Commitment Ceremonies have become ground-breaking opportunities for couples, heterosexual or homosexual, to commit their hearts and souls to one another before god, family and friends. Although they are not currently recognized by any State as legal unions, there are several reasons why a couple may decide to take this course of action.
Reverend Tracy Lavender, of Brewster, performed a commitment ceremony in Falmouth for a young couple who didn't want to legally marry because the groom, who had brain cancer, would loose his health benefits. "It was one of the first ceremonies I did," she says. "It is one I will never forget because it showed me what commitment really means. It is not about a piece of paper, it's about what's in your heart. A legal wedding would have meant the groom lost the health care that he so desperately needed."
According to the Reverend Jim Robinson of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church, there has been an increase in the number of couples requesting this kind of spiritual service. "In the last fifteen years there has been lot of progress in recognition and affirming gay and lesbian committed relationships," Reverend Robinson explains. "More couples are openly committing to each other."
Robert Collum Jr. and Thomas Bergamini, for example, who lived in Boston before deciding to relocate to Cape Cod, decided to make their relationship more permanent when they bought their home in Orleans.
"Since we can't legally get married we looked for different options that are out there." Collum says. "We decided a commitment ceremony was something we really wanted to do." Collum and Bergamini then proceeded to put together what was, in essence, a wedding, with a ceremony on the lawn at the Old Sea Pines Inn, exchanging rings and vows in front of one hundred guests. "It was like any other wedding you've ever been to." Collum recalls. "My grandmother gave me my grandfather's ring after his death so that I could where it with my union with Tom, whom my grandmother absolutely loved. Tom has his father's ring, so we exchanged family rings as a sign of solidarity between family, life and love."
Reverend Robinson has also done commitment ceremonies for straight couples who, for one reason or another, did not want to get legally married. "In some cases the couple may be retired and don't want to go through an official marriage, but do want to show their grown children and grandchildren that they are committed to each other." In other instances, elderly couples may choose a commitment ceremony over a legal wedding to avoid loosing their health or insurance benefits left to them by a deceased spouse.
"I plan a commitment ceremony with all the seriousness and dignity of any marriage I would perform." says Reverend Robinson. "Depending upon the couple's spiritual faith, there will be different rituals in the ceremony."
The Reverend Brenda Haywood, affiliated Community Minister at the Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown, also officiates commitment ceremonies. "I feel very honored to be a part of this spiritual moment in another person's life. It is something that has touched me deeply. It's just taking that next step to cementing their relationship and their commitment to one another."
Every commitment service is tailored to each individual couple. "A lot of couples have been disenfranchised by the faith they grew up in and cannot go to that faith community, but feel that they do want a spiritual bonding or spiritual connection in their ceremony and so they bring their faith traditions with them." Reverend Haywood says.
These traditions have included the African American ritual of jumping the broom, "signifying moving into social justice, moving into an accepted state." Reverend Haywood has officiated ceremonies in the Jewish tradition where there was the breaking the glass. "I've also had a couple who braided a rope of sweet grass and used a Native American tradition, so when they faced each other and exchanged vows the groomsmen put the wreath on the ground and lit the sweet grass to purify and acknowledge the presence of the Spirit of life being there with them. It was beautiful."
There has been a big increase not only in commitment ceremonies, but in the size of them. Close family members now include parents, grandparents, siblings and children who are all getting involved in the service. "This is a spiritual bonding." Reverend Haywood says. "I've had fathers walk their daughters or sons down the aisle in the Meeting House, to give affirmation, welcoming the partner into the family, as a family member."
Attending a commitment ceremony can be healing experience for family members who may not have formerly understood or accepted the couple's relationship. One of the guests at Collum and Bergamini's ceremony who was "very straight-laced" proclaimed that "it was the nicest wedding he's ever been to" says Collum. "This was a nice complement to us that it wasn't weird, or unusual or uncomfortable for him."
Reverend Haywood supports this notion. "I have found that a lot of folks from the straight community, when they have attended one of these services, say that it had more meaning than their own wedding because it was actually speaking from the heart of the couple. A lot of thought and time has gone into developing the service that highlights the main facets of their relationship."
"When couples, whether gay or straight, really work to create their own ceremony, it becomes more meaningful." Reverend Robinson says.
"It's however a couple sees god and however they define that,"Reverend hayward adds. "They bring that into their service and that's what becomes so touching to other people who might not fully accept the relationship but have been invited and are there, and then all of a sudden it becomes clear to them. This is a marriage, it is a wedding, it is a commitment service and it is sacred."
Couples who have made a commitment have told Reverend Robinson that it did what a marriage is meant to do, "which is to declare to the world 'we are a couple and we want to stay together as a couple for our lifetime'. It has been a wonderful affirmation and has strengthened their relationship."
Many couples now travel to Provincetown from all over the world to perform commitment ceremonies and register themselves as domestic partners. "This is an international, spiritual program which is recognized by the church that performs the service, as well as the town of Provincetown." Reverend Haywood says.
Same sex and heterosexual partners can now register in the towns of Brewster, Provincetown, Cambridge and Northampton a statement of 'domestic partnership', which is an official form filed with the Town Clerk. "We are starting to get more domestic partnership legalization in different townships." Reverend Haywood adds
Jillian Douglas, the administrative assistant for the Town of Brewster, says that "the Brewster bylaw outlines the fact that domestic partnership has a legal standing within the Town of Brewster, but it doesn't supersede State or Federal law."
It does help, however, to be recognized as domestic partners in certain instances. "If someone had to undergo health care, or needed consent for a health procedure and they had a legally recognized partner," Douglas explains, "it allows that person to do things they wouldn't ordinarily be able to do. I would say the medical field recognizes this and would give the domestic partner more authority." Other situations may also include health insurance, adoptions, school and health records.
Although the State will not acknowledge a legal union between Collum and Bergamini, it will allow them to adopt children. "Our son is due on February 22nd." Collum says. "With love, compassion and faith and a more accepting world, we are going to raise this baby together, as a family. This is our next natural step in our loving, permanent relationship."
When asked if a commitment ceremony was necessary for a couple planning to adopt a child, Reverend Robinson had this to say: "Folks in the gay and lesbian community have been able to adopt without going through a commitment service, but I think this adds another bonding to the relationship and completes the family unit." "Our commitment ceremony gave us that sense of total togetherness, in every facet of our life." Collum concludes. "Everyone considers us married and refers to us as each other's husband, which is an acceptance."