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

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.

"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."

Self popped the question Christmas morning, amid the presents and the tree, in front of her daughter and Hawker's daughter and son.

As they tell their story, the women are just back from their two-week road trip, with two more blissful weeks before they plan to return to work. They're sitting and chatting in the sunny living room of their one-story brick house in Dogtown. There's strong coffee and sun tea brewing on the front porch. Two cats check in on the conversation from time to time.

The barefoot women hold hands, gaze into each others eyes and coo at each other. They're the picture of treacly newlyweds.

Plenty of people knew the pair were dating, especially as Hawker sought advice from her closest friends and colleagues. But the big announcement came from the pulpit — and it came as an invitation.

In Missouri, two women can't legally be married. The pair had considered eloping by taking a bus to Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal.

But their story was so bound up in the congregation that instead they decided to make it an event, inviting all 400 parishioners along. And, as they started making plans, eight other couples wanted in on the action: same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples, some wanting to marry and others to renew their vows.

One reason that the congregation was able to roll with Hawker's announcement and invitation so easily may have been that they've been privy to her personal life before — her hopes, dreams and very identity.

Indeed, that post-Christmas pulpit announcement wasn't the first time Katy Hawker was forced to spill her guts to her congregation. When she first arrived at the church, she was the mother of two small children — and a wife. Her husband, Gary Boehnke, became a well-loved part of the congregation.

But, after nearly twenty years of marriage, Hawker finally came to terms with the truth about herself in 2008: She was a lesbian. When the pair divorced, Hawker knew she'd have to come out to her congregation. After all, they were her family.

She and her husband first approached a select few insiders in church leadership and then a few more and a few more. They came up with a plan for telling the congregation at large, and the church's governing body president crafted an explanation. It was important to Hawker that members of the church had someone to talk to about the change — someone other than her.

"Coming out to the congregation...know those nightmares about being at school in your underwear? It was like that," Hawker says.

But she was surprised to find that her congregation stood by her. Not one person left over it, she says.

"It was a really hard time, but people were amazing," Hawker says.

The United Church of Christ, or UCC, is a fairly liberal denomination. It was among the first to ordain women, it has a long tradition of social justice and civil-rights advocacy, and it has long been welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

But that doesn't mean every church is OK with having a gay pastor. Even in the UCC, some ministers have been fired by their congregations for revealing their sexuality.

When Hawker began coming out, she and church leaders sought out other ministers who had successfully gone through the same process. They found none.

In fact, they found three in the area who had been fired by their congregations upon coming out. (Of the three, Riverfront Times was able to contact one, who is happily preaching at a new and accepting church and declined to discuss those bad old days.)

Other denominations are wrestling internally with the issue of gay clergy. Just last month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America reinstated seven gay and lesbian pastors in the San Francisco Bay Area. They had been expelled from the denomination in 1990, along with their churches, after they were ordained. In May 2010, that denomination also reinstated a gay pastor in Atlanta after tossing him in 2007.

And in 2001, a Methodist bishop in the Seattle area filed a complaint in church court against the Reverend Karen Dammann, who was in what she called a "partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship." Dammann was acquitted in 2004.

The UCC's power structure is decentralized. The overall governing body, called the general synod, "doesn't speak for all the congregations, it speaks to them," explains spokesman Gregg Brekke.

The general synod declared in 1985 that the denomination supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — that it is "open and affirming" to such folks. In 2005, the general synod declared its support for LGBT marriage equity. But it's left to each church individually to codify that notion into their bylaws. If a church does so, it's officially known as "open and affirming."

Hawker led her congregation through the "open and affirming" process early on — and that change, unlike her later, personal revelation, did cause a few families to leave the church.

The decision came soon after the notorious murder of a gay man in Wyoming in 1998. An independent Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas, under the leadership of Fred Phelps, had been vomited into the national consciousness when it protested Shepard's funeral with its now-infamous "God Hates Fags" rhetoric.

"A group of us from the church wondered how so-called Christians could be so hateful," Hawker says. "We were moved to be a different voice."

With Hawker's guidance, Evangelical codified its "open and affirming" stance three years after Shepard's death. The Webster Groves congregation is one of just 980 churches in the UCC to do so — out of 5,200.

The decision cost Evangelical a few families, says Al Schon, a long-time parishioner and member of the pastoral staff. "It was a stretch for some folks in the congregation," Schon says.

But the church gained some families, too — including its music directors, married couple Jill Thompson and Donita Bauer, who say the "open and affirming" designation was critical in their choice of Evangelical.

"As a musician, I can't work in a church that's slapping me in the face," Bauer says.

But as the numbers make clear, Evangelical is hardly the norm for United Church of Christ congregations. In fact, one faction of the UCC actively opposes same-sex marriage.

"We would say that the 'open and affirming' perspective in general on human sexuality is not in keeping with the Bible," says Pastor Bob Thompson of the Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, North Carolina. He heads a group within the UCC church called "Faithful and Welcoming," which (despite its name) expressly opposes same-sex marriage.

After the general synod called for marriage equality in 2005, Faithful and Welcoming formed in opposition, allowing more conservative UCC members to register their objections. The member churches want to be clear that they aren't leaving over their disagreement. They just want to express their beliefs.

"The key issue is that the UCC was formed as a denomination to be united and uniting and that we can come together as people who believe in Jesus Christ and look to Scripture," he says. "We've seen people say, 'This is the last straw; we're leaving.' We want the denomination to stand on its founding principle, which is unity."

But he characterizes the general synod's "open and affirming" declaration as a wedge, an issue that steamrolls the viewpoints of more conservative members of the church. He says that it's become unquestioned to support marriage equality and LGBT rights, and that ironically stifles diversity.

Only about 75 or 100 churches have joined Faithful and Welcoming, he says.

"We're not really worried about the numbers," Thompson says. "When the church nationally is so one-sided, it's hard to stick your hand up."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Katy Hawker's journey has been how smoothly it's gone. Her church family has always had her back.

At a recent Vacation Bible School event, Hawker found herself pleasantly surprised: "Aside from congratulatory comments, my recent marriage with a woman was totally not news."

One unexpected person has stood by Hawker and her church — though he doesn't see it as remarkable. Hawker's ex-husband, Gary Boehnke, remains a presence in the church and in her family.

"I guess I could have chosen to leave," Boehnke says. "I've heard of other people that one spouse or the other revealed they were gay — they couldn't stay." But Boehnke has remained an active member of Evangelical's congregation; he's found it to be a great help. "Having a supportive community made a difference. It is a family."

Boehnke, who heads a redevelopment nonprofit, recalls that he met Hawker at a wedding after hearing about her for years through mutual friends.

They dated off and on for five years, never living in the same place, which, he admits, wasn't easy. "I did say off and on," he says with a smile. "It was all on AT&T's bill."

He's clearly invested in his ex-wife's new life and the congregation they joined all those years ago. In fact, he was at his ex-wife's wedding in Iowa, stepping in to help with the flowers. And when it was time to move their daughter into her dorm room last fall, he was there — along with his ex-wife and her new partner.

"No relationship is perfect, nor did I wish my relationship with Katy to end," he says. "But to stay married to Kate meant that she couldn't be who she was or be honest. It's like with your children. You want the best for your children — you want them to fully realize themselves.

"Sure, it was difficult. It was difficult for all four of us."

His nineteen-year-old daughter, Winona Hawker-Boehnke, is home in St. Louis for the summer before beginning her sophomore year at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, where she's majoring in women's studies with a minor in Arabic. A dead ringer for her mother, she wears a floral cross around her neck, several silver rings, including one with rainbow motif, a rainbow bracelet and a pin that says "I think, therefore I am dangerous."

She beat her mom to coming out, big time — which amuses her to no end. She told her family she was bisexual in the eighth grade. Her brother high-fived her during a brief pause in a computer game and got on with it. Her mother was loving and supportive. And her father, whom she'd been anxious about telling, was totally fine with it. "My dad has a huge heart," she says. "He's always been there. He's never going anywhere."

Of course, the divorce was hard on Hawker-Boehnke and her family — the biological one and the church one.

"It's good, it's bad, it can be ugly," she allows. "My mom is in a much better place. My parents loved each other — just a different kind of love. I guess the 'Mom being gay' part wasn't that surprising, and the separation wasn't that surprising. But it was hard and complicated. Patterns have to be re-created. I still view the family as my mom, dad, my brother and I. It's a new family. That's the hard part."

She was away at college while the new family was coming together, which was tough. When she comes home for breaks, she's been staying with her father because the women are renovating what had been Self's house to expand it for the whole family. She has a bedroom there, as does her brother and Self's daughter.

But she says there's never been a question that people have her back.

"The church is not just a church," she says. "I grew up in the church. It's a home. They were there for me."

On their wedding day, the bride wears shiny orange Birkenstocks. So does the other bride. They also wear custom-made warrior tunics, black embroidered dresses from Israel, accented by garlands of beads.

Before the wedding, Hawker and Self sit in the front of a packed bus for five hours, trekking from Webster Groves to Burlington, Iowa. Despite the 6 a.m. departure time, there is no sleeping on this road trip. The church's governing body president, Janet Rundquist, emcees hours of entertainment.

There is trivia about couples on the bus, and one couple's secret passion for Renaissance fairs is shockingly revealed. Two young boys quiz the passengers on St. Louis trivia. A prize bag, for correct answers, nearly explodes with candy, Play-Doh and bubbles. Someone brings out a ukulele; everyone joins in for some camp songs.

And then there's a notebook, passed from the front of the bus to the back. Each person writes a sentence making a prediction about Hawker and Self's honeymoon road trip. The story features a unicorn and heroism, as well as a sentence Rundquist declines to read aloud — she feels it violates the game's stated PG-13 stricture.

Finally, the bus pulls up to Burlington's Zion United Church of Christ.

At that church, the "open and affirming" designation is both quite new and thoroughly uncontroversial. In a congregation of 306, only 4 voices were raised in opposition during the four-month process, says Jane Willan, its pastor. "No one has left. Some were gained. It's a real commitment to what they believe."

Between Evangelical congregants who've ridden the bus, others who've driven their own cars and members of Zion, the church's sanctuary is full. Little girls sprinkle flower petals up the aisle, followed by brides and grooms.

Pastor Willan leads the assembled in a prayer thanking God for families "single and partnered, widowed and married, some children, no children, grown children, gender diversity and sameness, canines and felines and humans."

There are nine couples. Hawker and Self are accompanied by their three kids, with Micah Hawker-Boehnke and his sister Winona both dapper in suits and Self's daughter Amber radiant in a short black dress.

"I think to myself, 'Wow, excuse me, a big gay wedding in my church!'" Pastor Willan says, to plenty of laughter from the pews.

One by one, the pairs make their vows to each other. The solemnities draw from Buddhist, Native American and Christian traditions.

And there's a Jewish touch, too: When they're done, the Christian sanctuary rings out with the sound of nine pairs of feet crunching glass. "Mazel tov!" Katy Hawker's congregation cries. "Mazel tov!

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