The Park Tavern, at the corner of 10th and Monroe in midtown Atlanta, was my go-to place for first dates for years I lived in Georgia’s capital (before Greg, of course!). Usually, my first date location choices were between there and the Thinking Man Tavern in Decatur. And really, the location of those first dates depended on how I wanted to come be perceived. They were both dimly lit (any gay man will tell you EVERYONE looks better in dim lighting–hence our nearly universal aversion to fluorescent lights) and both had plenty of space, ample parking, and easy outs. And let’s be honest, the key to a successful first date (no matter who you’re dating) is, you guessed it, the ability to get the hell out of dodge if it goes south. I would choose Thinking Man if I wanted to seem smart and a tad aloof (a real challenge for me, right? RIGHT?!). If I wanted to seem trendier and more modern, it was the Park Tavern along the edge of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park (think Central Park, but warm).
On a muggy evening a few weeks ago in late July, I returned to the Park Tavern–the site of many (failed) first dates–to take part in another first: my first gay wedding. Now, that’s misleading in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is that clearly I’ve been to a gay wedding before–MY OWN. And secondly, gay weddings aren’t really gay weddings anymore. They’re just weddings.
I first met Joel while we were both students at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. It was the summer of 2008. I was headed into the second year of my M.Div. (Master of Divinity, if you want to be formal), and he was in the middle of his theology degree. One week during the month-long summer program we were both working for, Joel and I had the same night off. So we headed to the Chili’s in close-by Toco Hills, because Emory students got free chips and salsa. Side note: NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF FREE FOOD.
We were sitting at a booth, you remember the ones–the table was covered with mass-produced ceramic tile. After we ordered our food, Joel started asking me questions about being gay. I came out in 2000, so by the time 2008 rolled around the fact I liked guys was old news. But Joel’s story was different. Despite a common faith, Christianity, he and I had far different experiences coming to terms with the fact that we were gay. And it was that night, so long ago at a Chili’s in Atlanta, that Joel told me I wasn’t the only gay man on staff at the summer program we worked for. He had a boyfriend. The second he said it, he looked relived. The second I heard it, I was relieved. Neither of us were on our own anymore.
We lost touch in the intervening years. He was in a two year program; I was in a three year one. He graduated nine months after we met. I finished my M.Div. a year and a half later and kept working at a local church, then moved to Connecticut. For a brief few weeks in 2008, our lives intersected. Soon though, our relationship (like so many these days) became a digital one. I would pop up in his Facebook feed. And him in mine. But if we’re both honest, neither one of us really expected our paths to cross again.
But here’s the thing about how God works: the things you think are settled, done with, aren’t really finished at all. (Um..hello! The resurrection?!?!)
Earlier this year, I got an email from Joel: “Hey Jon, how’s it going? I’m getting married in July. Are you available?” (That’s the Jon Chapman Paraphrase Version, also known as the JCPV–now that I write that, it kinda sounds like a disease, doesn’t it?)
I shot back a quick reply and soon we were on the phone. We chatted for a few minutes (him, his fiancee Derrick, and me). I told them I’d moved to Connecticut and that I’d send them my wedding expectations (fees, meetings, etc). And then I gave them some names of local clergy that would be happy to perform their wedding if the cost of getting me down to Atlanta would be burdensome.
A month or so later, another email arrived: “We want you to do the wedding.” And so began an experience that would transform all of us.
Months later, my plane touched down at the Atlanta airport. I felt the thick humidity the instant I walked onto the jetway. Summers in Atlanta are brutal. They aren’t the pleasant, balmy, every-so-often humid and hot summers of New England. They’re more of the “let’s-just-hibernate-in-the-air-conditioning-for-the-next-five-months” kind. I came a day early to visit with my Dad (it was his birthday weekend–Hey, Dad!). We visited for a bit, but soon it was time to return to the site of all those doomed first dates.
It’s been four years since I’ve driven in Atlanta, the town I lived in for half a decade during and following graduate school. I was amazed at how quickly the roads came back to me. Atlanta’s struggle with racism is evident even in the street names. The main East-West road is named Ponce de Leon Ave (locally known simply as Ponce). Roads north of that road have one name. The same road south of it has another. Why? Centuries of complex race and class issues. Basically, rich, white people didn’t want to live on the same road that poor white, or worse, black people lived on.
I got off the highway, turned onto Boulevard which becomes Monroe. And soon, I was back in my old neighboorhood, passing my beloved Trader Joe’s.
I had my clerical collar on when I pulled into the parking lot behind the Park Tavern. The parking attendant cheerfully greeted me. “I’m supposed to make everyone pay,” he started, “but I let you in for free. They need you, man!” For all the crap that comes along with this uniform, it can, every once and a while, have some benefits–like free parking!
I descended the stairs to the tavern, then climbed up another set of stairs behind the Tavern’s bar that led me to the Piedmont Room. There, through the windows, was the midtown skyline–just like it was when I left. I found myself fighting back tears. I was overwhelmed with a sense that I was home.
We made it through the rehearsal with no problems, except the torrential afternoon monsoon typical of Atlanta summers. The grooms looked a little nervous. “It’ll be fine,” I said cheerfully. “No matter what happens, by this time tomorrow, y’all are going to be married! Don’t worry about a thing.”
The next day, I pulled into the parking lot ridiculously early for the wedding. Atlanta traffic is notorious, and since it was a Friday evening event the last thing I needed was to get caught in stand-still traffic trying to get to a wedding. They did, after all, need my signature!
I made it with time to spare. While I was waiting for the service to begin, I found myself thinking about why this was such a significant moment for me. And what I realized was this: I never thought (I mean, NEVER) that I could be legally married in the state I’m so proud (oddly) to be from. So it goes without saying that I, a child of Georgia and a clergyman formed by the United Methodist Church (which has its own issues around LGBT concerns) NEVER THOUGHT I would be able to bless a marriage in God’s name in the state of my birth.
As I stood in the lobby waiting to process in, I spied a framed text. It was the decision of Justice Kennedy from the case that made gay marriage legal across our great country:
It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The processional music began: a medley of Lalah Hathaway, Beyonce, and Whitney Houston. Side note: from now on, my entrance music will ALWAYS include one of these songstresses–watch out, Westfield! I started down the aisle, oddly more nervous that I had been at my own wedding and took my place on the stage. I waited and watched as the attendants made their way down. Finally, the grooms appeared, hand in hand.
Now these grooms–Derrick and Joel–are two of the most courageous people I know. While being gay has certainly become more mainstream, we can’t and shouldn’t underestimate the ability of assholes to be, well, assholes. And as two black men, the current political realities of our country give them plenty to be timid about.
But they walked down that aisle, hand in hand, with their heads held high. I smiled as they walked toward me, the weight and significance of what was happening just beginning to sink in. They made to the stage, faced each other, and we began.
“Dearly beloved,” I began, just the way I do all weddings, “We come together in the presence of God to witness and celebrate the marriage of Joel and Derrick and to pray God’s blessing upon them now and in the years ahead.” They declared their intentions, and the congregation declared their support. And soon, it came time to hear from God’s holy Word. We read from 1 Corinthians and 1 John. And then, it was my turn to speak. Now, I’ll confess that I was nervous. I wanted to be poignant and hopeful, authentic and kind. Here’s what I said:
I’m going to talk to these two for a minute, if that’s ok. You’re welcome to listen in.
Joel and Derrick, you’ve heard Paul’s words before. You’ve seen them on every Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. You’ve heard them in countless songs. I suspect you’ve heard your fair share of sermons on them. And despite the countless times we’ve encountered them, they still hold such power for us—even today. Over the course of eight verses, Paul gives us what some would call a definitive understand of love.
But there are a few things Paul leaves out. He tells us that love is patient. He neglects to mention that it is easier for love to be patient when your spouse does the dishes without being asked. He tells us Love doesn’t insist on its own way, which is fine until Joel wants to go to that same restaurant for the 100th time this week. Paul tells us Love doesn’t rejoice in wrong doing. Which is swell, until you feel that satisfying “I told you so” boiling up inside of you.
Did you notice what Paul didn’t say? Paul didn’t say it’d be easy. He didn’t say that it would come naturally. He didn’t say you’d be sure of it all the time. Just that with it, with Love, our lives are immeasurably better than they were.
Joel and Derrick, I want you to go back in time, just for a second. Think back four years—to a mall parking lot when one of you chased down the other. Remember that? Do you remember what your life was like then? Derrick, I didn’t know you. Joel, we had lost touch. But after reconnecting these last months in preparation for this day, its clear to me what joy you bring to each other—that those four years, the ups and downs, the “do the dishes” and “you’re wearing thats?”—have all been worth it, that your life today, with the love you share—a love blessed by God—is immeasurably better for having one another.
There’s something else Paul left out. And where Paul drops the ball in 1 Corinthians, the author of 1 John picks it up. It’s about fear. Derrick and Joel, it’d be easy for you to, even in the midst of such joy, to feel the pangs of fear. The color of your skin alone makes you target. Being same-gender loving men makes you a target. For so many, walking down the street holding your loved one’s hands seems like a normal, every day occurrence. But given the current divided state if our country, I wouldn’t blame you if an act of affection as simple as holding your husband’s hand was a little intimidating, scary even. But, in 1 John, we’re reminded that, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” So when those moments of fear present themselves, remember this: God is love. And those who abide in love abide in God.
Joel and Derrick, there was a time when the love you share today wasn’t yours. It was God’s. And now, as you acknowledge and proclaim that love before those gathered here today, remember that you are no longer Joel and Derrick. It’s Joel and Derrick and God. The truth is, it always has been.
And when the deep, dark days come, and when the weightless, bright days come, when you feel impatient or irritable or unsure or even afraid, remember this moment—a moment filled with such Love. And then be inspired to love boldly, to love courageously. To love perfectly. And be reminded that your love was God’s first. And that God will abide in your love and in you your entire life long.
When I finished, I looked at Joel and Derrick. Derrick had tears running down his cheek. Joel looked at him as if the only thing he wanted in the world in that moment was to be right there, then.
They made promises to each other, I blessed their rings. And it seemed that as soon as it began, it was over.
The processed out to Rhianna. Because, of course they did. And it was perfect.
Later that night, Dad and I were eating a celebratory birthday dinner at that king of chicken restaurants (at least in my eyes)–Zaxby’s.
“Well,” I started, “It’s over. They’re married! I just did my first gay wedding!”
“That’s wonderful, son!” he exclaimed, chicken wing in one hand, napkins in the other.
I was simply floating at the joy of the day. But that joy was dampened by the absence of some family important to the grooms.
“Some of Joel’s family didn’t come,” I told my father. “I bet you would’ve come and stood in for them!”
“Damn right, I would’ve.” he replied. “Of course, I would have.”
And that, just so we’re clear, is when I realized that the Park Tavern became the site of another first for me: the first time I was convinced without a doubt that this life, this calling is exactly what I’m meant to do. And that the place I found love–love of people, of this calling, of this life–was at the corner of 10th and Monroe, where I’d been looking for it all along.