In 1985, the city of Richmond, Va. opened its Sixth Street Marketplace, a festival-themed downtown shopping venue designed to  create a literal bridge between traditionally white and African-American shopping areas. It’s already been torn down, but when it was first proposed and then constructed, it was a hopeful sign of both racial harmony and downtown economic development.

When I was serving as Associate Pastor of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in a Richmond suburb, I was also still doing weekly radio shows, including “Celebration Rock” and “The Jazz Brunch.” A couple living on one of Richmond’s seven hills called me as a result of hearing me on the radio and asked the by-now familiar question: “Are you a real minister?” I knew the next question. “Do you marry people?”

My standard answer to these radio-initiated queries was, Yes, I do occasional weddings, but only after four or five pre-marital counseling sessions, and the weddings I do are always in the context of worship. Otherwise, I advised, why not get a justice of the peace or ship’s captain? This couple said both my requirements fit their desires. “Where will your wedding be?” I asked.

“We want to be married in the fountain court area of the Sixth Street Marketplace. It’ll be the first wedding there.” Curious, I asked if I could visit their home, meet them, and hear their reasons for wanting to be married in what was essentially a shopping mall. Now, many of my previous non-church wedding venues had included riversides, back yards, Virginia plantations, and living rooms. All, I stress, were nonetheless worship services, complete with prayers, scripture, and vows right out of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

It turns out that this couple’s home overlooked the downtown area, its lights, sirens, train whistles, the works. I recall clearly their telling me how committed they were to the city, its urban environment, growing signs of racial equality, cultural offerings, and, of course, the new marketplace “bridge.” Being married in the marketplace was one way to affirm their commitment to one another and to the city they called home. That was good enough for me.

When I told Bob Busey, Bon Air’s Pastor, about the plan, he said, “Kellam, you’ll do anything for money!” I guess he didn’t approve.

The wedding was to be an early evening affair. And it snowed that afternoon. It was still snowing as the dinner hour approached. Knowing how Richmonders panic in any wintry mix, I drove (carefully) to the Sixth Street Marketplace food court to catch supper before the wedding, figuring I’d better be in place early in case the snow fell more heavily. Who should appear to share a table but two church members, high school student Alan Finch and his mother Nancy. “What brings you downtown in this weather?” Nancy asked.

Now, I wasn’t really embarrassed about having agreed to do this wedding, but I answered almost reluctantly. “I’m doing a wedding near the fountain at 7 o’clock.” I wait for Nancy’s reaction. But Alan speaks up, saying, “Wow, that’s great! We’re studying Latin America in school and a lot of their weddings were festive parties held outside in the public squares. This will be our equivalent of that… a public wedding in the square!”

“Yes, exactly!” I replied. “Just like that.” Well, Alan was OK with it then. And his mother seemed convinced by his enthusiasm for it. I was relieved that I didn’t have to go any further with my own rationale. So, on to the fountain!

As the time for the ceremony approached, I noticed the Muzak still played overhead, but not too distractingly. The snow had kept shoppers away for the most part, but as the wedding party began arriving, a few folks were pausing outside the shops to watch. The best man approached and apologized for having left the marriage license in his hotel room. Can he retrieve it later? No. I told him I couldn’t legally do the ceremony until I had the document in hand. “We’ll wait for you,” I told him.

As we waited, a reporter from the Richmond newspaper showed up. Somehow she had heard about this, either from the Marketplace management or maybe the couple themselves. (Although Alan’s father was an editor for the paper, I couldn’t believe the word had gotten to him and a reporter assigned that quickly!) The reporter asked if photos of the ceremony would be OK, and I noted that it was a pretty public place, so as long as she used available light it was fine with me. Then, as I donned my liturgical robe, she asked the question. “So, this is the first wedding in the Marketplace. How do you feel about doing a wedding in a shopping mall?”

“Well, you know, in Latin American countries, weddings commonly take place in public squares amid shops and neighborhoods and fountains, and I’m happy to be a part of this North American version.” (Thanks, Alan!)

The best man arrived with the license, the bride descended the wide stairway to the fountain level, the groom met her there, and they made their vows in the heart of the city. The next day, our picture was in the newspaper.

I hope their marriage lasted longer than the Sixth Street Marketplace.

Tomorrow, my Lenten discipline of recording memories of my various church pastoral experiences continues. I keep watch as Beverly takes her last breath.

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