I participated in a wedding ceremony today. I was the best man, the maid of honor, the ring bearer, and the official witness! In other words, there were only three of us standing before the presiding pastor. But I’m pleased to report that, as of 10:20 this morning, Jeff and Lena are husband and wife. He is a resident of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon; she is a citizen of Australia.
Matthew and I were brought into their lives by Jeff’s prison roommate, a long-time friend, last November. Lena was coming to America and was hoping to find some legal assistance to pursue Jeff’s claim of wrongful conviction. I met with her, viewed the network broadcast of 48 Hours that focused on this case, and put her in touch with Attorney Marla Mitchell-Cichon, Director of the Cooley Law School/WMU Innocence Project. Two things happened. The Innocence Project took the case, and we became very good friends with Jeff and Lena. So, it was no surprise when I was asked to witness the wedding. I readily accepted.
As one might expect, the State of Michigan and more specifically the Michigan Department of Corrections didn’t make it easy for the love-struck couple.
May we choose the pastor who will marry us? No, the Chaplain will make that choice.
May we have the wedding ceremony at noon? No, the pastor we have chosen has a conflicting funeral service, so the wedding must take place at 10 AM.
That’s very close to the 10:30 count time. Could we have it at 9 o’clock, so that there will be a brief time for pictures? No, the 10 o’clock time is firm. The pictures will have to be taken later in the day during visiting hours.
As a simple act of kindness, would the department waive the cost for one wedding picture as a gift? No. You must pay for all photographs.
We have asked our friend Doug Tjapkes to be a witness. He’s not on Jeff’s visitor list but he has clergy status. The warden has approved his presence, but only for the ceremony.
May we have our picture taken with him? No. The warden has not granted him permission for a photograph.
If he may not wear street clothes, could we make an exception to prison policy just this once, and allow Jeff to wear a regular shirt for the ceremony and the pictures? No. He’ll wear prison blues.
Against all odds, however, the brief ceremony was beautiful. The setting was the visitor’s room in Brooks, and the only musical accompaniment was the hum of nearby vending machines. The Rev. Charles Poole, an elderly black pastor, presided with a smile on his face and kindness in his heart. The couple recited the vows that they had previously written and memorized for the event. Of all weddings in which I have participated, I have not heard more meaningful pledges of love and fidelity. I mumbled a blessing over the rings before that particular ceremony, and Jeff and Lena were declared husband and wife. All within 10 minutes!
I don’t ever recall getting teary-eyed at a wedding, not even those of our kids. Today my life, my heart, my tear ducts were touched by this warm experience behind the cold bars of a Michigan prison.
My favorite theologian, Frederick Buechner, has this to say about tears:
…of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you…
May God extend his grace, peace and mercy, in abundant measure, on this couple.
They’ll need every bit of it.