By Joel van der Veen
My friends and I arrived in Slippery Rock, Pa., on Friday night, reaching the campground with enough time to pitch our tents before the sky went dark.
We missed the site the first time, overlooking the balloons and the spray-painted sign reading “NAOMI & BEN.” It had neither running water nor shower facilities; two portable toilets were being delivered as we arrived.
When the average engaged couple pictures their ideal wedding day, it probably doesn’t look like this. But Naomi and Ben are no average couple.
I’ve known them for several years. I met Naomi in Toronto while we were students at Ryerson University; she was a vegetarian, bicycle enthusiast and Smiths fan studying social work. We met through a Christian group that met on campus. Despite our clashing viewpoints, we forged a strong friendship.
In 2009 she traveled to Cairo, spending a summer serving in a slum. There, she met her future husband, a student at a Christian college in Grove City, Pa., and the son of missionaries serving in Papua New Guinea.
After she graduated, she worked in Toronto while her boyfriend finished his studies. They visited often, both making a conscious effort to meet the people who were part of each other’s lives; thus, he quickly became my friend, too.
It’s hard to imagine a better match. They’re both passionate about serving the poor and have committed to spend the first year of their marriage in Philadelphia doing just that.
To them, social justice isn’t a catchphrase, it’s a divine command and a lifestyle. Rather than obsessively pursuing material goods and wealth, they’re devoted to loving others and serving them in the spirit of Christ.
True to form, Ben and Naomi decided to hold both their wedding and reception at a campground. Guests were invited to book a hotel room in the nearby town or to camp on-site.
I flew out to Toronto on Friday morning, met up with three friends and took the five-hour drive south to Pennsylvania. The trip went smoothly, but I didn’t have high hopes for the camping experience since we’re decidedly urban folks, forced to borrow our equipment from friends and family.
But all fell into place. I remembered how to set up the tent; we cooked our modest meals on a butane-powered stove. We had everything we needed, there was no rain, and I even had time to wade in the shallow rapids nearby.
The ceremony took place on two wooden stages, furnished with three vintage couches on which the attendants sat during the proceedings (campers had slept on them the night before). The bride and groom were both barefoot; she wore a white dress, while he wore dreadlocks, rolled-up pants and suspenders.
I played keyboard in the wedding band, which also featured a violin, banjo, mandolin and guitar. Between the groom, Anglican priest, groomsmen and other musicians, I was the only one on stage wearing a tie. And rather than a catered meal, they served burgers (vegan option available), vegetable shish kebabs and cupcakes.
While wedding customs have been relaxed in recent decades, many couples still opt for the biggest and best. But there was something lovely in what Ben and Naomi did. Rather than a lavish event, it was a low-key affair, in stark contrast to most ceremonies.
It was a joyous celebration, in which all of their friends and family were invited to take part. And it was true to the example they’ve set in their lives; in place of splendour and opulence, they chose simple and understated beauty. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best kind.
Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.