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A Wedding Behind Bars Affirms Rare Kind of Love

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.


Clark has witnessed much in his 17 years: drug abuse unraveling his mother's life, bullets ravaging his own body.

But a wedding. That he had never seen.

Until Saturday, when Ruth Fuglie and Thuan Vuong exchanged vows inside a chapel at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

The bride wore burgundy. The groom dressed in blue. And the guests, minors in orange uniforms, offered prayer and song to celebrate the love of a couple who had taken time to love them.

"We said, 'Why would she want to get married in here, among us?' " says Clark, remembering the day Fuglie, a youth volunteer, asked if she could have the ceremony at the facility.

"When she said it was because we meant so much to her, it made me feel good. It was a new experience. I've never been to a wedding."

Juvenile Hall officials say that Saturday's wedding was the first at Central, which houses and supervises youths awaiting trial for various crimes. (Because of their ages, juveniles' last names cannot be published.)

For more than a year, Fuglie has worked with the facility's Catholic chaplain's office. She and a handful of others spend each Wednesday evening reading and discussing Scripture with the youths in unit MN--boys who will be tried as adults for such crimes as carjacking, robbery, extortion or murder.

When she and Vuong, a Fuller Theological Seminary student, decided to marry, Fuglie thought of having the first ceremony at Juvenile Hall, knowing the inmates could not attend a wedding outside. (A second ceremony was held at another church for some 200 relatives and friends.)

"It seemed very natural," says Fuglie, whose new husband has worked with troubled youth in South-Central L.A. for 14 years. "We see them every week. They write to us, they share so much of our hopes and sorrow. It would be very unnatural for them to not be part of this passage."

The young men set up two committees, one in each section of the unit, to plan the ceremony and reception. Young women in two other units rehearsed songs for the wedding.

They made do with little, as scissors are contraband and there is limited free time. To work on a giant wedding banner, the young men sacrificed hours they could have spent watching television, writing letters or playing games.

The teen originally chosen to emcee the event got cold feet and had to be replaced at the last minute. The streamers for the reception did not arrive until the morning of the wedding.

Finally, Saturday came.

White flowers made of netting decorated the pews. The young women laid a runner of white paper down the aisle. The young men--all but two of the roughly 80 housed in unit MN--filed in quietly.

The three bridesmaids and groomsmen, friends and relatives of the couple, entered to the strains of soft music. Fuglie and Vuong followed, dressed in traditional Vietnamese wedding garb known as Ao-dai. The youths, some of whom admitted they would have refused to attend a wedding before they were incarcerated, sat quietly and attentively.

Julius, 17, began the program. "By having their wedding here, they're letting us know we mean a lot to them. . . . Let's just relax and be happy."

One young man read a poem. Another recited a prayer. Two young women joined voices, a cappella, and serenaded the couple with songs by Luther Vandross and the Winans. The wedding ran smoothly.

Clark read from Psalms, his heart pounding but his voice strong. When he finished, he tried to ad lib a personal message of congratulations: "Ruth and Thuan. God bless you. I hope. . . . Well, you know. . . ." He smiled shyly as his voice drifted off. The wedding guests laughed good-naturedly.

The wedding lasted barely 30 minutes--a moment to youths who may spend their lives in prison but long enough to bring some light inside the place they spend their days.

"Since I got locked up, I can't think of a time I was as happy as today," says Thai, 16, who offered a prayer during the ceremony in English and and then in Vietnamese. "When I got arrested, I felt like that's it. My life's over. I couldn't believe somebody (outside) cared. . . . But Ruth and Thuan made me feel like I have a future. I don't think anymore, because I'm in here, I'm a failure."

Mossiah, 16, says the ceremony made him think: "Damn, look at what you're missing. You could be outside, having your own little wedding."

At the reception, held at the boys' unit, the youths enjoyed cake and orange punch, and the newlyweds thanked them before taking off for the second wedding and a honeymoon in San Juan Capistrano.

"It felt really special," says groom Vuong. "All the effort they put in. I didn't expect it. It was a total surprise."

Fuglie, though, says she wasn't surprised:

"It shows me what they are when they're loved. I see how beautiful they are. And with enough encouragement and love, that beauty could happen everyday."

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