'Friar' for Hire Creates Goof-Proof Weddings in the Air, on the Beach

A wedding brings together far more than the bride and groom and their relatives and friends. It attracts and incredible array of skills, trades, talents, callings and professions--all aimed at making the day one of the cornerstones for at least two lives. Last Thursday, free-lance writer Bill Manson examined big weddings, and this week he focuses on people who have--and help with--small weddings.

"Friar John" is going to marry six women today. That's why he's on the run.

He flees a wedding at the Hanalai Hotel, his partner hot on his heels. He makes for the leased gray LeBaron in the parking lot.

"Are we going to make it?"

"If we don't get lost."

"Which is it again?"

"Atlantis, just beside the cable car to Sea World."

The car jerks to a halt. The Rev. John Sorensen grabs a diary organizer and a robe and dashes in through the Atlantis restaurant and out onto the little promontory on Mission Bay. Before him: a group of black stackable chairs facing the sea in neat rows, a white cupola, a microphone on a stand --and not a soul in sight.

"There, you see--beat them. Whew. Now, let's have ourselves a wedding!"

Sorensen, a.k.a. Friar John, is in the marriage business. A friar for hire. Creator of goof-proof weddings. Have Bible, have cassock, will travel. He'll do just about any wedding you want wherever you want it, from five miles high in a plane to barefoot on the beach at sunset.

Sure, he's a Lutheran minister (at Christ the King Church in El Cajon), but the range of ceremonies he does is very catholic. Right now he's moving into marriage in a big way, because, well, it's good money, and he's bored with just being a plain minister. The marriage business has definite potential if you like people and are prepared to work hard--especially on summer Saturdays, Sorensen says.

He caters to the yuppie agnostic, the footloose, the couples with religious difficulties, where the partners are from different religions or divorced or whatever. And in California, there seem to be an awful lot of them.

A young twosome in jeans is standing to the side, talking and pointing. Sorensen spots them immediately. Potential business. He can tell a marrying couple when he sees one a mile off.

"Hi. You planning on getting married here?"

"Uh, yes. We were just wondering if they had background music during the ceremony."

"Not if you want to hear what the minister's saying to you. Who is your minister?"

"Well, we can't remember. Think it begins with an S."

"My name's Sorensen."

"Sorensen. That's it! You're marrying us! Great. We spoke on the phone."

Suddenly everybody seems to be here. Sorensen revs up. "OK," he says to his assistant, Deborah Cleveland, as soon as people start appearing, "let's get organized. It's 11:40. We've got to roll by 12 so we can get across to Coronado by a quarter to one. Uh--people--there's the question of the marriage license . . . Let's try the sound . . . Check one two, one two three . . . No there won't be special seating music for the mothers. Why don't you put Grandma right up front now. OK, you're just the groom, you've got nothing to worry about! Now the license. If you can sign . . . the bride should be back at the bar, I usually lead you in from there."

He's firm and fast, shepherding everybody into the countdown. "Now listen," he says to the photographer. "I'm not available after the ceremony. We're cutting straight to the next one. Tight schedule. So shoot while we do it, OK?"

He's looking for Cleveland. "Deb, go and get one of our marriage certificates. Prettier than this dreadful piece of paper." He finds the father of the bride. "You taking care of my fee, dad? Yes, probably better now. Afterward you'll all be in a party mood."

Larry and Janne Wagner, the musicians, have arrived. Flute and piano. They and Sorensen do a lot of business together. "Now remember," Sorensen says confidentially, "recess them out, then off. We're going to be tight as it is."

Then, suddenly, it's happening. Not in a rush, but with lack of delay.

Sorensen will do it just about any way his clients want. But most of them accept his standard version. None of the traditional "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today," but "Ladies and gentlemen, this afternoon David and Vivian would like to announce their serious and earnest intentions to you . . . they're saying one plus one doesn't make two . . . it can make a more beautiful one . . . every Adam desires an Eve. David, you've found your Eve; Vivian, you've found your Adam . . . the circle of the ring symbolizes the never-ending love you hold for each other. . . . There was a beautiful poem of the American Indian: 'Now there'll be no more rain, for each shall be a shelter for the other. Now there are two persons but only one life before you.' . . . and so I have pleasure in pronouncing you husband and wife. And may you both be blessed . . . real good!"

The tears the Indian poem produced turn to laughter. The bride and groom kiss, Sorensen gives the Hawaiian thumb-and-pinky "enjoy" sign and says, "Party time!" then slips over to the musicians. "OK, that's enough. We've got a wedding to go to."

"Excellent," says the mother of the bride, "he was just excellent! Uh, goodby."

"I also do funerals," he says as he steams down the freeway in his LeBaron (license tag: OMYGOD) toward the Coronado Bridge. It's 12:35. "I'm the resident chaplain at the Greenwood Mortuary, National City. Not much difference in a lot of ways. People gathered to face one of the great Moments of Passage.

"But weddings--I must have done 5,000, 6,000 of them by now. So far today, that's two where the bride got the tears. Often it's the groom. And if anyone's going to faint, it's the groom. For sure. You can tell when it's going to happen. Stress plus last night's bachelor party. You see the color draining out of his face. I've got so I can tell the exact moment he's going to go.

"I tell you, I've done weddings of every sort. Like one was a Halloween party. Everybody came dressed up, and nobody knew it was going to also be a wedding for the host and hostess."

Sorensen arrives at the Hotel del Coronado's garden gazebo. There's the same flute and piano combo, sitting ready as though nothing had changed except a scenery shift behind them.

This is a Jewish-Catholic wedding. Sorensen's script skirts all potential hazards. This ceremony is a bit grander. It has "mothers being seated" music, and the certificate Sorensen provides is just a little bigger.

He is standing in the gazebo waiting for the guests to be seated when his beeper beeps. He switches it off. "Probably just a funeral schedule." He examines his notes. This is going to be a Kahlil Gibran (the prophet) wedding. Not uncommon when mixing religions ("Let there be spaces in your togetherness").

The bridesmaids with deep pink lips and deep pink dresses wait big-eyed for Sorensen's signal at the end of the white carpet. "OK," he finally says, "Let's get 'em!"

He's back in OMYGOD, zipping toward La Mesa. He's on the phone. A crisis has come and gone. One of the ministers who subcontract with him was late for a wedding. They were panicking. Also, a parishioner wants to know if he's going to hold the service on Sunday.

"My most bizarre wedding? Two: the first, they made it a religious procession. Guys dressed up as priests and bishops. They made a float and a throne with a Pope on it with a staff. I was asked to step aside as they did mock blessings by the 'Pope.' Lots of Latin mixed in with a kazoo band. Strange.

"The other, they were in their beach gear. They just wanted to formalize what was already in place. They said, 'Keep it simple,' so I did. I said to him, 'Do you?' He said, 'Yup.' I asked her, she said, 'Uh, sure.' That was it. I got my trouser legs wet."

He's up in a house not far from the great white hilltop cross that dominates La Mesa. The wedding of Sheryl Gladstone and Bill Pedersen is to be by a pool behind the house.

"Am I sad or what?" is the last thing Gladstone says to herself as she hurries out to go around the back of the garage so she and her bridesmaids can make a good procession to the other end of the pool.

Sorensen begins: "Bill, Sheryl, friends, you're all part of a very special moment. . . ." The vows are said, the rings exchanged. The Indian poem has been quoted. He announces the couple to their guests as husband and wife. "And may you both be blessed, real good. Ladies and gentlemen, party time!"

Two minutes later he's down the driveway. "That's the art, speed without letting each party realize it. That's why I lease cars. I can't afford to slow down--especially June Saturdays."

On the way to wedding No. 5: "Keeping it sincere when there are so many? Sure. It's a problem. But I basically enjoy it. Unless the bride is one of those little girls it doesn't mean anything to. You know, she just giggles with the bridesmaids through the whole thing. If it means something to them, then it's easy for me.

"Oh sure, there are awkward people. One guy wanted his dog to be his best man. He said he was his best friend. Then there was the sporty groom--in a church, this was. I said, 'Do you?' He went into a huddle with his groomsmen. He came out of it. 'It was unanimous. I do.' Boy, was that bride mad.

"The only wedding I have goofed is my own. I forgot the lines I'd memorized to say to my wife. Ever since then, I carry it all written down. No matter how well I know it."

In Balboa Park's Cafe del Rey Moro, John Hinchman and Mary Stauter have just been married. Sorensen has scooted the outside altar into place and is in the cafe at a prearranged meeting with a future bride. "This man," she says, "When I spoke to him on the phone I knew he was the one. He's just so human. And then we (went to his church and) heard his sermon and, well, here we are."

Another five minutes and Sorensen is putting his jacket into the back of OMYGOD, carefully, for the trip to No. 6, his last for the day, a 5:30 informal with 15 guests at Mission Bay.

The bride is going to surprise the groom, who's just back from duty in Hawaii, with a hula dancer. It's only after that wedding that Sorensen will allow himself a beer, after he has once more created a unique occasion that the bride and groom will remember for the rest of their days. Does he ever get sick of it?

"Others love golf. Or studying for degrees. I enjoy doing weddings. It's a business I enjoy." He smiles, the only fresh man left in the group, rolls up his window, picks up his phone and drives off to mix business, God and pleasure once again.

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