tiny church weddings

In the summer of 2020, a pastor friend from Pennsylvania sent me a note to say that one of her congregants, a recent college graduate, was planning to move to Durham with her partner. Would I, she asked, be willing to connect with them? I said yes, of course, and when I first talked with Kiera we realized that not only were they moving to Durham, hoping to connect with Peace Covenant, but they were moving into my own apartment complex. New neighbors!

It was 2020, though, which made everything about moving and settling into a new place complicated for Kiera and Helen. They both had jobs here, but making friends after college is always hard, and doing it in the midst of a global pandemic made it even harder. Still, they arrived, and we brought them housewarming cookies. At least once a week, Franny and I would run into Kiera, Helen, and their dog Prince as we all went out for our evening walks. Kiera started attending Zoom worship regularly, injecting our weekly reflection time with energy and grace.

Those pandemic months are all sludged together in my mind. I don’t know when the church asked Kiera to serve on our leadership council, but I do know that she excitedly agreed. I’m not sure when it was that Helen and Kiera got engaged at the Renaissance Festival, but I do remember the way they buried the lede in Joys & Concerns by starting out excited about how great the festival was and oh, also, by the way, they got engaged! It wasn’t long after the lede-burying announcement that they told me they would really like to get married AT Peace Covenant and have me officiate the ceremony.

I don’t know if you know this, but Peace Covenant is Tiny Church. I mean, we are small in number but we are also small in building. When the first group of folks who planted the congregation were discerning where and how to gather, the District provided funds and suggested a large, former Orthodox Church building downtown, but the congregation chose a tiny, cinderblock structure on the south side of town, instead. I have been grateful every day for that decision 25 years ago, because it means that our tiny congregation is not saddled, like so many other smaller groups, with the albatross of building maintenance, repair and expense. The building is perfect for our needs, and houses another congregation, two AA groups, and has a ton of potential. It is humble, cozy, simple and sacred. But it is not a space designed for large events. We hosted an ordination several years ago and the ecumenical clergy who participated were flabbergasted when I directed them to the single coatrack in the main room as the place to store their vestments, instead of a specially designed sacristy. Only one thing can really happen at a time in our building. One year, I forgot about the Chinese language school that met on Sunday evenings, and so we did our Love Feast prep to a soundtrack of Mandarin grammar lessons. You will not see Peace Covenant’s sanctuary showing up on a listicle of The Best Wedding Venues any time soon.

But Helen and Kiera were clear: this was where they wanted to get married. And they wanted to host the reception here, too. I told them all these things: it’s tiny! The kitchen is very small! We don’t allow alcohol on the premises! Have you seen the water spots on the ceiling tiles? Yes, yes, they said, we know. But this is our church. This is where we want to be married.

So, we started planning. They were aiming for a ceremony this fall. And then, just before I went on sabbatical for the month of March, grad school applications came back and the couple realized that they would be moving…to Ireland…this fall. We moved the wedding to April, squeezed in the rest of the pre-marital counseling sessions, scheduled a day for the congregation to spruce up the building, and I went on sabbatical.

The wedding was beautiful. Kiera and Helen were totally besotted. The building was FULL. The caterer squeezed between counters, tables edged up against walls. I ate dinner with Apple, Kiera’s surrogate grandma, and Walter, Helen’s gallant grandparent. There were twinkly lights on the walls and s’mores over a fire pit in the parking lot. It was one of the best things I’ve been a part of all year long.

Weddings are part of a pastor’s work, and I really do like officiating them. I’ve done my fair share of weddings, for friends and family and friends’ families (I married all three Rodriguez siblings over the course of a decade!). It’s an honor, every time – that’s the only cheesy way I can describe the gift of being invited into this sacred space with two people entering into covenant with one another. But if memory serves, this is the first time I’ve officiated a wedding for people who are active participants in my own congregation. And oh, was it sweet. Helen and Kiera moved here and became part of this community. They were my neighbors! Kiera – a young adult in a new place – was a committed and consistent part of our congregation’s community. And they chose our tiny little church and our tiny little building to be the space where they began this covenanted life together.

Our tiny congregation has a fantastic group of young adults like this right now, young people who show up and contribute and infuse us with joy and delight. College kids join worship over Zoom from their dorm rooms or the student center. Recent graduates patiently and gracefully explain gender expansive terms and realities to retirees. Grad students serve on our Coordinating Council and med students invite their friends to our potlucks. During our weekly worship time of sharing joys and concerns, we hear about weekend adventures, campus grief, and engagement announcements (Helen and Kiera are not the only ones!). For a while last summer, when the pandemic had finally lifted, there was a regular Peace Covenant Young Adult Dungeons and Dragons get together.

Young adults are transient. Kiera and Helen left for Ireland in August, and we miss them! Our other students are moving through their programs, and we know that life will ferry them farther away from us. But these young people are such a gift. They bring me so much hope, both in their willingness to be a part of something as out of the mainstream as a traditional Christian congregation and in their insistence that this tradition is worth challenging, expanding, and growing.

There are a million ways to be discouraged about the state of the Church these days – both the church at large and individual congregations. Culture wars, inflation, waning religious affiliation and shrinking energy levels are all real and present challenges for us to navigate. But beneath all the hand-wringing, there persists the power of community to surround one another in times of great pain and in times of great joy. Every time I encounter the doom and despair, the anxiety over institutional collapse, I want to say “Yeah, but can’t you see all the ways we still need one another? Haven’t you noticed all the ways people are still finding refuge and belonging here with us? Didn’t you notice those fairy lights still hanging from the ceiling, the way these walls are still reverberating with wedding joy, all these months later?”

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