November 16, 2015

Bringing joy to change

Sam Smith

Lately I’ve been feeling a little down about activism. Not only is there no substantial counterculture, anti-war movement or worker rebellion, but change in general has too often become another procedure in which process, data, profound pronunciations and polite paradigms - not to mention just blunt anger - take precedence over actually doing something that makes a difference. Further, a kind of progressive puritanism has taken over in which one‘s personal virtue and profession of faith is more highly regarded than the development of an imperfect, inconsistent but effective mob of sinners trying harder.

So I was not particularly prepared for last weekend as I went to Providence RI for a gay wedding involving a long time friend from Maine. But the moment I opened the church service program, I knew it was going to be different day. On the first page, before any words from the Bible, the minister, or assigned to the congregation, was a letter of congratulations from the mayor. Like the wedding couple, Jorge Elorza is in his thirties. He is the son of Guatemalan immigrants and went to Harvard Law School and worked on Wall Street before successfully beating the notorious Buddy Cianci for mayor. He often bikes to work and has created a “Twitter Town Hall” for his constituents.

The letter didn’t surprise me for long, however, because I had lived in Rhode Island once and had learned that everything in that state was personal. Like that full page newspaper political ad filled with a photo of an elderly woman standing at the bottom of a dark stairway, mildly lit by a small antique lamp on a lace covered table. The ad’s entire one-line message was “My son, the governor.” And he won.

When I thought about it later, a Providence mayor congratulating a gay couples wasn’t that strange either. After all, Roger Williams, who had founded the Providence Plantation was expelled by the Massachusetts Puritans for teaching “new and dangerous ideas” such as the separation of church and state, and, later, abolition.

And more than a century later, George Washington would write a Jewish synagogue in the state a few words hardly at odds with the Rhode Island spirit:

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of the people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it, on all occasions, their effectual support.”

There was something else at the end of the church program that caught my eye: a couple of pages of promos and logos of local businesses that “we’ve enlisted to support us on our special day.”

As the service ended and the nearly 200 guests gathered as instructed across the street from the 19th century church, I was reminded that this wasn’t just a gay wedding but a marriage of two skilled PR guys: Rich Pezzilo, communications director for the Hemophilia Federation and former press secretary for Senator Whitehouse, and Michael DeGrandpre, creative director for a sports marketing firm.

Within moments several yellow bike pedicabs had showed up as well as a New Orleans style marching band. Our assignment: to march behind the pedicabs and with the band to the reception several blocks away, our path cleared by three Providence police cars. A sergeant on the corner was invited to come to the reception; he smiled and said he wished he could.

What I had earlier imagined as a virtuous ceremony in support of two brave men and of a still controversial cause had turned like magic into an event that every one – from an 89 year old grandfather of one of the grooms to a cop on the beat - was simply enjoying as an unprecedented celebration. Michael and Rich had turned change into joy.

Nothing altered or slowed down at the reception. A Catholic priest friend of one of the families gave the supper blessing and was later seen happily bopping away on the dance floor. There was not a single political or pretentious moment in the toasts. I asked the wedding photographer what she thought and she replied, “It was the best day ever.” A couple of hundred people having the sort of fun they haven’t learned to have, say, in some parts of Kentucky.

It was a reminder of something too many have forgotten: if you want to change things, don’t leave out the music, the dancing and the fun. They turn change from being just a duty to being a gift. Which is how two thirty something gay guys transformed an act of change into one of joy.

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