When the Reverend Katy Hawker headed to the altar, her church came, too

When the Reverend Katy Hawker headed to the altar, her church came, too
Mia Ulmer/birchtreestudio.com
They'd been on their honeymoon for a week, and it had been grand. Their road trip began right after the wedding in Iowa, and so they headed west in the heat of July, the science teacher nerding out over the natural phenomena, the pastor basking in love. It was a welcome respite from the construction they were doing on their house and the demands of work, a chance to just be.

They stayed in bed and breakfasts and quirky little hotels along the way. They got warm greetings and Champagne from innkeepers who realized they were on their honeymoon. They participated in Native American dancing in a town square in Arizona and passed through Laramie, Wyoming, infamous for the murder of Matthew Shepard.

In Moab, Utah, they stopped for a meal at a vegetarian restaurant. Red rocks, nature and animal-friendly cuisine seemed to bode well.

Above: Darlene Self and Katy Hawker, bride and bride.
Mia ulmer/birchtreestudio.com
Above: Darlene Self and Katy Hawker, bride and bride.
Right: Boarding the Iowa-bound wedding bus.
Mia ulmer/birchtreestudio.com
Right: Boarding the Iowa-bound wedding bus.

"It was the safe place," says Katy Hawker, the newlywed pastor.

But it wasn't.

Back in Iowa, their getaway car had been lovingly decorated with tin cans and "Just Married!" signs and hearts encircling their names. Outside the restaurant, however, someone had added a different message: "a big orange 'fag,'" says Hawker.

Hawker, who only came out as a lesbian in recent years, was stunned. Not so her bride, Darlene Self, who's been out for most of her 40 years.

"I was expecting it," Self says.

The newlyweds erased the decorations with both of their names, "to make it less of a target," Hawker says. "We left the heart.

"Then, I cried."

Katy Hawker was pretty sure she wasn't supposed to date parishioners. Which made Darlene Self a problem from the minute she walked into Hawker's church.

Self was there because she had been thinking about expanding her family. A soft-spoken schoolteacher who's been known to rock a fedora over her graying waves, she has a 24-year-old daughter, Amber, but was considering adopting and fostering other kids.

"I came to realize I'd need more structure in my life," Self says. "I thought going to church would help that."

Growing up in St. Louis, Self was raised in a Southern Baptist family. But she always knew she was different.

"I knew I was a lesbian before I knew about sex and sexuality," she says. "I was always out — I would say defiantly so."

When Self decided to give religion another chance, two colleagues at her school recommended their church, Evangelical United Church of Christ in Webster Groves. In April 2010, Self checked it out — and loved what she found.

"It was fabulous," she says. "I got in with a rowdy group — we like to crack jokes in the pews. The worship there is really nice and comfortable."

And Self found far more than comfort.

"Let me just say I noticed her the day she walked in," says Hawker. A 49-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair and a propensity for thoughtful pauses before she speaks, she's been the pastor of Evangelical since 1996.

Self held her new pastor's attention as she quickly became part of the community. "What was interesting to me was to watch her fall in love with the church," Hawker says.

The immediate, mutual attraction put Hawker in an odd position. Everyone's heard the cliché about dipping one's pen into the company ink — what about falling in love with someone who's entrusted you with her spiritual care?

"I kept thinking, 'I cannot be on a date with her; she's a parishioner,'" says Hawker. "I talked with close friends, mentors. I ran it by my therapist. She said, 'You don't get to make Darlene's decisions. She's an adult.'"

The pair first went on an outing together in June. Self invited Hawker to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' production of Hamlet.

"It wasn't a date, even though I wanted it to be a date," says Self. "I was concerned — preachers, they're not supposed to get involved! I talked it over with my daughter. She said, 'Preachers need love too!' I decided I would make a very fine picnic basket."

They learned a lot from each other in the following months. Self learned that religion wasn't all hellfire and damnation. Hawker learned about diving into love.

At first, they played it close to the vest. "We were pretty discreet," Self says, adding to her partner, "I let you do your job."

"When I'm at work, I'm at work," Hawker says.

As it became clear that their relationship was the real thing, the pair realized they'd have to tell the congregation. Although many people suspected a budding relationship, Hawker and Self officially kept it to themselves until after Christmas.

By that point, Self says, "A whole paradigm shift took place."

For Self's entire life, she'd figured marriage was out of the question. "Gay people are sentenced to a life of serial monogamy, with no access to the concept of strong family structures," she says. "I didn't grow up with the idea of the stability that can come with a family unit, that can come with marriage." But her feelings for Hawker changed everything: "I decided to grow a family with Katy. I'd like to be legally married."

Next Page »