Steven Murphy and Yvonne Rodriguez could have chosen a swank church along the beach or in wine country for their June wedding. Instead, the Los Angeles medical professionals got married Sunday in jail -- Central Juvenile Hall, to be precise -- before more than 100 incarcerated youths doing time for all manner of crimes.
Never mind that the chapel is ringed with barbed wire. Or that the 35 outside guests needed security clearance and metal detector checks. After the couple exchanged vows, someone in the crowd called out: "Beautiful!" And the whole church exploded in laughter and applause.
"It was such a powerful moment when the children applauded," said Rodriguez, dressed in white satin and pearls, as she wiped away tears. "It all made sense why we decided to have this beautiful sacrament here."
For three years, the couple has worked weekly with juvenile hall's mentally ill youths as members of the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Detention Ministry. At juvenile hall, among children who have endured wrenching experiences, Murphy and Rodriguez say, they found a powerful presence of God.
The children have become their family; the hall chapel their spiritual home. So when it came time to choose a wedding site, the couple says, there was really no other choice.
"This is where we feel spiritually alive," explained Murphy, 33. "These kids are dear to us."
Father Gregory J. Boyle, who conducted what probation officials say is only the second wedding ceremony held at juvenile hall, told the youths: "Yvonne and Steve could have gotten married in the cathedral ... but they chose here because you are important," he said. "They have discovered in you God's delight."
Rodriguez, an Acapulco native who came to Los Angeles at age 2, is a psychiatric social worker; Murphy, who grew up near Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, is a family practice physician. They met three years ago at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
After dating for a few months, Murphy said, he asked Rodriguez: "Hey honey, you want to go to jail with me?"
Murphy had started volunteering at juvenile hall shortly after moving from Wisconsin, where he had organized field trips for at-risk youths. Long imbued with a spirit of service -- he helped build schools in Kenya and latrines for the poor in Brazil -- Murphy became interested in youth crime prevention while working in emergency rooms, where he often saw the end result of violence.
He had heard of Boyle's work with gang members and sought him out at the Jesuit priest's Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles. After visiting probation camps with Boyle, Murphy came to Central Juvenile Hall and, he said, found a place of holiness.
There were children as young as 12, appearing scared but who seemed to relax in church, Murphy said. There were burly guys with tattoos on their necks who let down their emotional guard during services.
There was also a close-knit community of detention ministry members, some of whom had volunteered to visit the children weekly for as long as three decades. Although archdiocesan budget cuts have halved the ministry's paid staff from 24 to 12, about 80 volunteers visit the juveniles every week, according to Chaplain Javier Stauring. Many -- including Murphy -- say they get far more from the youths than they give.
"There was a palpable level of spirituality that I'd never felt," Murphy said.
Rodriguez shares a similar experience. A top student who graduated from USC with a bachelor's degree in psychology and earned her master's in clinical social work at Cal State Northridge, Rodriguez had volunteered at schools and hospitals. But she said she never felt connected to a church -- until she came to juvenile hall.
The couple, who have a visiting hour with the children after Mass, said they have been inspired by the hope and resiliency of children who have suffered physical and emotional abuse, and have been the victims of random violence.
Rodriguez describes one girl who witnessed the murder of her father at age 10, was abused by her mother's boyfriend, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, yet still manages to stay optimistic about the future.
"Once you get to know these kids as people," Murphy says, "it's impossible to see them as just gang members or violent offenders."
The couple invited several of the children to participate in their wedding ceremony Sunday. One girl read a thank-you note she had penned for Rodriguez. A boy read a poem he had written about love.
Then came the claps, whistles and calls of "beso! beso!" -- kiss! The couple obliged.
Rodriguez's father, Jose Luis, said he was proud that his only daughter would choose to marry in jail. "I feel it's something to motivate the young people -- they need some direction and hope," he said. "It's a little gift from us to the community."