On Saturday morning, Nellie Hazard and Stephen Mendenhall stood at the front of a line of brides and grooms at a North San Antonio church. The high school sweethearts were getting married alongside 51 other couples that day.
“As we prepared for it, everything fell in place,” 22-year-old Mendenhall said. The pair first started wedding planning in July, giving them one month to gather everything they needed. Hazard found her dress, a brand new wedding gown, for only $60 on Facebook Marketplace. Her mother, who lives in Michigan and was unable to attend, sent a necklace with a pendant made of two blue butterflies for Hazard to wear as “something borrowed and something blue.”
“It felt like magic,” Hazard said.
Hazard and Mendenhall participated in Community Bible Church’s first-ever “mass wedding” on Saturday. They had originally planned to have a courthouse wedding but were alerted to this event by one of Mendenhall’s aunts, a member of the church. Pastor Ed Newton, who has been leading the church for six years, said church staff had been thinking about how the coronavirus pandemic delayed so many people’s wedding plans.
“What we wanted to do is take an opportunity to provide a big venue that would give them the space to be able to do that, so they would invite the family,” Newton said.
The nondenominational Community Bible Church offered to reimburse couples for their marriage licenses, which cost $81 in Bexar County, and also gave them $500 in cash to go toward a honeymoon. But in order to qualify for the free wedding, couples had to go through premarital counseling with the church and apply for a marriage license themselves. More than 100 people originally expressed interest in participating in the mass wedding, but not all went through the process, Newton said.
Community Bible Church is one of the largest churches in San Antonio. Pre-pandemic, about 14,200 people attended over the course of five services per weekend, though that number has dwindled to about 9,000 or 10,000 in the past year, Newton said. It also has a strong online audience of about 8,000 viewers each weekend tuning in from around the world. He’s unsure how many of the couples that were married Saturday were vaccinated, as that was also not discussed in the process.
“We don’t get into conversations about vaccination,” he said.
Ultimately, 52 couples walked down the aisle at Community Bible Church on Saturday, holding bouquets and wearing boutonnières, also provided by the church. They faced each other, said their vows, and sealed their marriages with a kiss in front of their cheering friends and family. More than 500 people attended the ceremony in person, while a thousand more watched online, communications director Josh Boren said. Few attendees wore masks.
The idea for the wedding mostly came from Newton’s desire to encourage couples who had been living together to “do it in God’s way,” he said. It also aligned with a recent sermon he gave on marriage, which also inspired this event. The church believes that people should be officially married before they cohabitate.
“It’s one thing to hear a message of, ‘Hey, you should not be living together.’ It’s another thing to go, ‘Hey, we want to help you do this God’s way.’ We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is,” Newton said. “We’re not just people that preach messages. We’re people that encourage people to live by these messages.”
Not all of the couples married on Saturday had been living together, as that was not a requirement to participate in the wedding, Newton said. But many were, like Hazard and Mendenhall, as well as JaVanka Johnson, 42, and Charles McGee, 38. The couple, who have a blended family of three daughters, have been together for seven years and got engaged in May.
“We realized a long time ago we were way better together,” McGee said. “It was time.”
Though this is Community Bible Church’s first mass wedding, the church hopes to find a way to offer it to couples again, Newton said.