Recognition of the Truth of a Lifetime Devoted to Each Other
When I transitioned from parish ministry to higher education in 2008, I started working in The Center for Learning at an upstate community college. Joe worked there too. He was a retired nurse who spent a few days a week tutoring students with their course work. Within a few weeks of meeting, we came out to one another and disclosed that we were living in covenanted relationships. By that time, Kristin and I had married in Canada. Joe lamented that his partner’s health was too fragile to travel to Canada, but he held out hope that New York State would legalize same-sex marriage soon. Yet, even as he expressed that hope, he turned to walk out my office door and sighed, “I doubt we’ll live to see that day.”
Well, the day came when he and Bill could receive the legal recognition their partnership deserved. Although in their and their friends’ and families’ minds, these two men were already married, as evidenced by the length of their relationship–38 years! They knew for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health. A wedding ceremony would be recognition of the truth that these men had spent a lifetime devoted, faithful, and in love with one another. When Joe asked me to perform the ceremony, I was incredibly honored to be part of that sacred moment when they would say, “I do.” After 38 years, though, what they were really saying was, “I have and will continue to love you as long as we both shall live.”
Two colleagues of Joe’s came to witness the ceremony and one brought her two daughters to be the ring bearers. On February 4, 2012, as I pronounced them married, chills ran from my head to my toes. Being married meant the world to them, and in all the weddings at which I have presided, no couple has been more grateful than Joe and Bill.
The timing could not have been more perfect either. Within a couple of months, Bill was on hospice care. Being married meant having the same rights afforded to straight couples. Those rights become especially important when one spouse is facing the end of life. Joe, devoted as always, sat with his husband and made certain that he received the care he deserved. Joe fortunately was not put in the awful position of being denied access to the man he loved all those years and was able to provide for Bill while he was in the hospital. Had they not had that legal benefit, who knows how Bill might have spent his last days.
Looking back on their wedding ceremony, I still revel in the love and history this couple shared and the privilege of being able to speak the words, “Joe Heilman and William Wallace, I now pronounce you married!” It was and always will remain one of my highest honors as an ordained elder in the UMC. As I consider the ramifications of having presided at their wedding, one thing is certain: the joy of making their marriage legal is entirely worth it.
Sara Thompson Tweedy is an elder in the New York Annual Conference serving in extension ministry as the dean of student development services at SUNY Sullivan County Community College.
We Did is a project of Methodists in New Directions (MIND) dedicated to making visible our ministries to LGBTQ people and encouraging others in the UMC to transcend the institutional requirement to discriminate and make their ministries visible, too. It is part of the Biblical Obedience movement sweeping across the United Methodist Church. You can read all the We Did stories here. We invite you to submit your own story to We Did.