Andre Hensley was pacing the sidewalk, flustered, when I showed up for the annual convention of the religious order founded by his late father. Hensley, a fleshy, focused man of 49, was in pleated khakis and a blue shirt and tie, his receding hair combed back off a broad forehead.
Considering that the 48-year-old Universal Life Church lists millions of members on its rolls, I expected at least some kind of crowd outside its world headquarters, a simple white-clapboard church on a leafy residential street in the San Joaquin Valley city of Modesto. Maybe traffic or confusion about the start time was holding people up, Hensley muttered as he ushered me into the church office. He offered me orange juice, made a few phone calls and went out to survey the street, where ranchera music drifted from the windows of shabby bungalows. When, with evident resignation, he finally led me into the church, a grand total of four people were in the rows of padded metal chairs facing the pulpit.
Perhaps two dozen more would drift through the church over the weekend. Though few in number, the attendees were abundant in spiritual diversity. There was Brother Don Manor, a balding flower wholesaler from San Marcos who had at various times followed Catholicism, Buddhism and Judaism and who used his turn at the pulpit to give a full-throated sermon denouncing the Bible as "a guide that is totally out of date." There was Minister Shirley Broussard of Long Beach, who has been hearing the voice of God and foreseeing the future since she was 7. There was a telephone faith healer from Florida and a pretty blond dancer who proselytizes to her Hollywood peers, "all the people with breast implants and butt implants and facial surgery, because they'll listen to someone who's like them."
Midway through the morning, a man with long stringy hair and an enormous beard wheeled a little red motor up to the pulpit. "Most of you have probably heard about the 200-mile-per-gallon carburetors," he began without preamble. Hensley nodded supportively from the front row as the man explained how this device could power an entire house and how we too could build one with materials available at any auto parts store.
This is my church.
My marriage was consecrated by a minister of this faith. In fact, I'm a ULC minister myself. So are my wife, several friends and as many as 20 million other people, including "Survivor" host Jeff Probst, Nicole Richie and Courtney Love. The Universal Life Church is a legally recognized religion that ordains anyone--absolutely anyone. You go to its website, type in your name and basic contact information, and a few days later you receive a certificate in the mail confirming that, boom, you're a minister. It costs nothing, and the church's formal doctrine is easy to master. It consists of this sentence: "Do only that which is right."
The ULC is minting about 10,000 ministers a month, double the volume of just a few years ago, according to Hensley. They're ordained so they can become jail pastors, visit hospice patients or gain credibility for their own religious groups. The overwhelming majority--at least 90%, by Hensley's guess--sign up just for the perk of having the legal authority to officiate at a wedding.
These days, interfaith marriages are commonplace, as are second marriages. Many couples don't belong to any formal religious institution. And many want a ceremony tailored to their tastes and personalities. So it's no surprise that the number of nondenominational officiants, both hired professionals and volunteer amateurs, is booming.
My wedding was performed by a cousin who was ordained by the ULC for the occasion. No offense to the justice of the peace who married my first wife and me in a New York City municipal office, but the second exchange of vows was immeasurably more meaningful. My cousin helped us create a ceremony brimming with affection and intimacy. There were customized blessings interwoven with personal memories, and everyone's name was pronounced correctly.
A couple of my friends were so impressed that they asked me to marry them the next year. My brother requested my wife preside over his; she's done four weddings now. Scan the New York Times announcements most any week, and you'll find a ULC-officiated wedding. Visit wedding websites, and you'll find dozens of ads for ULC-ordained ministers.
Why not? Why should love need the imprimatur of a civic official or institutional clergy member? Marriage is the celebration of two people freely making one of life's most important choices; it seems only fitting that they should have the same freedom to choose the person who will concretize that decision. The ULC is religion at its most democratic.