Non-Mormon family not being allowed to attend son's wedding was wrenching

The Arizona Republic/March 28, 2010

She raised her son to be sensitive, to be Catholic, to be her friend. When he was 18, he joined the Mormon Church.

She fought it. He fought back. They worked to stay close anyway. There were years of long talks on the phone: sometimes awkward, sometimes just like before.

He went on a church mission. He went to college. She went on working, coordinating weddings.

Last fall, another blow: He was in love, getting married - in the Mormon temple - and she couldn't come.

It hurt them both, but the mother more deeply than the son.

She knew all of it, already. When her son told her he was converting, Cheri Richardson studied his church. She knew that temples are the Mormon religion's most sacred places and only Mormons who obey the church's teachings are allowed within.

She knew that her son, Chase Richardson, held temple marriage among his most important goals: Mormons believe a temple wedding seals a marriage for eternity, to last even after death. It is a treasured cornerstone of the faith.

It would be a sacrifice for Chase to ask his family to stay away, to leave his father, sister and grandparents out.

His mother knew he'd do it anyway.

"His response is that God comes before all of that," says Cheri, 52, "and that's what I taught him, too."

The irony stung: As a wedding coordinator, Cheri had been to hundreds of ceremonies, but she would miss her son's.

Still, she knew that he would need her.

Chase was 22, marrying young, as many Mormons do. She had always been his confidante, his coach, his comfort.

He'd need help proposing, paying for a honeymoon, picking out a tuxedo.

And on his wedding day, Cheri knew Chase would want her to be outside the temple, waiting. He would come out after the ceremony and look for his mother's smile - a silent assurance that everything was OK.

That, Cheri knew, was something she couldn't do.

Because somewhere on the other side of the temple's concrete facade, there would be a moment when her son faced his bride and promised to love her. Cheri longed to see it, to memorize his face.

She couldn't stand and wait outside a place that promised eternal families, but stood between her and her child.

Her God would never ask this of a mother, Cheri says, "or a son."

Baptized by ire

Before they moved to Arizona, the Richardsons knew little about the Mormon religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Salt Lake, Donny Osmond - that's all I knew," Cheri says.

Cheri and her husband, Steve, raised their two children in Peoria, Ill., and sent them to Catholic school, though Steve is Methodist.

Steve's job moved the family to Scottsdale during Chase's junior year. He enrolled in public high school and met a girl, a Mormon.

Chase, a quiet type who likes music and his guitar, asked his girlfriend about her faith.

"It really intrigued me," he says. He considered Catholicism to be a culture, a habit.

"I went through the motions," he says, "but I didn't believe."

His girlfriend referred his questions to Mormon missionaries, and Chase met them weekly at her house to talk about their church.

"I felt a calmness, a peace," Chase says. "These words were comforting to me . . . that I am already saved, in a way, and I could be saved if I followed him. I felt a new hope I hadn't felt in a while."

He did not, however, feel hopeful in regard to sharing this news with his parents.

Chase says he told his mom he was learning about Mormonism. Cheri says she wasn't aware of it until "he came home one day and said, 'I want to be baptized.' "

She balked. He'd been baptized. She had pictures. She told him she'd need to talk to his father. She told Chase to slow down and give her time to learn about this new church, too.

The rules

Cheri found out as soon as she began her research. She Googled her way into an online support group called "Mormons have my child" and learned that if her son converted, a likely path would follow: He would leave college at 19 to serve a two-year proselytizing mission. He would look for someone to marry soon after he returned. The wedding would take place in a temple, and as non-members, Cheri, Steve and Chase's older sister, Danielle, 25, could not attend.

Cheri learned that U.S. couples are discouraged from having a civil ceremony before a temple wedding, even if only to include their families: Couples who do so must wait a year before being allowed to "seal" their marriage for eternity in a temple.

But in countries like England, France, Japan and Mexico, where Mormonism is not recognized as a legal marriage authority, a civil ceremony is allowed the same day.

"Temple worship is the highest form of religious expression for Latter-day Saints," says Kim Farah, a church spokeswoman. "In these sacred structures, members of the church make formal commitments to God . . . including the marriage of couples for eternity.

"No other type of wedding can take its place as one of the crowning sacraments of the faith."

Cheri learned about the interview required of church members before temple admittance: questions about chastity, honesty and whether they were paying 10 percent of their income to the church. Each member must be found "worthy," church language says, of the temple. Cheri learned that non-adult siblings aren't allowed at temple weddings, either.

Online, she read accounts from parents across the country. It happened often: non-Mormons turned away from temple weddings, and also Mormon parents who had violated church standards.

"It is easy to understand how feelings of exclusion can develop, but exclusion is never intended," says Farah, the church spokeswoman, citing the Mormons' "deep concern for those of other faiths who cannot attend the temple marriage of a loved one."

The church allows a family gathering, often called a "ring ceremony," to be held before or after a temple wedding. Rings are not a part of a temple wedding and can be exchanged informally inside or outside a temple, Farah says, as long as vows are not exchanged, also.

Cheri read enough about ring ceremonies to know the moment would feel forced and empty.

"I was livid, dumbfounded," Cheri says. Her son wouldn't want a wedding without his family. "I thought, 'This is going to be the "aha" moment, the thing I can tell Chase that will make him see.' "

The day she confronted him, Cheri remembers, her voice breaking, "he looked at me and said, 'I know, and that's OK with me.' "

Scriptures and video games

Chase was 17.

Cheri repeated it to herself to salve her feelings.

"What does he know about parents wanting to be at a wedding?" she thought.

Chase needed his parents' permission to be baptized. They declined.

Faced with his mother's scorn, Chase felt embarrassed of his faith.

"I had a feeling that she wouldn't believe like I had believed," Chase says. "She thought of it as a phase - something I'd get over, like a video game."

He worked to strengthen his testimony so he could combat his mother's objections. He found a scripture in the Bible - "Hey, you believe this, too," Chase told her - that he felt supported his plight.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:37. Chase had it memorized.

Cheri didn't think the scripture applied to weddings.

"I don't believe that God is in support of separating families," she maintained.

On weekends, working the weddings she'd been hired to coordinate, Cheri liked to watch the groom's face as his bride walked down the aisle.

This moment, she thought, this expression - awe and nerves, weightiness and love: This was what she would miss if Chase was married in a temple. Sometimes, during the processional, Cheri would tap the groom's mother and tell her to look back at her son. A mother shouldn't miss this, Cheri thought.

"It hasn't happened yet," she told herself. "It's not here yet. There's always a chance."

Chase turned 18.

He was baptized into the Mormon Church. He went to the University of Arizona, turned 19, and left for a church mission to Mexico City.

His mother e-mailed him every week: missives to challenge his faith, at first, and then mostly reminders that she loved him.

Chase wrote that he loved her, too. He missed her cooking, her listening ear.

"I think about you every day," he said.

While he was gone, Chase's high-school girlfriend married someone else.

While he was gone, Cheri's Internet research turned up the Temple Wedding Petition, started in 2007 by former Mormons. The petition asks church leaders to be more inclusive of families by allowing civil ceremonies before all temple weddings, on the same day, and not only in countries where required by law. The petitioners have collected more than 250 signatures, says co-founder Jean Brodie, 66, of Edmonton, Canada, and half are from faithful Mormons.

Cheri signed the petition.

After two years in Mexico, Chase came home in October 2008. He went back to school, got a job as a valet.

In May, at church, he met Annie.

The bride

At first, Chase loved Annie Fuge because she was pretty. Then he loved her because she seemed to love him back.

In the end, he loved her because she reminded him of someone he'd loved for years.

"She's everything that my mom is, really," says Chase - driven, smart, sociable and sassy.

Cheri liked Annie, too: "the strength of her handshake, the way she looked me right in the eye."

Chase proposed in November and was talking about a March wedding. Annie was 20, and Chase 22. Cheri and Steve thought they were too young to be married. Chase was still in school. So was Annie. How would they afford rent?

And then there was the location of the wedding ceremony itself, an unspoken pall hanging over all of them.

Cheri knew. Chase knew she knew.

No one told her. Cheri read about it on Annie's Facebook page: Chase and Annie would be married on March 12, 2010, in the Mesa temple. Beneath Annie's announcement, a few friends from church had already responded with excitement: "We'll be there!"

Cheri didn't know them. They'd be at her son's wedding. She wouldn't.

Cheri hoped Chase and Annie would consider a civil ceremony.

She called her son, shouting into his voice mail through her tears.

"You have no idea what you've done to me," she cried.

Still, she wasn't really angry at Chase, though she wished he had delivered the news himself.

"What is hurtful to me is that because of his beliefs, it feels like we're being forced out," Cheri says, "and the reason we can't be there is probably the most hurtful - that we're deemed 'unworthy' " by the church to enter the temple.

"You're there for 3 a.m. feedings. You're there at every single game and headache and shot and broken bone and parent-teacher conference. You hug him when he's got his heart broken for not making the basketball team, and to be told you're not worthy to be there on his most important day?

"He believes," Cheri says, "in a different God than we do."

That night, Chase came home to find his mother. They sat on barstools in the kitchen and cried together. Cheri told him about that moment • she loves at weddings, watching the face of the groom, and how she'd miss having that memory of her son.

Chase said he was sorry. Of course he wanted her to be at his wedding.

"I wish I could make everyone happy, but I can't," he told his mother. "I love the Lord. It's a commandment, and I try my best to put him above everything.

"I've had to, and it has been hard."

But also, Chase explained, he had to honor his love for Annie. This was her day.

"She has always wanted to get married in the temple," Chase said, "and not only sealed in the temple, but married, and that's what's really important."

His mother knew he was right.


The velocity of the wedding took hold. On the hardest days, Cheri clung to advice from her daughter, Danielle.

"Focus on the bond you and Chase have had for 22 years," Danielle had said. "The church is not going to take that away from you unless you let it."

Cheri promised herself not to.

Steve and Cheri met Annie's parents for dinner, lunch. At one meeting with Cheri after an emotional week, Kent and Susan Fuge delivered a shock: They had decided to spend Chase and Annie's wedding with Cheri and Steve, waiting outside the temple. They were Mormon and could attend, but wouldn't.

"We wanted to do whatever we could to help," says Kent, 48, of Phoenix. "We wanted to support them, and help them understand that it was a concern for us, what they were going through.

"Also, we wanted to help them understand that from our perspective, the really important part was that (Chase and Annie) were getting sealed in the temple, and that was more important, even, than Susan and I getting to see the actual ceremony."

Cheri was stunned by their mercy and integrity, but she insisted they attend. Their absence wouldn't make her feel better, but worse.

It "felt like two wrongs," Cheri said, and she had decided against waiting outside the temple. It would feel as if the church had won, as if she were following its rules.

From January to March, Cheri steel-jawed her way through conversations about registries, bridesmaids, invitations. She went to Annie's bridal showers , wrote down Chase's favorite recipes, did the calligraphy on place cards for the post-ceremony lunch she and Steve were hosting - the Mormon equivalent of a rehearsal dinner. She ordered a dress for the reception - a party at a friend's house the day after the wedding.

On the weekends, she worked other weddings, always watching the groom.

With a week left to go, Cheri invited Annie and Chase over for pasta. During dinner, Cheri teased Chase for acting lovesick, his fingers in Annie's hair.

"Chase Alan," Cheri said, "Can you possibly keep your hands off of her?"

Annie made everyone promise to cross their fingers it wouldn't rain.

Steve joked that he might bring his own alcohol to the reception.

Annie followed Cheri to the back of the house to go through old photos of Chase for the wedding slide show.

Cheri showed Annie her favorite, a black-and-white portrait.

Chase was 16, smiling in a way that made his eyes look exactly like his mother's.

He looked so happy. Cheri sighed.

"I love that face," she said.


The rain stopped the day of Chase and Annie's wedding.

Orange and pink poppies bloomed around the Mesa temple. Chase and Annie arrived late, and still, he'd forgotten his tuxedo. He called his mom and caught her and his dad on their way out the door.

They were coming to the temple, to wait outside for their son.

The day before, on the phone, Cheri had heard something in Chase's voice. Loneliness, she thought.

"My heart was breaking for him," Cheri says. "Before he could even ask, I said, 'Please. Please, Chase. Don't ask me. Please. You know I can't.'

"He said, 'I understand, Mom, I really do, but do you think Danielle will come?' "

Cheri hung up, sobbing.

Chase called his sister, in tears.

"I know Mom and Dad want to be there, and I feel horrible that they can't," he told Danielle. "If they could just come, if they could just wait outside."

After they hung up, Chase sought the comfort of Annie. She realized, suddenly, how hard it all was - fighting his parents, committing to his beliefs, and doing it alone. She had grown up in the church.

"I felt a little selfish - guilty, maybe, that I had all of that so easily," Annie said. "He doesn't get to have them there, just as much as they don't get to be there.

"I admired his certainty."

Cheri and Danielle ran last-minute errands. In the middle of Target, Cheri had a breakdown.

"I have to go," she told her daughter. "It's the right thing to do."

Danielle echoed her mother.

"You have to go," she said.

Later, at home, Cheri thought about the wedding moment she had wanted for Chase, but also about the moment he would have - walking out of the temple holding Annie's hand, looking for his mom.

"He's still our son," Cheri told Steve that night. "He should have somebody there to share that moment, and we can't get it back.

It would be humiliating, she knew, "to stand outside that place, knowing what's going on, knowing we're not allowed in, and who's judging.

"Putting aside the emotional part," she said, "it is absolutely absurd."

It would feel as if the church had won, Cheri said, had kept her from her son's wedding by leaning on a God she couldn't believe required it.

"It's the principle versus love," Cheri told her husband, "but love should outweigh the principle every time."

The next morning, when Chase walked out of the temple after his wedding, Cheri stood to one side, watching the groom's smile. It never faded.

She waited, wringing her hands, twiddling a silver cross she wore on her wrist, until he saw her.

"Mom," he said. "Come, stand right here."

Cheri climbed the temple steps toward him, and he reached his arms out for a hug.

She cried into his jacket and held onto him as long as he let her. There was no space between them.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"I couldn't not be here," Cheri told him. "I couldn't not come."

They turned to face the camera for a picture, the temple wall behind them.

Chase smiled, his arms around Annie.

His mother stood awkwardly at his side, her expression changing as she took in the moment.

It was on her face that onlookers could see everything: nerves-worry-anger-pain-relief, but also joy.

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