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January 26th, 2011 STACY BROWNHILL | Politics
 

The Rite Stuff

Here’s a Catholic priest-to-gay groom story that same-sex marriage advocates ought to tell.

news4_jim_stephens_3712PICKING UP SLACK: Darold Slack and Jim Stephens under the St. Johns Bridge with their 2-year-old chocolate Lab, Maya. - IMAGE: Darryl James

Jim Stephens first spotted Darold Slack on June 16, 2008, standing in the crowd at the Portland Pride Parade.

“I kept looking back at him, and he kept grinning at me, and I knew it was love at first sight,” says Stephens, blushing behind a dark goatee, wiry glasses and boyish smile. “He was h-o-t-t-t.”

More than two years later, the two men in their mid-40s will have a ceremony with all the feel of a marriage rite at Cathedral Park in North Portland this September. It’s a rite Stephens is familiar with—he was once a priest who performed 300 marriages.

Oregon voters banned same-sex marriage by approving Measure 36 in 2004, but the 2007 Legislature enacted domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples.

Stephens and Slack hope their ceremony will do more than make them domestic partners, a status that lets them buy joint health insurance but still leaves them without a married couple’s federal right to avoid estate taxes after a partner dies. They say the ceremony will give them a sense of validity and, they hope, contribute to the larger same-sex marriage movement.

Basic Rights Oregon is working toward that same goal collecting stories of same-sex couples in a “Cards From the Heart” campaign, probably in anticipation of a 2012 ballot measure aiming to reverse Measure 36. BRO hadn’t yet heard the story of Stephens and Slack, but here’s why we think it should be part of its campaign.


Stephens and Slack’s love story would make even the most cynical smile, and it’s intriguing because Stephens once was a Catholic priest.

Stephens was 5 years old and living in Eastern Oregon as the youngest of six children when he knew he wanted to be a priest. He realized in his early 20s that he was gay, but he felt that the “calling” for the priesthood was so strong he went on to become ordained in 1997.

In 2004, he decided if he couldn’t be out of the closet, he wasn’t being true to himself or his congregation, which was by then the Central Oregon parish of St. Patrick in Madras.

Very few statistics exist on how many of the country’s 40,000-plus priests leave each year. But the married priest support group Corpus estimates about 25,000 priests have left the active ministry since the 1960s, though their reasons aren’t broken down into separate statistics.

“I would still be a Catholic priest today if I could be openly gay,” says Stephens.

Instead, Stephens, 45, is a housing specialist at the Portland nonprofit Outside In. He worships at St. Andrew Parish, a church on Northeast Alberta Street that welcomes gay and lesbian parishioners despite Vatican teachings that homosexuality is wrong.

And it was as a member of St. Andrew that Stephens marched in the 2008 Pride Parade and saw Slack, an athletic 46-year-old dental service technician.

The two men wouldn’t actually meet until a month later, when Slack was visiting a sick friend at Providence Medical Center, where Stephens was the resident hospital chaplain on duty.

Stephens describes a “vibe” that compelled the two men to shyly get coffee together. Slack laughs as he tells the story of that first coffee date.

“I was actually getting ready to leave because he was late, and then he comes walking up all nonchalant,” Slack says. “Seven minutes or an hour late, it’s all the same to me. He almost messed the whole thing up!”

Just two months later, Slack stood up in front of the couple’s friends and serenaded Stephens with one of their favorite Michael Bublé songs—“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes).”

Slack wore an old costume that was half dress and half suit stitched together, and swiveled his profile to sing both the female and male voices. The performance ended with Slack getting down on one knee and asking for Stephens’ hand in marriage. Stephens accepted, saying he had been planning to ask Slack the next day atop Angel’s Rest near the Columbia Gorge.

Their nickname for each other? “Yobo,” the Korean word for sweetheart, since Slack is Korean-American. Backward, Stephens likes to joke, it spells, “O boy!”

 
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