Love Will Find A Way. Life After Lockup- Ferguson Unit To Fort Worth.
Last March, I had 28 clients confirmed and scheduled to marry inside Texas prisons. All of them were cancelled due to Covid. In October, Federal facilities reinstated non contact visits while ICE, County and State facilities in Texas continue to refuse to allow visitors “due to Covid.”
The truth is that visitors aren’t bringing Covid into prisons because they haven’t been allowed into prisons for months now.
Daily, weekly and monthly I’m contacted regarding prison wedding updates from my existing clients asking “if there has been an update to visitation?” For loved ones of TDCJ inmates, the wait continues to roll on.
I’ve had numerous clients that had planned to marry inside a prison contacting me to marry on the outside.
There are many TDCJ clients who are paroling across Texas and many of my other service area states to a loved one or to a halfway house.
The variations of marrying in a prison verses the outside are many. There is no required paperwork to process for the facility. There are no limitations as to what my couples can wear or bring to their ceremony. There is excitement and joy at the beginning of their lives after lockup living on the outside even when one of them is still living at a transitional center.
Shanta contacted me a few weeks ago to let me know her fiancée would be leaving TDCJ Ferguson Unit to transition at the Salvation Army in Dallas.
Obtaining a marriage license in Texas prior to Covid was easier in Dallas County than it is now. Why? Because Dallas County is requiring that couples live in Dallas County and can prove it with state issued ID’s. Prior to Covid, any couple could purchase a marriage license in any county in Texas but Dallas is making their own rules.
Since I was aware of “issues in Dallas,” I redirected Shanta to Tarrant County as I have done with all of my clients whether they are paroling or traditional bookings. Why? I’ve never had issues in Tarrant County in 10 years that’s why. My clients are excited about getting their license why ruin their experience by sending them to Dallas?
In 2015 after the Supreme Court ruling, I redirected client’s across Texas to friendly clerks offices or met them myself due to the intimidation and fear they faced from crispy and opinionated clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.
For a number of years I also had my fair share of hate mail from people opposed to my affiliation and support of the LBGT community. I’ve also faced criticism from people who “don’t believe inmates should have the right to marry.” It’s amazing how many people have opinions regarding matters that don’t concern them. Truly amazing. Unless folks are bound to be by blood or business their opinions have no impact whatsoever on my business decisions or my diversity.
It’s common for my clients to be so nervous about obtaining their marriage license that they ask me to meet them at the clerks office.
Regularly on a weekly basis I meet clients in Tarrant and Parker Counties as well as Coryell, Walker and a number of other counties across Texas.
Meeting Shanta and her fiancée for the first time in person last Tuesday, we walked in to the clerks office together to fill out the application for a marriage license. Texas has a 3 day waiting period. The only way to successfully waive the waiting period is to 1. Be a military member or 2. Get a judges signature or 3. Take and complete the Texas Twogether Premarital Course. The clerk will ask for the certificate when processing the marriage license.
Because Shanta had decided to skip the premarital course, we agreed to meet Friday morning for their wedding ceremony. They wanted to buy rings after obtaining their marriage license so I had them follow me to Hulen Mall. The mall was closed at 10AM when we entered together so I suggested going to a nearby pawn shop, Cash America. Their budget for rings was $400 each so I knew they had a far better chance of finding rings at the pawn shop than the mall.
I left my couple and met my next clients at a venue. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were travel days for me as most days are meeting clients in between answering emails, DM’s, phone calls and text messages.
I’m at the clerks offices frequently and had posted a photo of my couple Tuesday to find a DM from “another minister” pitching himself. I found this hilarious since it occurs frequently from venues and other ministers. I don’t need another minister because I am one myself and also have four other family members on my staff to address clients I can’t fit into my own schedule.
Prior to Covid, it wasn’t uncommon for other officiants or planners to contact me to asking me to send them “client’s I was too busy to address.”
I’m always amused at the sense of entitlement someone must have to reach out to me expecting me to either train them to do what I do OR send them MY clients. Most everyone contacting me only wants me to conduct their ceremony but I can’t be everywhere. That’s why my family members are my back up. Not strangers.
Cindy and I were on a radio interview a little over a year ago when we were asked “can you share how you became successful and how others can accomplish what you have in the events industry by finding your niche?” I laughed and answered “why would I create competition we don’t have?” Short answer- I won’t and I don’t.
For many years other vendors laughed at my diversity. “Openly LBGT friendly? You are going to lose traditional clients by being so transparent.” Or “bartering? That’s crazy. How would you make any money?” Or “prison weddings? There can’t be that many people wanting to marry an inmate. How on earth could anyone be successful on an inmate wedding business?”
News flash- there are thousands of people who want to marry an inmate. There are also many LBGT clients no one would help that my family and I welcomed with open arms. There are many families who have no money for a Dream Event that have something of value to barter or a skill they can swap in exchange for services.
People laughing at Texas Twins Events, The Pawning Planners and TDCJ Officiant don’t laugh anymore. We thought outside the box from the beginning and used our money to create a massive inventory rather than wasting it on advertising. How could you target the clients we have? You couldn’t.
Clients come to us by referrals from our loyal client bases. Who else would loan clients everything they need? Bouquets, furs, veils, tiaras and more? Yep. We have it all. Our suvs are rolling photo booths of props. We bring it all with us. Weddings on wheels.
Who else would meet clients at the clerks office to walk them through obtaining their marriage license? No one. I’ve never met another officiant or planner other than myself, my son, sister, daughter in law or niece at the clerks office with their clients in ten years . We do event’s differently. Each and every client is treated like our only client.
Covid created a number of “flipped bookings” from Texas Twins Events and TDCJ Officiant to The Pawning Planners. Why? Finances. Our clients have struggled through job loss and wage cuts. Covid has created a number of changes no one could have anticipated.
I’m followed by a number of “other ministers” and event coordinators. A handful of them have contacted me again and again to “send them my clients” or “teach them how to be a prison officiant” the past several years. I’m not in the teaching business or passing my clients to someone else business either.
My clients are as loyal to me as I am to them. Find your own clients and find your own success. Don’t try to piggyback on someone else’s back. Especially mine. I’m busy.
I met Shanta and her fiancée back at the clerks office Friday morning. While waiting on them I accompanied four other clients to obtain their marriage licenses and returned to my suv. I had already packed it with everything and the dropping temps were of concern because I had chose a bridge over the Trinity for the ceremony. My niece and twin sister were meeting us there to handle photography.
Shanta sent me a text “I’m so sorry we are running late. They let him out late.” I responded “no problem” as I answered a number of inquiries for prison weddings in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
By 10:30, Shanta sent me a text that read “we are here.” I responded back “I’m waiting in my Sahara. Park and jump in my suv.” Shanta was wearing a beautiful dress although it was freezing cold and her fiancée was wearing a suit. They looked amazing! I love it when clients dress up. Getting in my suv, Shanta asked “did we need the license? I forgot it at home.” I checked my schedule. I then asked “where is your house?” She lived in Irving. About thirty minutes to and from my current location. I decided to go to the bridge and meet Leigh Ann and Cindy, perform the wedding ceremony, get the photos and run my clients to Irving, grab the license and return to the clerks office to file the license. This would still leave me about forty five minutes leeway to meet my next couple.
Arriving at the bridge, Leigh Ann jumps out with her daughter, Maddy. The wind is whipping. I open the back to find a fur and coordinating bouquet and fascinator for Shanta while she changes shoes. Her fiancée wants to know “if I can tie a tie?” I have no idea how to so we decide to skip the tie and head onto the bridge. They had found rings that perfectly fit within their budget at Cash America.
My bride was thrilled and beautiful. Her fiancée looked handsome in his brand new suit. They were both excited and had everything they wouldn’t have had at their wedding if we had been at Ferguson Unit. No rings. No flowers. No suit for him. No freedom. No fun photos to remember their day. We had all of those things.
Jumping back into my suv, I turn up the heat as Leigh Ann and Cindy head up the street to Chateau At Forest Park to meet our other clients. My clients and I hit the highway to Irving. We talk about their plans for the future. We discuss the beginning of their lives together after lockup. I enjoy visiting with my clients. I’m always interested in how they met and what their plans are beyond the razor wire.
While waiting outside the apartment, I answer a text from Amy. “He’s paroled. We can marry in February. Can you meet us to get the license? I’m so excited I’m crying. We’ve been trying to marry for over a year now. Miss Wendy I’m so happy and thrilled.”
I am too. Amy lives in Springtown and her fiancée is paroling to Fort Worth. It will take about 10 days for her to finally be able to see him in person after over a year of waiting to marry at TDCJ Michael Unit. I will meet them at Tarrant County Clerks in the next two weeks or so for the first time. It seems odd to others I never meet my clients prior to purchasing their license or wedding day. Prior to Covid, I arrived in prison parking lots across the US and sent a text that read “I’m here” along with what I was wearing. In prison parking lots everywhere for years now, I’ve had excited clients I had talked to and emailed for months run across the parking lot to hug me for the first time in person. I’m now hugging them in person with no gates, no correctional officers, no towers or razor wire. None of the things we anticipated, prepared and planned for are holding us back on the outside. It’s so odd. The things I’ve gone over with them that we can’t do that we now can. “Bring the rings. Wear whatever you want. Bring your family or friends. You can kiss as many times as you like.” No restrictions other than no alcohol in most cases. It’s odd. It’s liberating. I’m so accustomed to all of the things I advise clients that they can’t do that when Amy suggests cake at their wedding her friend is buying for the celebration I nearly start crying myself feeling her joy.
Back in my suv, my clients and I dash back to the clerks office where their car had been left earlier in the morning. We walk into the building together again. We take a number and we wait. Shanta posts updates to FB and accepts my friend request. We are finally called up for the clerk to register the license. They are finally married. Back in the elevator to jump into my suv and head to my next client, it’s been an exciting day of laughter and love. My weekend is just getting started. I will move to San Antonio on Saturday and wake up in Austin on Sunday before traveling back to Fort Worth Monday. I will be meeting other clients for the first time in cities across Texas that are just as excited to be marrying on the other side of the fence.
No one could have predicted where my idea and concept “to make event’s affordable to anyone” would go all those years ago in my kitchen with Cindy not even us but we are blessed to have met hundreds of couples on the inside as well as the outside of prison walls. We are blessed to have had so many hilarious adventures with clients bartering. We are blessed to have had the adventures, the joy and the laughter we’ve had all of these years and can’t wait to meet each and every one of our clients to share the joy of their Life Event.