The first LGBTQ couple Cameron Harrelson married had an unusual request. When the fiances called up Harrelson, they told him they wanted to announce their ceremony on Facebook in the morning and meet later in the evening in front of Creature Comforts in downtown Athens. That way, they could drive by the spot any day of the week, look at where they were married and say, “That’s where we did it.”
The two had been dating for five years and were ready to finally tie the knot. At 6 p.m. the Methodist Church bell rang and, after a five-minute ceremony and a reading of an excerpt from the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Harrelson married the couple, and the three and those who attended went into Creature Comforts and celebrated with craft beer for the night.
Harrelson has experienced different types of weddings: from swift ceremonies to ones that have a traditional focus, to the religious and spiritual, to the ones that focus on bringing University of Georgia graduates back to the place they met after being in the workforce. His company, Marrying Athens, is a group of officiants who are available for Athens-area couples looking for any style of a wedding ceremony.
Through the Marrying Athens website, couples from all backgrounds can read through the biography of the four officiants apart of the company, choose who seems like the best for them and reach out to the person about how to move forward.
Until now, there hadn’t been any vetted service providing a central space for Athenians to find an officiant from a group of options — leaving couples not associated with a church or spiritual body to scramble in search for a friend, family member or otherwise to marry a couple.
For Harrelson, Athens needs a service like this so people can have the option to explore outside a church or religious body in order to have a meaningful wedding.
“Times have changed, marriage ceremonies have changed,” Harrelson said. “For a long time people were focused on having an elaborate church ceremony, we’ve moved away from that.”
Harrelson said he has even seen as laid back as a pop-up wedding lasting for five minutes and heading to the bar to grab a drink immediately afterward.
Four officiants are a part of Marrying Athens, each of which has couples undergo a consultation process involving getting to know the couple through a personalized questionnaire. The officiants also meet with the couples multiple times to ensure their service is personalized through having conversations about the couple’s best stories and their journey together.
Sara Call, a special education teacher from Athens, reached out to Marrying Athens after her original planned officiant fell through. Call knew Harrelson would be a good fit for her and her fiance, Joel, when Harrelson asked the couple to grab a beer at Hi-Lo or Creature Comforts so they could get to know each other.
“Cameron was genuinely interested in my and Joel’s relationship,” Call said. “The good, the bad, the funny, the things that make us ‘us.’ He seemed like he wasn’t only doing this questionnaire, he seemed like he really wanted to know us before he committed to this.”
Personalization is something Harrelson values, according to Jessie McClellan, who had her vow renewal through Marrying Athens. Her first wedding ceremony was 12-and-a-half years ago, where she and her husband were married quickly in Las Vegas, spending their honeymoon riding roller coasters and sitting by the pool at a desert hotel.
Harrelson’s tone of voice changes when he talks about a client. The regular conversation turns into swift enthusiasm: he’s ready to talk about ceremonies he’s officiated and responded with “Oh my gosh, yes!” when asked whether or not he wanted to share some of his favorite stories.
His passion for marrying couples is rooted in the beauty he sees shared in a relationship.
“I think there’s a unique beauty in being able to share the start of people’s lives as one, not two,” Harrelson said. “ [Seeing] that has been very healing for me, as someone who saw their mother married several times growing up.”
The beginning of the ceremony
Harrelson had the idea when he found himself sitting in his sixth-floor Creswell Hall dorm room, began scrolling through Facebook, unsure of his purpose at the university.
Harrelson saw people posting on Facebook in search of people to officiate their weddings. These people, not necessarily connected to a pastor or church, would plea through posts for anyone to officiate their weddings, and in turn received comments such as, “My uncle down in Oglethorpe County is a minister!”
Though the fateful scroll was the impetus for the company, it wasn’t until after he left UGA, Harrelson brought his idea to fruition.
From there, he asked three other officiants to be a part of the company and together, Marrying Athens has performed around 20 weddings after a year and a half of the company starting. The company is based on the idea that any couple, from any background, should be able to be at ease when searching for an officiant. Athens is full of couples in need of this service, Harrelson said.
Reverend Kathleen Deegan-Neal is an elder at Watkinsville First United Methodist Church and immediately wanted to join the project after Harrelson, a close friend of hers, approached her with the idea. She loved the idea of the inclusivity of the company.
For Deegan-Neel it’s a “personal and intimate thing, to be married, and not everyone knows someone who is an officiant.”
“I think it’s very important to create connections to find someone,” Deegan-Neel.
Beyond the ceremony
Beyond the scope of the individualized wedding, Marrying Athens hopes to provide opportunities from all walks of life with as much ease and comfort as a couple who could easily go through their spiritual community to receive an officiant.
The National United Methodist Church recently voted to upkeep the standard to “enforce penalties for clergy who officiate same-sex marriages,” affecting an array of Athens couples looking to get married.
As an openly-identifying LGBTQ man, and someone who is religious, Harrelson said his company bridges the gap between couples from all backgrounds and beliefs, and by those who feel the implications of the vote.
“I think it’s really important to recognize that large religious bodies are not always reflective of small religious bodies within the community, and I think it’s important to distinguish the two,” Harrelson said. “I am living out-and-proud in Athens, I identify as spiritual and I think that we bridge that gap every single day.”
Despite the vote and its implications, Harrelson said that the diversity of couples in Athens, who search for any type of wedding ceremony, serves as a beacon of hope for Marrying Athens to prosper.
Athens is unique because it’s small, well-connected and full of diversity, Harrelson said.
“That’s the important part,” Harrelson said. “I think that’s what Marrying Athens does — no matter who you are, where you’re from, what you look like, what your religious affiliation or lack thereof or who you love, it does not matter with us, and we’re going to work with any couple to find the right fit for them.”