In conservative Alabama, celebrating a ‘God-written’ union of man and woman


Newlyweds A.J. Horsley and Randy Wilson at their wedding in Wilsonville, Ala., on June 29, 2013. (Gary Tramontina/For The Washington Post)
June 30, 2013

Up on the grassy hill as the sun sank on Saturday evening, here came the groom, a man in khakis and a bow tie, and here came the bride, a woman in a long white gown of satin and lace.

Several hundred dearly beloved stood and looked on as she walked down the clover-covered aisle, a ceremony suddenly more momentous to the couple and those gathered for what they were celebrating — marriage as the natural, God-ordained union between a man and a woman.

The happy pair, Randall Jared Wilson, 24, and Amanda Joy Horsley, 23, stood arm in arm at an altar woven with leaves. The Rev. Brent Philips held a gilded Bible in his left hand and a microphone in his right.

“Hello!” he said, and just then the mike began to malfunction. “Hello? Check, check?” A truck swooshed by along a two-lane road beyond the pines and crepe myrtles. “All right,” he said, smiling, deciding to discard the mike and raise his voice. “Here we go!”

And so, three days after the U.S. Supreme Court legally bolstered same-sex marriage and at a time when a majority of Americans accept the idea, a wedding was underway among people who do not.

The place was a horse farm in Wilsonville, a town that advertises itself as “family-centered,” which is understood to be husband-and-wife-centered. The county was Shelby, one of the most conservative counties in the country. The state was Alabama, where the constitution denies recognition of same-sex marriages or any union “seeking to replicate marriage,” which it defines as a “a sacred covenant, solemnized between a man and a woman,” which is exactly what the couple and most of their guests believed it was.

“For Randy and me, marriage is about our commitment to each other as one man and one wife,” Amanda Joy, who prefers to be called A.J., had said before the wedding. “Even with the decision of the Supreme Court, for us, this union is just a picture of the love God has for us. And to explain that to the world as a husband and wife, that is our heart.”

“People think that I don’t want people to be together because they’re homosexuals, and that’s not it,” Randy had said. “People have a right to be together — that’s fine. I just believe marriage is religious, and I want to keep my religious things sacred. I don’t know if that’s mean or not, but I don’t want my religious beliefs to be diluted — not by heterosexuals or homosexuals. I don’t know, is that controversial?”

‘God-written story’

The day before, in preparation, white lights were strung along the rafters of a barn and chairs set inside the corral where the ceremony would unfold before the pink blossoms of mimosa trees. Paper fans were printed with the “God-written story” of how the couple met doing relief work in Uganda and were tied with pale blue bows.

“A.J., I will ask, ‘Who gives this woman to this man?’ ” said the pastor, running through the program. “And Dad will walk over, give your hand, give Randy a swift kick and sit down. . . . Then — is your train long? — you will turn around. . . . Do you want to run through it again? Or are you comfortable?”

“I’m comfortable,” A.J. said, and Randy nodded.

The wedding party of several dozen relatives and friends shifted to long picnic tables for barbecue sandwiches and sweet tea and so many conversations about the last time they saw one another. How beautiful the farm was, and how they hoped the sudden thunderstorms so common this time of year would hold off tomorrow. How perfect everything seemed.

“I didn’t even realize the Supreme Court decision came down,” said A.J.’s dad, Don Horsley, who raised two daughters and a son in Kazakhstan, where he and his wife worked as missionaries. “For our hopes for our kids, this is right. This is what we expect. . . . It feels right — and maybe that is a little different now with all the discussion going on. Maybe it feels a little more right, it’s hard to say.”

It was hard to say, because like Randy and A.J., many of the people gathered here understood how their views might play to a broad swath of people in the changing American landscape. Some said they did not wish to judge anyone who saw the world differently. Some said they had friends or relatives who were openly gay, making it more emotionally wrenching, if ever more important, to hang on to what they considered to be the biblical beliefs that were the bedrock of their own long marriages.

“I’m not surprised about the social changes,” said Ross Grimball, 51, who has been married for 25 years. “It’s a paradigm shift. It’s going to be different.”

His friend Dee, who had been married to her husband for 26 years, nodded.

“What’s happening is not going to change what we believe,” said Dee, who declined to have her last name used because of family sensitivities. She said the issue was personal since she has a close relative who is gay. “I had family members who wouldn’t let him in the house, and I said, ‘No, no, no, we love you, we are not going to let this issue come between us.’ Spiritually we are polar opposites, but I love him. So, I mean, yeah. This is who we are and what we believe, and I think it is important to have conversations.”

Brynn Marcum, 23, married two years to her husband, Zach, said that her generation is less threatened by same-sex marriage than her parents were, though she is no less committed to what she considers the same Christian values.

“We are not going to go picket against gay marriage,” she said. “We are going to bring the example to people by who we are.”

And who they were, added Zach, were sinners just like everybody else.

“If someone wants to call us bigots, it’s like, well, then we’ve got to go back 1,000 steps and find some common ground,” he said. “Like, maybe we’re all broken. Maybe everybody’s screwed up.”

It thundered and started to rain, and everyone picked up their chairs and headed into the barn for an evening slide show celebrating A.J. and Randy, who stood before their guests.

Randy thanked Byron and Patti Ketcham, who had offered their farm for the occasion and, he said, were an example of what marriage can be: 44 years, nine kids and 15 grandkids. Everyone cheered and whooped.

“And now,” Randy said, “I’m going to let the pictures do the talking!”

The slide show for the “God-written” marriage began.

A.J. as a baby; Randy as a baby. A.J. as a little girl pouting; Randy as little boy grimacing. A.J. vamping as a teenager in black feathers; Randy vamping as a teenager in pink tights and fairy wings. A.J. graduating; Randy graduating.

Randy and A.J. together on a snow-covered mountain in Kazakhstan, where Randy proposed.

And Randy and A.J. in front of the sign for Wilsonville, where they would be getting married in less than 24 hours with the hope, Randy had said, of being “a light on the hill to people all over, showing the example of what we think true biblical marriage should be.”

Watching intently was Randy’s father, Ken Wilson. “We are almost a minority now,” he said as the evening went on, referring to those who continue to believe that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. “And it makes it all that much more important not to listen to those who would judge us. I know we may go through persecution as we evolve into this open-minded society. But I told my son, whatever you do, don’t worry about others judging you.”

He considered what he had just said, which struck him as similar in spirit to what same-sex marriage proponents might have told themselves in more difficult times.

“In a way it’s like it’s almost come 360 degrees,” he said. “It’s hard for the secular world to believe we can honor their wishes without judging them. But again, it’s not for us to judge. All I can do is stand up for what I believe. I think everyone has that right.”

A perfect day

On Saturday evening, people were standing on the green hill as the bride walked down the aisle into the slanting sun, smiling at the guests who smiled back, affirming her own faith and theirs with each step she took toward the altar.

She linked arms with Randy and faced the pastor. Since his microphone wasn’t working, he had to shout, yelling words like “sacrifice” and “life producing life” over the rush of cars and the reedy buzz of crickets. He told again the well-honed story of how the couple met, a story of coincidences and prayers and a chance meeting in a cafe in Uganda, all of which, he said, could only have been God’s plan for bringing a man and a woman together.

“And that leads us to today, in Wilsonville,” he shouted. “This is the day these two people become one. . . . This is about everyday living for something bigger than themselves. . . . This is about two people who fell in love. And this is also about us.”

Then Randy and A.J. read their vows.

“I vow to love you by listening to your loudest or quietest needs,” Randy said.

“You are God’s gift to me,” A.J. said.

Soon after that, they exchanged rings, and then they kissed, and a while later, they danced as husband and wife as people watched and talked about how perfect the wedding had been.

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