Why I

by Sharon Moss

This fall will mark my second year as a Humanist Celebrant. Never heard of a Humanist Celebrant? Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know we exist until they need us. Who do humanists call when they want to get married? Are there nonreligious ways to welcome a new baby? How do nontheists mourn the loss of a loved one?

I met my first celebrant when I was involved with my local campus group. Larry Reyka was the leader of the local off-campus group at the time and quite a character, as anyone who knew him could attest—think Santa Claus in a Star Trek uniform with a healthy dose of wit, kindness, and stubbornness. At 19, I hadn’t given my potential future wedding much thought. However, after meeting Larry, I knew I had choices beyond going back to church or being married by a justice of the peace.

Unfortunately, Larry passed away several years before I married, but his enthusiasm made me want to become a celebrant. The ceremonies he used became the foundation for ceremonies I perform now.

During my first year, I performed four weddings and a funeral (no, Hugh Grant wasn’t involved) and so far this year I have six weddings scheduled. I work closely with another celebrant in Columbus. We advertise jointly on our local group’s website, www.hcco.org/celebrant, and trade off ceremonies. Between the two of us we do about twenty weddings a year. Since we started advertising on our local group’s website in the fall, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of requests we’ve received.

This past October, I had the honor of officiating the wedding of two friends and it turned into one of the best and most memorable ceremonies I’ve ever written.

At our first meeting the bride-to-be nixed line after line of my sample ceremony. They rejected handfasting, unity candles, and other little ceremonies. I cut out snippets of everything they did like–other ceremonies, my ceremony, various vows and readings–and pasted together a draft ceremony. It was a lot of work, but the ceremony remains my favorite.

During the discussion, the groom jokingly brought up creating a Unity Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. The bride was skeptical, but I thought it was fun and quirky while still expressing how they felt about sharing their lives. I took a chance and wrote up a short Unity PB&J Ceremony and they loved it.

Throughout history, couples have chosen many symbolic rites, from medieval European handfasting to modern unity candles, to mark the joining of their lives. Joe and Lisa choose to mark the combining of the flavors and textures of their lives—all the sweetness, stickiness, and nuttiness—with the creation of a Unity Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.

Moments like these are what I love about being a celebrant. Humanist ceremonies are about exactly this, the people involved—their story. When the focus is on the people who need the ceremony—be it a wedding, memorial service, or baby welcoming—when the participants and audience are engaged, most people don’t notice we “forgot” God.

But some do. Occasionally I’m thrust into the middle of some family religious issues. I learned early on, if I sense family tension about religion, I ask about it. Twice now I’ve been warned of a pastor uncle or cousin that was wary of Humanist Celebrants. I make a point to introduce myself and talk to concern relatives. A friendly smile and openness to questions and concerns goes a long way toward disarming the situation. Both times I’ve dealt with this kind of situation, the family members in question came up to me afterwards, shook my hand, and complimented me on the ceremony.

Sometimes, we humanists spend a little too much time in our own heads. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good philosophical discussion over a beer just as much as the next humanist. But we also need to take care of each other. If we are providing a real secular alternative to traditional religion, we can’t ignore people’s emotional needs. As a Humanist Celebrant, I play a key role in celebrating life’s highs, as well as helping people through the lows. Providing this service in a personalized and nontheistic framework means that when major life events happen, we aren’t stuck going back to church or going without support.

Sharon Moss is president of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and former president of Students for Freethought at Ohio State.