TJ Williams and Brad Hauger first met in 2003 at an HRC Gala in Chicago. Brad was working an auction, and TJ had crashed the party. They spoke and felt an instant connection, but wouldn't see each other until the following year at the Chicago Pride Parade. Brad says "TJ was there on a float, waving." "I was sitting on my own throne on a float," TJ adds. They took a walk along Lake Michigan, getting to know one another better, and parted ways. A year later, TJ had just returned from the United Church of Christ General Synod, where there had been much discussion on the topic of marriage equality. TJ was an active participant in those conversations, and came back to Chicago happy knowing that the UCC had ultimately endorsed the marriage of same-sex couples.
He called Brad and set up their first real date.
Over time their relationship grew deeper. They moved in together, and eventually joined the Riverside Church, a place of worship in Manhattan committed to serving people of all kinds, regardless of race, class, gender or sexual orientation. TJ began studying at the nearby New York Theological Seminary, and for him, Riverside was a perfect fit. Brad was more hesitant, but says that TJ helped "pull him back into the fold." It didn't hurt that Riverside includes a special ministry, Maranatha, dedicated to promoting equity for LGBTQ people.
In 2008, Brad decided to propose. TJ accepted and the two of them exchanged rings. "There was a lot going on then," says TJ. "It was the start of the recession, the presidential election was coming up..." To the two of them, it seemed like a moment pregnant with opportunity.
They started planning the wedding before marriage equality was even legal in New York state. While the status of their upcoming union was uncertain, the location wasn't. They would be married at Riverside. "I just thought to myself, this is a church I can't get kicked out of," TJ explains.
The wedding, held on Sunday, October 30, was both a celebration of their union, and the greater unity they hope to see between the LGBT and African American communities. The couple processed hand-in-hand - TJ beaming, Brad staying more stoic. After Reverend Dr. Arnold Thomas, the officiant for the ceremony, gave his opening remarks, three speakers went to the podium to discuss the importance of unity between communities as our country moves forward.
Kate McDonough, of the Empire State Pride Agenda, spoke on the importance of allies. She explained that while we can't know the experiences of another oppressed group, we've all experienced prejudice, and we can stand together for that most basic of rights: "the ability to live as we are." Reverend Ray Bagnulo of Moorlight Presbyterian Church followed by congratulating the happy couple, and reminding the attendees that the fastest track to acceptance is through love. "This kind of love," he said, gesturing toward Brad and TJ, "breaks down the inequalities and injustices in the world." The final address was given by Ammon Ripple, speaking for the United Church of Christ Coalition for LGBT concerns. He pledged the church's continuing investment in marriage equality for couples regardless of gender.
The featured speaker was Reverend Dr. Dennis Wiley, of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, DC. Wiley has taught and presented throughout the nation, authored articles in major religious books and journals, and serves on councils for the HRC and DC Clergy for Marriage Equality. "Too often the struggles for racial and LGBT justice have been seen as separate movements," Wiley said. "What we're witnessing today is not simply a wedding of two gay men. It prophetically challenges us to examine our communities and relationships."
Reverend Wiley concluded with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached from the pulpit at Riverside in 1967: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and concluded by saying "none of us will be free, until all of us are free."
Afterward TJ and Brad exchanged vows and lit a unity candle from their two separate tapers. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Reverend Thomas announced, "You are married in the name of God." The two shared their first kiss as a legally wedded couple.
"It was just amazing," TJ said afterwards. "And there was a certain validation - from the community, from my mentors." The couple celebrated with a reception in a nearby restaurant where they shared champagne and cake with friends. "It's not easy to plan a wedding from Chicago to New York," Brad said, "But it all came together very well. I think it was meant to be."
Now back in Chicago, TJ and Brad are thrilled to be married, but like any good activists, they know the fight isn't over. They're exploring the ways in which their marriage in New York will be honored in Illinois (which only offers civil unions) and are committed to the causes so pointedly stated during their wedding. "We are continuing the conversation about unity between the African American and LGBT communities," TJ says. Their marriage is a prime example of that union, and as Reverend Wiley said, "Relationships are the key to social justice."