The Nebraska Wesleyan University professor and his student didn’t plan to see history in the making, and they didn’t plan to feel it, either.
Instead, John Spilker and Caitlin Beck were in Washington, D.C., last week doing ethnographic fieldwork at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, under a student-faculty collaborative research grant.
But they had some free time Friday before the festival resumed. And they already were on the National Mall, not all that far from the U.S. Supreme Court.
So they reached the decision together: There was a good chance the justices would rule on marriage equality that morning, a good chance they’d make same-sex unions legal in all 50 states.
A good chance they’d make history.
“The two of us decided it would be an amazing thing,” Spilker said this week from Utah, where he and his wife, Amy, were visiting friends. “It was an opportunity to offer support to a group of people that have fought so hard to feel like they can be full citizens in our country.”
The teacher and student were near the U.S. Botanical Garden when his phone broke the news: The court had legalized same-sex marriage.
The Nebraskans picked up their pace; not quite running now, but close.
“We were walking a lot faster. It was imperative we get there.”
And when they got there, they found a gathering he has trouble describing, even days later.
“There was a huge crowd. People were passing out signs and flags, and we wanted flags and signs. As we were approaching, we could hear cheering, and there would be moments when everyone together would be cheering.”
Up the steps, at the courthouse’s entrance, they watched couples emerge. They assumed it was the plaintiffs, who had carried their struggle to the land’s highest court and prevailed. And not just for themselves.
The crowd roared. Spilker and Beck had become part of something. No longer just witnesses to history, but participants.
“Words can’t express just how cool it was to see that,” Spilker said. “But it wasn’t just something you could see, it was something you could feel. There was so much shared humanity. That’s a cool thing to be a part of.”
They spent maybe 45 minutes celebrating with strangers and speaking with strangers and hugging strangers. Then Spilker, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saw a silver-haired woman with a sign that resonated with him.
Matthew 22:39 -- “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Spilker is religious, but he doesn’t believe religion needs to be so binary, so divisive -- that one either believes in God or one supports gay marriage, but not both.
“I went up to her and I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ It was an amazing thing to connect with her.”
He didn’t know it until just after the moment passed, but an Associated Press photographer had caught the exchange -- the woman, Carmen Guzman from Virginia, stroking Spilker’s ebullient cheek beneath his cap.
Then the Nebraskans had to return to the Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian. It paled in comparison to what they’d just experienced, but it fueled them, too.
“We still had a really strong research day that day,” he said. “We went forward with some of that energy.”
They talked about what they saw, and what they felt, at the courthouse. Spilker and Beck are creating a seminar for incoming students called “Courage, Compassion, and Connection" that they will teach together next semester.
The required course will convey research, leadership, speaking, collaboration, critical thinking and reading skills. And now it will be informed, and inspired, by what they saw on the steps of the Supreme Court.
“Being present at this historic moment gave us the opportunity to feel -- you can feel the courage, you can sense the connection, you can sense compassion.”
When they were done in Washington, Beck went to Greece to spend a month performing in an opera chorus with three other Wesleyan students. In an email this week, the Omaha Central grad said it felt “monumental” to take part in the celebration.
“I truly felt proud to be an American and was encouraged by the love and vulnerability I saw on the stairs of the courthouse. Through this decision, love has won and the United States has taken a huge step forward in the area of human rights.”
Spilker and his wife went to Utah, where he’d received his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University.
A colleague saw the news photo of Spilker at the celebration and let him know. That meant something, but the experience meant more.
“You can have the pictures,” he said. “But the intangibles, the remembering, the being there -- those are things that will stay forever.”