't fit."
The only surprise so far was that Doris Blankenship's name was not called, nor did she volunteer to testify. Joy risked a glance at the older woman, noting how pale she was, how she seemed to be shrinking in on herself. For the first time, Joy felt a little sorry for the woman. After all, her son had been convicted and sentenced, even though it was a light sentence and he would do a mix of community service and probation after he served his time. She dragged her attention back to the proceedings as Sharon was called to the stand.
"My name is Sharon Flowers, and I am the daughter of Richard and Joy Flowers," she said firmly, "and I will tell you the truth you do not like to hear. The church's bifurcated approach to gays and lesbians drove me away from all organized religion. From the day that I fell in love with Heather, my beloved wife, to the day that we married I studiously stayed away from church. Why should I go somewhere that said I wasn't deserving of happiness, didn't deserve the blessings of the most intimate relationship that two people can have?"
She looked around the room, letting her gaze settle on each juror long enough to make them uncomfortable, then finally spoke again. "We fear those who are different, and want to push them out of our social circles. We fear those who do not conform to society's demands, those who march, walk, or skip to the beat of a completely different drummer."
She pulled out a thick file from her messager bag. "This file represents letters I have received over the years from the families I work with, working with children and teenagers who are somewhere on the Asberger's or autistic scale. They don't care if I am white, black, gay, straight, religious, agnostic, or have three eyes, all they care about is that I can help their sons and daughters understand our world, and how they can live it in with minimum discomfort. If these people don't care about who I chose to spend my life with, and don't think that I will mysteriously turn their children gay, then why should you care who I share my life with, and why do you have the misguided idea that somehow I can turn your children gay?"
"Thank you," the presiding officer said."Next."
One after another stood and spoke, either about how Rick ministered to them or their families, or how being shunned for being gay had affected them. Mildred Blackburn got up to speak, much to Heather's surprise. "I am Mildred Blackburn, and my daughter, Heather, is married to Sharon," she stated. "I am here to support Rick Flowers, and to tell you how my own denial and prejudice nearly made me lose my daughter, and how my church has shunned me for deciding that accept and love my daughter as God has made her."
A hush descended as Mildred spoke. "My husband, George, and I have not had our marriage hurt or threatened by Heather and Sharon's relationship. Sadly, we denied that Heather and Sharon had a deeply committed relationship, explaining that they were friends or roommates, despite Heather's courageous admission years ago that she was a lesbian, and deeply in love with Sharon."
Mildred looked directly at Heather, adding softly, "After we attended their wedding, it was as if the scales finally fell completely from our eyes. We started questioning everything we had been taught about homosexuals, and homosexuality. We knew now that our daughter and her wife were not depraved, that they were perfectly ordinary people who were in love, and committed to building a life together, vowing to be together for the rest of their lives, just as George and I had vowed so many years ago."
She took a deep breath before continuing, "As I said, we started questioning, and spoke to our pastor. He cut us off, saying that if we did not denounce our daughter as an evil sinner, then we were sinners ourselves. No matter what we tried to ask, what we tried to say, he refused to listen, and at the end of the meeting, told us that our membership would be revoked for our sins. Suddenly, we are without a church home, for the first time in our lives. We know what it is like to be dismissed, what it is like to be hated for simply wanting to love someone as they are. I refuse to stop loving my daughter or my daughter-in-law for who they are, and thank God that they found each other."
Mildred clasped her hands tightly as she finished. "So I ask you, not to condemn Pastor Flowers, but to praise him for understanding, for accepting all in a Christlike manner, for his belief that Christ died for us all, not for a chosen few. As for George and me, we will attend any church that Pastor Flowers preaches at, and will thank God for finally opening our eyes." She rose and walked back to her seat, pausing to hug Heather and Sharon on the way.
"Is there anyone else who wishes to speak?"
Suddenly, Doris Blankenship stood up and wobbled to the witness chair. "I have something to say," she said in a soft voice, "and an apology to make. I was the one who started this whole mess, because I could not see that it was a blessing in disguise that Rick fired my son. All I could see was how Leo was wronged, and I was angry and wanted revenge. I remembered running into Rick's daughter at a jewelry shop, and that she was looking at wedding rings with her girlfriend. I did the wrong thing, I called a friend who works in county records, bought a copy of the marriage certificate, and turned it in with a complaint that Rick Flowers had broken church law by performing his daughter's wedding."
Doris stopped a moment, wiping her eyes quickly, clearing her throat several times before continuing. "My rash actions, plus my own sins, tore my marriage apart. I could not see that I was the one with the log of alcoholism in my eyes, whereas Rick's speck was just loving his daughter so much that he wanted to be the one to marry her. I could not see that I had driven a stake into a marriage that was limping along. I could not see that I was like the priests who slavishly followed the letter of the law, but none of the spirit. I could not see that I was a sinner, and not a good Christian at all."
She stopped again, swallowing. When she could speak again, she said, "I need to ask the forgiveness of Rick and Joy Flowers, Sharon and Heather, and of my husband, Justin. I beg you to not punish this man for being a better Christian than any of us. I beg you to allow me to withdraw all charges. Thank you."
"If there are no other witnesses, the jury will adjourn to consider the penalty." The officer baned the gavel lightly on the desk, as the jurors stood and processed out of the room.
The room slowly emptied out, with small groups drifting away. Rick had been told that he would get a text when it was time to return to the courtroom, and that he was free until then. "Well, let's go get some lunch," Rick finally suggested as the two couples left the building.
Several hours later, they were summoned to return; a penalty had been assessed. They filed back into the room, the jurors already seated. "Have you come to a fair and just penalty?" the presiding officer asked.
"We have, your honor," the foreman said. He stood and read, "We, the jury, have prayed and deliberated, and have chosen what we consider a just and fair penalty for breaking the church laws against performing same-sex marriages. Despite the wonderful testimonies presented, the fact of the matter remains that you willfully broke church law. Therefore, we sentence you to a thirty day suspension if you promise never to do this again."
Rick stood to deliver his answer. "I cannot promise never again to minister to the LGBT people who need the church's blessing. I cannot uphold this unfair, unchristian law. I was told that I also had the option of retiring, is this still true?"
"The offer still stands," the prosecutor confirmed.
"Then I choose to retire, effective immediately." Rick bowed his head, a weight lifted from him.
"Court stands dismissed. Reverend Flowers, the conference will be in touch with you with your retirement papers. Case closed."
Word spread like wildfire about the trial and the outcome. Fortunately, Rick and Joy's offer was accepted, so they made plans to move in temporarily with Sharon and Heather, store their household, and wait to move into their new house. The church erupted into opposing camps: those who said the sentence was correct, and those who were furious with the whole trial. Another minister was hastily appointed, but a third of the membership resigned within the first two months.
Sharon, Heather, Joe, and Jill were helping their parents finish moving when the call came. Rick set his box down and answered, then abruptly sat on the box. "What? I'm offered what?" he repeated. He listened for a while, then said, "I'll have to talk to Joy about this, but it does sound like a good possibility. I managed to keep my credentials by retiring. I'll call back soon."
"Who was that, dear?" Joy asked, "and what will you need to talk to me about?"
"You remember Darlene Young, who moved when she came out? Well, she is the senior pastor of a mid-sized church in town, and she called to say that they are growing so fast that she needs to hire an associate pastor to help keep up with the work, and asked if I would be interested in applying for the position."
"Rick, that's great," Joy said, beaming with delight. "You've talked about wanting a postion where you could do ministry instead of management again. I think this would be perfect. And we both like Darlene, you two worked together quite well several years ago."
"I know." Rick turned his phone over, stood up, pocketed it, then asked, "Do you mind starting over, learning a new church structure? It's similar to ours, but not as much connection, and I'd have to interview with their staff/parish relations committee and do a sermon. The theology is similar-"
Joy interrupted him with a swift kiss. "Rick, just say yes. Obviously God opened a window, so jump through it."
"Jump through what?" Sharon asked as she came in with another load.
"Darlene Young has offered me a chance to interview for an associate's position at her church," Rick said, "and your mother and I were discussing it."
"Go for it, Dad," Sharon said, grinning hugely. "Heather and I will follow you."
"Let's finish getting this load in, then I'll call Darlene back," Rick promised.
"What's going on?" Jill asked as she came in with a load.
"Dad has been offered a chance with Darlene Young's church. Isn't it great?" Sharon explained. "Associate pastor, he needs to interview, but I'm sure he'll ace it. By the way, what did you and Joe decide to do?"
Jill motioned for Sharon to follow her into the den. Puzzled, Sharon followed her sister-in-law, helping her lay down the boxes she was carrying. Jill glanced around, then said quietly, "After you and Heather left, we decided we would leave too. It was getting pretty cold on Sunday mornings, and we were being avoided. That's good that Rick has a chance somewhere else, it means that Joe and I will have a new church home. We did want to ask you and Heather something, though."
Jill smiled and took Sharon's hands in hers, asking, "Will you and Heather do us the honor of being our babies' godmothers?"
Sharon whooped with joy, squeezing Jill's hands, then grabbing her in a big hug and swinging her around gently. When she set her back down, the words sunk in and she said, "Babies? Plural?"
"Twins, Sharon, we're having twins. First, we thought we'd never have babies, and could not afford adoption, then God saw fit to bless us with twins. So we want you and Heather to be their godmothers. Please say yes."
"I'll have to talk to Heather, but I think I can answer yes for the both of us."
Jill grinned from ear to ear, hugging Sharon tightly again. "Thank you, Sharon, you're the best sister ever."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure you say that to all the girls," Sharon jibed. "Wait until I tell Heather!"
Rick stood beside Darlene, uncommonly nervous. He had baptized countless babies and adults in his years of ministry, but this was baptizing his own grandchildren. Darlene's steady presence beside him was calming; he had been right in accepting this position. The young woman who had made the difficult choice of switching denominations had grown into a wonderful pastor, leading her flock with authority and love. And, if his suspicions were correct, he might be performing her wedding to her girlfriend, Holly, in the near future.
Joe and Jill approached the baptismal font, surrounded by Sharon and Heather, Joy, Jill's parents Denise and Jack, and Mildred and George. Jill's parents had flown in for the service, and the others had all joined the congregation in the past year.
Rick took a cleansing breath, then started the service. The words flowed as he started, asking the parents and the congregation to look after the children and to teach them and lead them by example. He asked Sharon and Heather if they were prepared to be godparents, to help with the twins' education and upbringing. He concluded by asking, "Will the family please lay hands on the babies, or the nearest shoulder of one surrounding the babies?"
As they all pressed in closer, Rick took the boy and Darlene took the girl, and they each scooped water from the bowl, laying their hands on the babies's heads. "Grace Anne, Luke Benton, we baptize you in the name of the Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit. Amen."