Ellin Jimmerson, a Baptist pastor in Huntsville, Alabama, said she was surprised when she was asked to perform one of Alabama's first same-sex wedding ceremonies after the state overturned its ban on gay marriage. Although she has been supportive of the LGBTQ community, she's best known for her immigration activism.
"I cannot get my head around what happened yesterday," Jimmerson, 63, told The Huffington Post over the phone on Tuesday. "It wasn't just a local story."
Monday marked the first day same-sex weddings were legal in Alabama. Despite a direct mandate from U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade, many probate judges throughout the state refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“Now you’ve got a situation where you’ve got hundreds of people having no pastor to turn to to perform their wedding ceremony, nor can they go to the courthouse to get a license,” Jimmerson said.
A group of volunteers organized "Wedding Week," a movement to officiate and celebrate both same-sex and straight weddings, in response to these hurdles. For many couples -- about 42 on Monday alone, Jimmerson said -- this was a ticket to tying the knot.
The first couple scheduled to get married in Huntsville -- Adrian Thomas and Yashinari Effinger from Birmingham -- had requested a Baptist pastor to officiate their wedding. Heather Reed, a gay marriage advocate and one of the four Wedding Week organizers, looked for a Baptist pastor who would be willing to participate but found that many were uncomfortable agreeing to be in the public eye.
Jimmerson, who serves as minister to the community at Huntsville's Weatherly Heights Baptist Church but is not a paid staff member, agreed to participate in Wedding Week and quickly found herself the object of media attention.
“It’s been huge, and there’s been a lot of focus on me," Jimmerson said. "I’ve decided the formula for celebrity must be Alabama plus same-sex marriage plus Baptist minister with a photogenic rainbow scarf.”
Jimmerson and Reed on the first day of Wedding Week
The organizers also invited same-sex marriage supporters to get ordained online and come to Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville to officiate the weddings.
"It has been phenomenal, the amount the community has come together to make this happen," Reed told HuffPost. "Yesterday there were over 60 officiants present. Only a handful are actual members of the clergy. Most of them got ordained just for this event."
Others in the community donated wedding cakes, dresses, hair-styling services, flowers and more, Reed said. The Huntsville Embassy Suites donated its ballroom for a nominal cost for a reception Monday evening and a deejay offered his services as well.
For Reed, the state's reversal of the gay marriage ban came as a shock. Reed married her wife, who serves as an army chaplain, in Maine last year. They have two kids and live in Huntsville -- a fairly liberal city compared to the rest of Alabama, Reed said. Even so, they never expected to see same-sex marriages become legal in their community.
"This came out of left field for us," Reed said. "Never in a million years did we think this was going to happen."
In a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 59 percent of Alabama residents said they opposed or strongly opposed same-sex marriage.
This degree of change can be unsettling for some, Jimmerson said. Opposition to many things in American history, such as interracial marriage, has been based in fear and discrimination, she said, adding that she thinks same-sex marriage will follow the same trajectory.
"For so long we thought of same-sex marriages as being a scandal, and then you add to that what people understand to be something called 'biblical marriage,'" Jimmerson said. "[But] our idea of one man one woman in a union based on love just doesn't appear in the Bible."
"I think we just have to realize that we are cultural beings as well as religious people and we have to learn to draw a distinction between what we're afraid of and insecure about and what God really demands of us -- which is to love one another," she said.
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