Some people think there’s more than one path to God.
Takoma Park resident Rev. Bonnie J. Berger — she insists on using her middle initial because she says her name sounds like a sandwich special otherwise — found herself at a crossroads in the mid-’00s. The lesbian and longtime gay and women’s activist was burned out from her work and had never found the Jewish faith of her roots, quite the right fit.
She’d joined Bet Mishpachah, the local gay synagogue, upon moving to the D.C. area in 1984, but “mostly just went twice a year,” she says.
After her mother died, she went to a metaphysics-based interfaith seminary in New York, got ordained and has become in demand as officiating clergy for same-sex couples since marriage went into effect here in March 2010. Last year, she married 111 gay and lesbian couples and six straight ones. Her all-embracing language has hit a chord with gays — both in the D.C. area and those who come here to wed from other states.
When gay D.C. couple Derick Simmons and Mike Miller got married last October, they met with several potential ministers before determining Berger was the right fit for them. Though neither is especially religious, Simmons was raised Christian and Miller Jewish and they wanted clergy who would be sensitive to their different faith backgrounds.
“She was very personable and really took the time to get to know us,” Simmons says. “It was awesome. She did a really good job. She basically used God as opposed to any religious or denomination-specific references. It was just sort of an all-encompassing God or higher being. We incorporated one Jewish tradition with the breaking of the glass, but other than that it was pretty cross-religion.”
Berger says it’s important that whatever traditions the couple wants to incorporate are used. She studied many faith backgrounds in seminary but sometimes has to study up a bit for some of the less-common faiths.
Handfasting, a marriage custom often performed in pagan and Celtic ceremonies, involves draping cords over the hands of a couple as they answer questions like “Will you hurt Suzy?,” to which the response is usually, “I might.” “Is that your intention?” “No,” after which a cord is laid over the hands. The couple states their intention is “only good and only love.”
Berger has also had couples “jump the broom,” an African tradition that has its roots in slave times.
“I think ritual is important because it connects us to a sense of spirit,” Berger says.
She guesses about 60 percent of her couples have been lesbian, the rest gay men. She married three couples on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court. One elaborate ceremony involved marrying 11 couples at once. Her couples have been together anywhere from three months to more than 50 years. And though HRC got most of the credit for its elaborate triple ceremony the first day same-sex marriage was legal last year, Berger claims she actually conducted the first public wedding. One of her couples was second in line and she married them on the D.C. Courthouse steps just after the first couple got married by a judge.
Berger advertises on a handful of D.C.-specific websites that cater to same-sex couples. Others find her through her website, ringinlove.com. Only one of her couples has broken up that she knows of. Another contacted her for marital counseling, which she says she’s happy to provide. One couple came from Australia but many are from other states and find significance marrying in the U.S. capital. She won’t quote her rates — she says it depends on how elaborate a ceremony is planned. For out-of-towners, she’ll even help secure the license. One pre-ceremony meeting is required — even if it has to be done via Skype.
So what about the common dogma that many faiths use claiming their faith is the only true path to salvation? Berger says that’s a man-made construct.
“That’s really where it becomes based on fear,” she says. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear in metaphysical philosophy. It’s a climate of fear because people who believe that way feel they have to be right. They’re banking their whole life and their afterlife on it.”
But ultimately isn’t there one thing that either happens or doesn’t happen to humans when they die? Berger says the concept that “only certain people go to heaven doesn’t resonate with me at all.” She feels her job is to “lift an individual’s path and help them find peace, not to impose my path.”
Her path is indicative of what she calls the “spirituality-as-smorgasbord” approach to faith.
“We can choose what works the best for us,” she says.
She is celebrating Passover now but also enjoys the Eastern practice of meditation and listens to gospel music because, “that brings God front and center.”
Berger believes each individual possesses divinity and that love is “the highest vibration,” a notion she explains as an invisible, but real energy force based in the laws of the universe which, in metaphysics, are attraction, love and other notions.
Ultimately Berger’s own faith experience informs the ceremonies she conducts for others.
“After my mom died, I just thought, ‘There’s got to be something more to this. I was not feeling full, not feeling whole and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ I looked to Judaism and I found the god of the Old Testament, who was always smiting people, that was a god of rules and fear and not what I wanted my god to be.”
She emerged from a two-year program from a metaphysical institute based in Silver Spring with “a sense of spirit in my life and a sense of joy and lightness that I had never known before.”
Berger plans to wed her partner of five years, Romie Palladino, next year when Palladino relocates to D.C. from Connecticut.
She says non-religious ceremonies are just as valid, but feels spirituality can add an important dimension to a marriage.
“It eases pain in times of stress, it’s a reminder to always choose love, a reminder to seek forgiveness and to hold the other person as sacred in your life in a way that truly honors them and allows for perfection without judgment.”