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Officiate at your wedding? Uh, sure

Request sends man searching for what to do.

Kelly McQuain

is a poet whose work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize

When my friends Jeff Markovitz and Amy Tarr asked me to officiate at their wedding, I was honored but also intimidated. As a writer, I've written many things, but none bore the solemnity and importance of this: drafting a ceremony to help two people unite in love.

I've known Jeff for several years. We teach together at Community College of Philadelphia. Through him, Amy has become a treasured friend as well to both me and my partner, John.

Like many young couples today, Jeff, 30, and Amy, 29, didn't want a traditional religious service, but rather something informal. Headhouse Square would be the location, around the corner from the South Street apartment the two share with Larry Fine of the Three Stooges, whose giant head looms at them from a mural across the street. The reception would take place at a whiskey bar. They chose a date in early October and crossed their fingers that the weather would be kind.

Working out the details with them over the summer, I realized I had issues of my own to solve: How exactly does one become an officiant?

As a teenager, I'd seen ads in the back of Rolling Stone magazine for mail-order ordination by the Universal Life Church. A quick Internet search, a few forms filled out, and 10 minutes later - presto! - my free ordination appeared in my inbox, all in keeping with the ULC's mission to help people pursue "spiritual beliefs without interference from any outside agency, including government or church authority."

I ran into a brick wall, though, when I looked into filing my new credentials. Although such ordination is legal in many states, in Pennsylvania it's iffy. At least one marriage officiated by a ULC officiant has been annulled in court. I didn't want to gamble that my friends' wedding wouldn't be recognized.

The solution? For $10 on top of the regular $80 fee, a Pennsylvania couple can get a self-uniting marriage license. Couples simply need two witnesses to sign the document. Problem solved.

Or was it? I still had to decide what to say. Moreover, because Jeff and Amy were saving for a honeymoon in Asia, my role as officiant also included serving as a de facto wedding planner: making sure there were chairs for the elderly, seeing to it the groomsmen passed out candles to the crowd, and - most important of all - ensuring the bride was cued to begin her procession from the whiskey bar across the street.

That's how we found ourselves gathered on a warm October night beneath a brick pavilion known as the Shambles, the site of open-air markets since colonial times. Darkness had fallen; there were no lights save for candles and flashbulbs. Amy's 75-year-old father trembled as I held a candle for him to read the opening prayer.

As for what I said? Once I thought about it awhile, it was easy, for the work I've seen Jeff and Amy do on behalf of other people speaks to the generosity of their hearts. Amy, through Project HOME, provides Philadelphia's homeless population with safer places to live. Jeff has led student groups to Florida and Louisiana to build homes for families who have lost theirs in natural disasters, and he's done similar work in Ethiopia for Habitat for Humanity.

I talked about how Jeff and Amy were now putting their home-building skills to use in a different way: their new life together.

It didn't matter if that life occurred in a South Street walk-up across from Larry the Stooge's zany stare. It didn't matter if that life occurred somewhere else. The life, the home they were creating, was something they would carry with them, regardless of physical space, the rest of their days.

"Home," I told the crowd, "will always be wherever the other person is."

A poem by e.e. cummings. The exchange of rings and vows. The hurrah of the new couple's kiss. Soon we were following Jeff and Amy across the cobbled street to the Twisted Tail to raise glasses, to dance, to forget for a while the twisted tales our own fates sometimes become.

As John and I elbowed our way to the bar for a cold Innis & Gunn, I thought of the singer Alanis Morissette. My apologies to her, but irony isn't "rai-eee-ain on your wedding day. . . ."

Irony is officiating at your friends' wedding when you, yourself, cannot marry the person you love. Not after 17 years together. Years with highs: buying a first home, watching siblings marry, welcoming newborn nieces and nephews. Years of lows: a friend's suicide, a father's loss to cancer. Years that teach you who your rock is and will always be.

Irony, too, is knowing that while my southern relatives in West Virginia, where I grew up, treat my partner warmly, most refuse to support gay marriage. Some, like my brother in Florida, have voted for constitutional amendments banning it. They base their views on the Bible and don't call it discrimination. Why, then, does it sting the same?

Getting married out of state may have symbolic value for gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians, but it will do nothing to square them with the financial and legal entitlements their heterosexual counterparts have. Will change come? Several states, including Maryland, recently legalized gay marriage, and New Jersey has allowed civil unions since 2006. Pennsylvania offers nothing.

My closest family members have slowly acquiesced to the fairness of domestic partnerships, in part, I think, because they've watched my relationship endure while other relatives' marriages have foundered.

Such considerations were far in the back of my mind as I officiated at Jeff and Amy's ceremony that warm October evening. I was too full of happiness for them, seeing up close the glow on their faces - not just from the candlelight but from the delight in their hearts as they read their vows, describing how a chance meeting in an Oregon youth hostel had brought them here, amid a circle of well-wishing friends, all of us smiling and perhaps a little teary-eyed to be witnessing their joy.

The universe had brought them to this place. The day was theirs.

Perhaps, some other day, I'll have mine.