The altar will be crowded at First Congregational Church Sunday when 13 couples renew their wedding vows.
The Rev. Larry Vriezelaar, pastor, said he scheduled the Renewal Service for the Valentine's Day weekend to encourage couples and remind them of the sacredness and blessings of marriage.
"There are no gimmicks involved. I'm not after publicity or anything else. I just want to do all I can as a pastor, and as a Christian, to calm the storm of divorce," Mr. Vriezelaar said. "I want to let people know that God gives us strength through the difficult seasons of our life."
He said some of the inspiration for Renewal Sunday came from his work as chaplain to the Toledo police department, dealing with some officers' stressed-out family lives, as well as people who are victims of crimes or tragedies.
"I thought, 'Gosh, I just wish there was something I could do to tell people to hang in there, that God will give you strength to make it through marital complications,'•" Mr. Vriezelaar said.
First Congregational has been a popular spot for weddings for decades, with a sanctuary bejeweled with 16 stained-glass Tiffany windows. The church was founded in 1833 and moved to its current site in the Old West End in 1916.
Mr. Vriezelaar said the service was open to anyone who has been married at First Congregational, whether or not they now attend the church.
"I thought it would be cool if I could touch people in our own congregation or who were married here, to get them to recommit themselves to each other for the long haul," he said.
He called it "tragic" that the divorce rate among Christians is virtually the same as that of the general public.
"Christianity has not had an impact on the divorce rate and that makes the devil so happy," Mr. Vriezelaar said.
A violinist will play tomorrow as the couples walk down the main aisle. The pastor will lead husbands and wives in reciting the vows from a regular marriage service, and each couple will then light their own unity candle.
A brief reception - with wedding cake - will follow the service.
Among the couples who will be renewing their vows is Mike and Penny Murphy of Perrysburg.
The Murphys were married in November, 1976, at First Congregational, and their daughter, Erin, was married there last November.
"It's a wonderful idea," Mr. Murphy said of the service. "After 32 years of a wonderful marriage, I can't put in words how wonderful it is to be able to do this again.
"To be able to walk down that aisle once again, with the same person who is really your soulmate, and to renew your vows to each other, I think it's going to be a day beyond description. It's a celebration of an enduring love," he said.
Mrs. Murphy added that "it does make a statement that marriage is important and you can make it through."
Mr. Vriezelaar, 66, and his wife, Sandy, have been married 41 years and have four children and 11 grandchildren.
Formerly the senior pastor at Heritage Christian Church in Oregon, he has been at First Congregational for 3 1/2 years.
Mr. Vriezelaar said one of the men who signed up to renew his marriage vows tomorrow is terminally ill with cancer.
"His goal is to renew his vows with his wife before he passes away. He wants his kids and grandkids to see that the last significant thing they did together was to say, '•'Til death do us part.' I'm thrilled for the privilege of leading them in renewing their vows. I'm sure there won't be a dry eye in the house," Mr. Vriezelaar said.
The Renewal Sunday service will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow at First Congregational Church, 2315 Collingwood Blvd.
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