Christopher and Angel Woodbridge, right, have their first dance as husband… (Christina House, For The…)
The final road to the altar for the four couples celebrating a group wedding in Long Beach on Sunday was a bit unconventional.
Most of the newlyweds, like high school sweethearts Angel Lewis and Christopher Woodbridge, had lived together for years and were raising families.
But the couple's plans to marry kept getting stalled, partly because saving money has been a struggle while raising five children. And last year, wedding bands they had purchased were stolen from their home.
So it was a godsend for them when the pastor at Parkcrest Christian Church, Mike Goldsworthy, announced during his sermon two weeks ago that the church would throw a free wedding and reception for any unmarried couples in the congregation who were living together.
"If your only barrier is the cost of a wedding, we will remove that," he said.
Lewis' mother, attending the service with Angel that day, nudged her daughter and laughed. "This is what you've been waiting for," she said. Lewis agreed, went home and proposed. "I told Chris about it, and I asked him, 'Would you marry me?'" she said. "He thought I was kidding at first."
Also in church that day was James Delgadillo, a part-time teacher and L.A. County sheriff's deputy. His fiancee, Graciela Chica, was next to him. On a church pamphlet where he usually jots down notes from the sermon, he wrote to Chica: "I want to do this."
On Sunday, the four grooms lined up at the front of the Parkcrest chapel's pews, grinning broadly as their brides marched down the aisle. Some were handed off by their children to their husbands-to-be.
"Gentlemen, go forward and receive your bride," Goldsworthy said. In a brief address, he said the weddings were "more than a mere formality." They marked an important commitment to God, Goldsworthy said, and a public announcement of the couples' relationships.
The vows were exchanged individually, with three pastors taking turns officiating. Friends and family cheered and applauded when the couples kissed for the first time as husbands and wives.
"To us, we've been married — just not in front of God," Lewis — now Woodbridge — said.
Sunday's church-financed weddings were a first for Parkcrest, Goldsworthy said. His offer was partly motivated by couples' reluctance to marry because of the costs involved. But he added he also wants members of his congregation to adhere to the Bible.
"We believe that God's plan for a couple is not to be living together, but marriage," he said.
Goldsworthy said the church might offer more free weddings in the future. "I already have one other couple who is ready to marry if we do this again," he said.
Delgadillo said the pastor's offer was too good to pass up. He had already proposed to Chica this summer at their son's first birthday party, and they were planning to save up for a wedding.
With the little money they had set aside, Chica bought a long ivory dress for the short-notice wedding — their largest expense.
For most of the couples, their respective wedding parties were small, about 20 family members and friends. The shared nature of the ceremony didn't seem to detract from the moment.
"I was just excited. I've been wanting to marry this man now for 13 years," Chica said. "I think it's more meaningful than having a big wedding."
After the ceremony, the couples, families and friends moved to a joint reception in the church's event hall, which had twinkling white lights and a band playing live music. The church provided individual cakes so each couple could have a traditional cutting.
"Opportunities like these are a blessing," Delgadillo said. "To me, this is a wedding gift they are giving us."