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Minister for a Day / An occasional look at people who
temporarily take on new jobs.

Dearly Beloved, He Really Blathered Here

November 30, 1998|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The call came amid the heretic heat of early fall.

It was my friend Ali Aladdin, a Bombay-born Berkeley denizen with his own way of doing things.

"I'm getting married," he announced.

"Wonderful," I said. "When's the wedding? I'm there."

"Soon," he said. "We want you to marry us."

I nearly dropped the receiver, sure that I had misheard him.

"Ali, I'll read a poem. I'll say a prayer. I'll be your best man. But I think we better leave the marrying part to the professionals, don't you think?"

But Ali and his bride, Stephanie Fiske, had thought things through. They wanted their entire wedding party to consist of friends, even when it came down to the minister.

They didn't want to walk down the aisle toward any stranger, some anonymous robe-wearing holy man who wouldn't even know their names from Adam. Or Eve.

They wanted familiarity, a pastor they knew. They were willing to gamble. Even if it meant choosing me.

"But I, ahem, I'm not a reverend. I don't have a license. I don't even go to church. I can't . . . "

"Don't worry," Ali assured me. "Small details. I'll take care of everything."

Me, a minister? I couldn't think of any other job more ill-suited to either my morality or personality, even if it were to be just for a day. As a journalist, I'd interviewed many ministers, but to step across the line and try to fill a holy man's shoes--well, to be honest, it filled me with a sense of God-fearing dread.

Reared Roman Catholic, a former altar boy, I'd always been awed by the respect that priests commanded as trusted father figures. They had a power, this Cold War-type red emergency telephone with a long-distance connection straight to God.

But I'd be nothing but an impostor. What right did I have to stand inside any chapel and join these two young people into marriage? With my stamp of approval, their union was no doubt doomed for sure. Worse, I might get struck by some divinely thrown lightning bolt in the process.

But what the heck, I live in the land of B-rated bad actors. I later learned Stephanie and Ali had originally asked another friend to say the wedding but that she had politely refused. In a fix, they desperately tried to think of somebody else shameless enough to do the job, a loudmouth whose voice would carry throughout any cavernous church.

My name came to mind. I couldn't let them down.

A few weeks later, Stephanie called me at work with the details. She laughed, lowered her voice, and sounded vaguely conspiratorial.

A friend of her brother's had seen an ad in the classified section of Rolling Stone magazine. She gave me the number in Modesto of the Universal Life Church.

This wasn't just any church. It was the outfit run by the Rev. Kirby J. Hensley, an 87-year-old former carpenter who in 35 years had made millions peddling minister's licenses.

He was known as the Modesto Messiah of mail-order ministry. By his own count, Hensley has minted 20 million pastors nationwide.

For $35, he bestows doctorates of religious science and a certificate of sainthood for just five bucks.

The work is legally recognized by both church and state. But during the Vietnam War, young men tried to escape service by claiming that they were ministers in Hensley's church. And ordinary people, armed with one of his minister licenses, tried to claim tax exemptions.

This was a church of controversy--my kind of place. I called the Modesto number and within a few days my free, donation-requested minister's certificate arrived in the mail.

I felt holier already.

*

My goal as minister was to be a bit shocking, to steal a page from a wedding my brother recently attended where the minister warned those present that if they wanted the couple to succeed, they had best just stay out of the relationship.

After all, Ali and Stephanie's marriage was to be a bicultural affair--Bombay boy meets fair-haired Northern California girl. Cross-cultural tensions were bound to arise. I thought it would be good advice.

Then I received Stephanie's script, the collection of nondenominational prayers and other observations she wanted me to read. There was little room for ad-libbing.

So I traveled to the Sonoma Valley with script in hand, ready to play by the rules. This, after all, was no stand-up routine, just the most important day in two people's lives.

The ceremony was to take place inside the old mission near downtown Sonoma. The rehearsal went fine. Rather than taking control of the logistics, as veteran ministers might, I followed my orders. This was definitely Stephanie's show.

On the wedding eve, there came my first chance to put my own stamp on things. I asked Stephanie her pet name for her husband-to-be. She smiled sweetly and said "Barkie." Hers was an equally quaint "Daffodil."

I looked at Ali: "You shouldn't have told me that."

The following evening, the tiny mission was brimming with invited guests. When the couple arrived up front, I made a few subtle changes, following my experience at weddings.

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