Outreach to Couples

One Big Wedding
CC Lebanon's One Big Wedding

15 Couples Take Marriage Vows Together

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Tom Price

Pastor Thom Keller stood in front of the altar and waited patiently for 15 brides to be escorted down the aisle, one by one. When all the wives-to-be had joined their grooms, Thom choked up himself just before he was ready to speak to the congregation. “I had the best view,” he related. “I was looking at their faces; they were crying, looking into each other’s eyes. I thought about how serious they were in making this commitment.” After the last bride was escorted up the aisle, the audience of family, friends, and church members let loose with a thunderous round of applause in the packed church, “lifting the roof off the place,” Thom said. He knew that this mass October wedding at Calvary Chapel Lebanon, PA, was anything but usual.

The church began planning what became known as One Big Wedding this past July, feverishly working for three months to provide a joyous and memorable ceremony to couples who wanted to get married but couldn’t afford it or had been living together. Thom latched onto the idea after hearing about it a month earlier at a CC pastors’ conference. Announcing the event during his July 8 message, he taught from Galatians 5:19-21, where the Apostle Paul lists “the works of the flesh,” which includes sexual sin. Thom, who teaches verse by verse through Scripture, landed on that passage that Sunday. “God loves us very much, and His heart’s desire is to bless us. But He can’t do it when we’re sinning,” Thom cautioned his flock. “We’re not condemning you today, but at the same time we do want to offer you a way to honor God in your life by making your live-in partner your marriage partner. This will be free to any couple who wants to do the right thing and get married.”

He and his staff weren’t prepared for the groundswell of support from the congregation. Thom remembered, “At the end of the service, a man literally ran to me, saying he wanted to pay for all the marriage licenses.” Others volunteered to buy the rings, donate wedding dresses and suits, and provide flowers, hair, and makeup services. “I was shocked at how many people bought into this vision so quickly with so much passion,” Thom admitted. Administrative Assistants Donna Bender and Ginger Snyder began working with couples and organizing volunteers.

Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. Ephesians 5:1-2

“Within weeks we had more than 60 churchgoers volunteer,” Donna said. “When we first talked about it, we were thinking of a casual event to bless those couples.” That changed as the weeks passed. One member, a former caterer, was able to provide a full-course meal very inexpensively. Another baked a 6-inch cake for each couple. One woman volunteered to pray with the brides. “Ginger and I had never thought of that and got goosebumps when we read that,” Donna recalled. From there, they assigned men and women to serve as mentors to each bride and groom. “One of the mentors asked after the wedding if she could get contact information for a bride’s mother because she wanted to continue encouraging her and helping her.”

Each couple was required to go through at least one premarital counseling session before the wedding, a task split up among four pastors. In addition, they will participate in six church-wide marriage teachings to be held on Sunday evenings in January and February. Ginger remarked, “Many of the couples just kept saying ‘Thank you. Without you, we wouldn’t have had something like this.’ I believe God orchestrated the whole day and made it beautiful.”

Bride Ashley Sutherly prays before the One Big Wedding ceremony at Calvary Chapel Lebanon, PA.

The Brides and Grooms

Bride Rebecca Washington was nervous. Am I really doing this? she asked herself. “My mom was married four times, and I’ve been afraid to get married,” she divulged. However, she and Jason had often heard Thom talk lovingly about his wife and his marriage. “He said that as long as you have God in your marriage, it’ll work,” she added. “As soon as I saw Jason at the altar, I didn’t look at anybody else. I just eased up.” We’re going to do this, and we’re going to make it through, she thought. Rebecca and Jason have been together for nearly a year and are expecting a baby girl, Charlotte, in March. “We want to do this the right way and show her we’re going to stick together no matter what. It’s a commitment we take seriously,” she declared solemnly.

As the guests applauded for the couples, she asked herself, Who are all these people? “I was excited; they were happy for us.” Giddy, she couldn’t stop smiling. “Even though there were 14 other couples with us, it felt like it was just us.” Jason agreed. “I married the right person. I love her so much, and this is like a dream come true for me. I thank the Lord every day that we met, and I’m going to do my best to make her happy.”

Yet Rebecca felt sadness and disappointment, admitting, “This was a special moment in my life, and I didn’t have any family here.” Describing herself as the “black sheep” of her family, she tearfully shared that neither of their families chose to attend. That realization hit her hard during the reception as she saw families and friends gathered to celebrate; Donna saw her sitting alone and went to speak with her.

“Rebecca started crying,” Donna said. “I told her I know how she feels because I didn’t have my daddy at my wedding. I also told her Calvary Chapel is her family. Satan attacks, but our God is bigger.” Rebecca leaned into Donna’s shoulder. “She raised her head and yelled, ‘Yes, He is!’ and wiped away her tears.”

Pastor Thom declares Jocelyn and Eurys Linares-Reinoso husband and wife at One Big Wedding. Volunteers from CC Lebanon donated wedding dresses, suits, and many other services. Other members of the church family served as mentors. Rebecca continued, “Honestly, I feel like I have family here. They encouraged me, talked to me, made sure everything was okay. I’m happy Calvary Chapel was here for us. They’re the ones bringing us closer to God.” She described her faith as “rocky” over the years but added that it has grown since the wedding. “Now I trust God. I trust that He does everything for a purpose. I learned that He won’t ever give you anything that you can’t handle.”

“But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.” Mark 10:6-9

After the wedding, groom Greg Faus observed, “All my nerves were for nothing. It went smoothly and now we are finally married.” He and wife Elizabeth learned of God’s design for marriage at the church, and they are excited to build a family, knowing their relationship is right in God’s eyes. “It says in Ephesians 5:25 that I’m to love Elizabeth as Christ loved the church. That means putting her needs in front of mine, loving her like she needs to be loved, in a different way than I expect to be loved,” he said. Elizabeth responded, “I’m excited about being with my best friend for the rest of my life.”

Mark and Helen Ward have been a couple for 17 years; between them they have 6 grown children. Helen explained that Mark proposed by coming home one day and saying, “I signed us up to get married.” Their wedding sealed their commitment. “I’m his and he’s mine,” she confidently confirmed.

Eurys and Jocelyn Linares-Reinoso are excited to share a future together. Jocelyn said, “I’m not giving up and I’m not signing any divorce papers, so he’s stuck forever.” Eurys responded, “I’ve been blessed with a good woman for many years to come. We are looking forward to participating in the church and giving back for the blessings that we have received in our wedding. It would have been a lot harder for us to get everything together.”

Calvin and Carrie Holbrook had been talking about marriage when the church announced One Big Wedding. Carrie stated, “It was a beautiful day to be here, and I’m glad to be his wife and share this experience with everyone who was here.” Calvin added, “It was a good experience. I’m very grateful for this day.”

Spiritual Fruit

The goal of One Big Wedding was to show the love of Jesus to the couples and those watching. “Some of these couples weren’t all that plugged in at church,” Thom observed, “but may now be thrilled to be a part of the body of Christ. So many people came alongside them and loved them, making this a powerful event. Ultimately, it’s the love of Jesus that changes everything.” Donna added, “We didn’t know the hearts of these couples, but in the end four individuals accepted Christ through this. A month after the wedding, three of those who got married were baptized.”

Thom acknowledged that Christmas and Easter are ripe times to invite unchurched and unsaved friends and family to church. “However, there’s another whole group of people who only go to weddings and funerals. We knew there would be a lot of people who would never darken the doorway of a church,” he admitted. “This was an opportunity to show them that the church can be a place that loves, supports, and gives. I wanted this to be so festive, and our church to be so over-the-top filled with joy, that as those people left, they would say, ‘I wish I could be a part of something like this.’” At the reception, one bride’s brother proposed to his girlfriend; later, another couple attending as guests asked to be married at the church.

Family, friends, and church members gather together to celebrate this special event.

A Church for the Least and Unchurched

CC Lebanon is located in a former Catholic high school “smack in the middle of an inner city,” surrounded by a low-income population, Thom said. “I love being in the city. It’s raw, it’s real.” Residents of group homes, prostitutes, politicians, and doctors come to the church’s Bible studies. Because a percentage of the congregation is Hispanic, the church offers Spanish translation. Formed in 2001 in a church denomination, the church officially affiliated with Calvary Chapel in 2005. “We’re not going to do anything that’s going to get in the way of an unchurched person coming to know Christ. We want to create a safe, loving environment because the truth is that the velvet hand of the Holy Spirit operates most effectively where people are loved unconditionally. We love them and let the Holy Spirit influence them with God’s Word,” he emphasized.

Thom described Paul’s prayer in Colossians 2:2-3 as his goal for his congregation: That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. “As a pastor, my dream is for people to come to know all those hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge that are in Christ,” he declared.

Many ministries are centered around “helping the least of these,” Thom added. They include a shelter for homeless women, a U-Turn for Christ (drug rehabilitation) facility for men, a halfway house for women with children, and a large food pantry serving 200 people every Sunday. Its AWANA program reaches out to 140 children from the neighborhoods.

“And the King will answer …, ‘inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” Matthew 25:40