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At the county clerk’s office, volunteers help local couples say “I do”

on August 1, 2012

On the second floor of the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s office in downtown Oakland is the wedding room. It’s a little bit like a chapel, except there are no crosses or candles. More than 50 couples walk through its doors every week prepared to say, “I do.”

The people responsible for making this day a memorable event are not just the staff at the clerk’s office, but men and women who volunteer to become deputy commissioners authorized to perform civil ceremonies. The training required to become a marriage commissioner is not difficult, said Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s division chief Kevin Hing. In fact, after he told me a story about fishing a wedding ring out of a drain near the office, he made the job sound like so much fun that he convinced me that I might want to become a marriage commissioner myself—but more about that later.

Volunteer marriage commissioner Janet Appel reviews a marriage license application before a ceremony begins.

The office began working with volunteers about eight years ago. Since that’s worked well, Hing said, they’ve recently requested more assistance from the public. People interested in helping out devote two to three hours, one or two days per week, to the task of uniting couples in matrimony. The volunteers must read and write English and be at least 35 years old. Billingual and multi-lingual volunteers are particularly encouraged to apply.

Having the volunteers help out allows staff members to meet deadlines and complete tasks that might be left unfinished if they spent a lot of time performing marriage ceremonies, Hing said. “We find that as we require more time to focus and complete our other duties and tasks, that time for marriages, which are more difficult to schedule because people drop in, are increasingly more difficult to do,” he said.

When someone decides to marry at the Clerk-Recorder’s Office, it is usually because they are on a budget, or they feel the process is less stressful than planning a formal wedding, said Janet Appel, a long-time volunteer. Often, she said, they plan to substitute a large wedding for a large reception after the ceremony here.

All couples who get married in Alameda County must come to this office first to fill out their marriage license applications. Once a license is approved, the couple has the option of getting married in the clerk’s office that day. If the couple chooses to marry, this is when the volunteers spring into action.

The volunteers take their role as marriage commissioners very seriously and the clerk’s office staff treat them like members of the family, Appel said. She has been a volunteer since December, 2005. So far, she has married more than 3,000 couples. During special times like Valentine’s Day, she might conduct 25 ceremonies in a single day, while on other days there might be only five. “There are certain days that people want to get married like 07-07-07 or 08-08-08,” Appel said. “We had people out the door on some of these because they were lucky days in the Chinese community.”

Ebony and Terrell say “I do.”

Appel started volunteering shortly after retiring. When she and her husband are not testing recipes and writing about them, she is at the clerk’s office. She volunteers twice a week because she loves it. Sometimes, she said, seeing how much the couples love each other gives her goose bumps. “You feel happy, you feel good and sometimes you feel a little powerful,” Appel said. “If you start thinking about it, this is life-changing and you are doing it.”

On a recent Friday as she got ready to work, Appel wore black slacks and a fuchsia shirt, pearl earrings and a pearl necklace. Her beautiful silver hair was a bit reminiscent of Paula Deen’s.  She carried a folder containing several sheets of paper including the wedding license application for a couple who was waiting for her in the hallway.  After reviewing an application to make sure that it had been properly filled out, that both parties were 18 or older, and that they didn’t need the services of a multi-lingual marriage commissioner, Appel went out into the hallway and introduced herself to the waiting couple and their family members.

Ebony Shelton and Terrell Jones have been together five years. They decided to marry at the clerk’s office because, as Shelton said, “It’s less stressful.” They wanted something small with just family in attendance, and a bigger reception later. “We thought that would be nice,” said Jones.

Jones was wearing jeans with a striped pullover sweater and shirt. Shelton was wearing a short white cap-sleeved dress with an embroidered trim around the neckline. The family talked, sometimes all at once, and laughed together as Appel escorted the wedding party to the elevator to take them up to the wedding room.

When the elevator doors opened for the couple on the second floor, a sign with an arrow pointed them towards the wedding room, a bright and sunny space. In the center of the room an arch is wrapped with lights and artificial flowers. Wooden benches are placed at an angle on both sides.

Appel told the group in her sweet southern accent that time would be short, so they should take as many photographs as possible before and during the ceremony. She spoke quietly to the couple, asking if they wanted to exchange rings or recite any special vows.

When it was time to start the ceremony, the rumblings in the room quieted. “We are gathered here today for the purpose of uniting in marriage Terrell and Ebony,” said Appel, standing close to the couple and holding the folder containing their application and the wedding vows. Her voice was gentle as she guided the couple to recite the words of their vows after her.

As Jones vowed to love and honor his new bride, tears filled his eyes, causing happy murmurs and whispered words of love from the audience, as well as a few cheers. Appel leaned over and handed him a Kleenex from the box nearby.

“Now that you’ve joined yourself in matrimony, may you strive all your lives to meet this commitment with this love and devotion,” Appel said, then concluded the ceremony by declaring the couple married. They hugged each other tightly. Shelton looked up at her new husband as he leaned over to kiss her.

Appel called the witnesses over and reminded the group to start taking pictures.

After the ceremony, the couple posed briefly for pictures while court clerk Christine Lake—whose office is right next door—prepared the official marriage certificate, bringing it over and congratulating the bride and groom.

“Everyone is teasing me about crying,” Jones said, his voice trailing off for a moment as he looked at his bride. “I love her and I don’t want to be with anybody else but her. I’m blessed to find somebody who is appreciative and understanding of me as a man. I love her to death.”

“Aw!” said his new wife, taking his arm and pulling him close to her.

By the time the wedding party had returned to the first floor, it was time for Appel to leave for the day, but Myrna Flores had arrived to take her place. Flores has been volunteering for close to two years. She saw an article in the newspaper shortly after Valentine’s Day mentioning that the clerk’s office needed marriage commissioners, she said. “I had just retired from UC Berkeley and I thought that sounded like a really fun thing,” Flores said.

Myrna Flores dons her robe as she prepares for a marriage ceremony.

While preparing for her ceremony, which would be conducted in Spanish, Flores put on one of the black robes reserved for commissioners who wish to wear one. “When I first came, I would dress nicely in a suit,” she said. “After comparing the reaction from people to me wearing street clothes verses the robe, it’s more ceremonial to them and I think the couples appreciate it.”

Usually the couples are nervous, she said, so she tries to let them know the event is as important for her as it is for them. “During my ceremony, I ask if they want to add additional vows,” Flores said. “I tried different ways, like asking ahead of time, but I found that sometimes if I ask ahead they say ‘No.’ I find that if I ask after they say their vows they are kind of inspired—not all of them, but some couples have something they want to say. It gives them the opportunity to express their feelings at the moment.”

All of the marriages are special, Flores said, but there are some ceremonies that are memorable for her. “It is always interesting to see the cultural differences,” she said. For example, she recalled, when she performed a ceremony for a couple from Guatemala, after they exchanged their vows, one of their mothers asked if she could add some words to the ceremony. “That was moving,” Flores said.

Once after she married a couple from Kenya, the family sang to the bride and groom, and after she married a couple from India, one of the mothers opened a package that contained sweets, which she passed around the room for everyone to eat. The treats were meant to sweeten the marriage, Flores said.

On this particular Friday, the couple she was marrying did not speak English. Sixteen-year-old Jemah Diaz was there to witness her father, Santiago Diaz, a widower, celebrate his second marriage to Isabella Herrera.

“He told me he wanted to get married,” Diaz said of her father. “We went to look at places in Berkeley and here, and they decided to get married here. Later, in two weeks, we are going to have the church ceremony.” The second ceremony, she said, would be for religious rather than legal purposes, and would  allow the couple to dedicate themselves to each other in front of family and friends. On this day, only family members were present at the clerk’s office.

Isabella and Santiago recite their wedding vows with family and friends gathered around them.

Once the group reached the wedding room, Flores spoke in Spanish, welcoming everyone to the special occasion, and the room grew quiet. She asked the couple to join hands. Herrera, dressed in an ankle-length blue dress with matching headband, beamed and there was no mistaking the twinkle in the groom’s eye as he looked over at his bride. After Flores declared them married, the family gathered around the couple, hugging them and taking photos.

According to Hing, approximately 50 to 60 couples are married at the clerk’s office each week. “We get anywhere from eight to 15  [couples per day], with Friday being the busiest day,” he said. On a typical Friday, there are 25 to 35 couples waiting to get married. On special days like Valentines, Day that number will go as high as 60 to 70 couples. In the past, there have been instances when a couple that did not want to wait in a long line agreed to a group ceremony with four to five couples getting married at once, Hing said.

Couples may arrive at the clerk’s office with the bride in a simple dress or pants and the groom in jeans or slacks, or they may be more elaborately dressed, with the bride in a long white gown and tiara and the groom in a tuxedo. “I’ve married kids on their lunch hour from high school,” Appel said. “I’ve married them in ‘Daisy Dukes’ and overalls.” There was also, she said, a couple who brought along a string quartet.

Just as the style of dress may vary from couple to couple, so do their reasons for getting married. Appel and Flores both said they have performed ceremonies for arranged marriages in which the couples were happy to tie the knot. They also said that many of the couples they marry are people who have been together for a number of years and just decide that it’s just time to get married, whether it is to preserve their legal rights or because they see it as the final step in their commitment to each other. Others wake up in the morning, decide they must get married that day, and wind up at the clerk’s office before noon.

Julie Tamayo, a deputy clerk has worked at the recorder’s office for more than 12 years, was deputized when her sister suddenly decided to get married. “They came in one day and said they wanted to get married,” Tamayo said. “I think I said, ‘Oh, great!’ before I ran to my supervisor and asked if I could perform the ceremony. It was unplanned and the experience was great.”

Earlier in the day, Tamayo had given me my own orientation as a volunteer deputy marriage commissioner. She sat down with me and explained the rules governing wedding ceremonies in Alameda County. For example, there are certain phrases that must be recited during the ceremony in order to make it legal, such as “Do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded spouse?” I learned how to review a license and certificate of marriage application, paying close attention to dates and places on the application requiring signatures. I learned that only black pens are used for signatures, so that the signatures are legible when reproduced.

Once my training was done, I was told to raise my right hand and read the “oath of office” aloud, in which I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitiution of the State of California. In less than 30 minutes, I was a deputized marriage commissioner. (I fulfilled the second part of the training process, which is to follow a commissioner and observe them before performing my first ceremony, by watching Appel and Flores conduct their ceremonies.)

Now, as the afternoon flew by and the clerk’s office got ready to close, I knew that if I was going to use my newly acquired credentials I needed to make a decision. At first, worried that I might make a mistake on my first time out, I could not decide whether I wanted to be responsible for possibly ruining someone’s special day. But Flores told me that it might be my only opportunity to do this, and promised that the experience would probably make me as happy as the couple I was about to marry.

So with her help, I donned her black robe and placed a white sash around my neck as I practiced performing the ceremony, reciting the words and trying to calm my breathing at the same time. I walked out into the hallway and introduced myself to the couple and their family, who were sitting on the ottomans in the lobby. (The couple agreed to let me write about their wedding, but asked not to have their names included in the story.)

The couple looked nervous as they waited with their parents and grandparents. They held on to each other the entire time. The bride was dressed in a knee-length dress and flats, her dark hair touching her shoulders. The groom, dressed in a dark slacks and a white shirt open at the collar, smiled at me and listened carefully to hear my instructions.

Carlos & Paola

We made our way to the wedding room. Flores was beside me, reminding to check the application and to make sure to get the witnesses’ signatures. I was terrified and excited at the same time. “I am really about to perform a wedding ceremony,” I said to myself.

Just as I had seen Appel and Flores do earlier that day, I greeted the guests. Like Flores, I took my position at the stand facing the arch. “Welcome, everyone, to this wonderful occasion,” I said. I looked around the room and down at the folder with the wedding vows inside that had Flores loaned me. I tried to take the words in all at once. I heard a little sigh and realized it was me. I took a deep breath. The couple standing in front of me looked so happy, and so did the family members sitting on either side of me.

As I began the ceremony, there were some nervous giggles from both the bride and the groom. But slowly, as the ceremony progressed, there was a shift in the energy in the room. It became serious. You could feel the love that swept over the couple as they stood looking into each other’s eyes and became aware of the commitment they were making to each other. In an instant, I understood what Appel had said about the feeling of power that comes from knowing you are responsible for uniting two people in marriage.

The couple had decided not to exchange rings, but they did exchange vows to love, honor and comfort each other in sickness and in health. After they both spoke the last words of their vows, they turned to look at me.

“By virtue of the authority vested in me as deputy commissioner of civil marriages for the county of Alameda,” I said, “I now pronounce you married under the laws of the state of California.”

Information and applications are available on the Clerk-Recorder’s website at:


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