Secret Lives: Lay chaplain blesses same-sex unions and jumps out of planes

This is the fourth in a series of "secret lives" stories, showcasing the breadth of interests and hobbies that York staff pursue in their free time.

When Ontario recognized same-sex marriage in 2003, Robin Smith cheered. Before the historic decision, “it seemed so unjust that people who wanted to make a commitment to each other couldn’t.” But as debate heated up over the decision, she became dismayed that some clergy “didn’t feel celebratory” about the prospect of performing weddings for gay and lesbian couples. So she decided to become a chaplain.

“It was an unusual route to take, but not an unusual thing for me to do,” says the administrator of York’s Centre for Research on Work & Society (CRWS). Her two adult children don’t bat an eye anymore when their 55-year-old mother tells them what she’s up to next. In their lifetime, Mom has earned a BA, negotiated a better deal for her brothers and sisters in the union, mused about turning 50 in The Globe and Mail, won short story awards and, most recently, parachuted out of a plane.

Right: Robin Smith

“You could say I’m a little non-traditional,” says she who can’t resist a midway. “I like to experience new things all the time. We get compartmentalized in our lives but that hasn’t happened to me.”

It sure hasn’t. And these days part of the proof lies in dozens of newlyweds’ photo albums. Though you won’t find the camera-shy Smith in many of her own family’s photos (“You’d think my children didn’t have a mother!”), she appears in the wedding pictures of every couple she’s ever joined in holy matrimony.

That’s well over 100. Since becoming licensed as a lay chaplain in 2004, “Reverend Robin” has performed about 30 weddings a year, a quarter of them for same-sex couples. She’s united nieces, nephews, godchildren, friends, children’s friends, lesbians, gays, transsexuals and heterosexuals in churches, on docks, under chuppahs, in gardens, by lakes, in kitchens and in barns. She’ll never forget the one in which bride and groom stood in a canoe full of flowers, whistled to bring the ring bearers – their dogs – and paddled away after the ceremony. Or the one where the happy couple exchanged vows on the cottage dock, then stripped down to their bathing suits and dove into the lake. Or the 73-year-old bride dressed in white descending a spiral staircase to her waiting 80-year-old betrothed. Or the young couple dressed as Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter (“I didn’t get to say, ‘Off with their heads’ though.) Or the procession to the music from a Super Mario video game. “I think I’ll draw the line at a Trekkie wedding,” says Smith.

Left: Robin Smith (centre) performs the wedding ceremony for Pam Nicholson and Jane Davies in their kitchen in March

The first wedding she performed remains etched in her heart. Smith’s training to become a non-denominational pastor had been brief and she had only a few materials. When a colleague asked her to marry his brother and his brother’s partner, “I was very nervous.” She met the couple and together they fashioned a ceremony. To her relief, all went smoothly. “It was lovely.” Word spread and soon her weekends filled up with wedding dates.

Over the ensuing five years, Smith has noticed an evolution in same-sex vows. Early on, vows underscored the significance of being among the first to be married under the law.

“They felt like pioneers,” says Smith of the first same-sex couples to wed after the legislation. They were making history and felt compelled to acknowledge that. “It was a political statement.” These days, few refer to the legislation at all or ask her to wear Pride colours. Their marriages are no longer unusual but mainstream, normalized. “The marriage, not the fact that it’s a same-sex marriage, becomes the thing and to me that’s exactly the correct path,” says Smith.

Unhurried and empathetic, Smith has a lot of time for other people. At her grandfather’s knee, she learned that all people are equal and should be treated with respect. A Newfoundland fisherman, he instilled in her a deep commitment to social justice and human rights, principles that guide her as a steward and chair of the negotiating team for the York University Staff Association. “In order to have a really fulfilling life you need to give something back to the community that supports you,” says Smith. On staff at York since 1972, she worked in many Faculties before landing at CRWS in 1995. It’s a perfect fit. “I have a working life that gels with my own personal politics and my social activism. That’s a true gift.”

Right: Robin Smith officiates at the wedding of York nursing student Michelle McKay and Daniel Stadnicki (BFA Spec. Hons. ’09) in October 2008

Smith also makes time for herself. For 10 years, while juggling a full-time job and raising two children on her own, she took a couple of courses every year until she finally earned a BA in Canadian history in 2002. Shortly afterwards, her children went to university and with more time to spare, she started writing again. In 2004, the same year she became a pastor, she wrote a wry essay about turning 50 that The Globe and Mail promptly published on its Facts & Arguments page.

Now a writing workshop junkie who belongs to two writing groups, she’s chalked up other successes – a Valentine’s Day piece about her first love, aired on CBC’s “Sunday Morning”, and first prize in a Words Alive short story contest for Laura, published in the fall 2008 issue of Existere, York’s literary journal. Her love of Canadian history fits with her desire to write family memoirs, and these days she’s hard at work on a series of short stories based on real events that took place in Norman’s Cove, Newfoundland, where she spent summers with her grandparents. 

“I think it’s important to do new things. I’m continually trying to find things that have meaning,” says Smith. And that are out of the ordinary.

Like taking her son John skydiving at Gananoque Airport after he graduated from York in 2007. “Well, I didn’t want to buy him an engraved pen.” 

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer