The sanctuary, decorated with blue and green ribbons, was filled with family and friends. Tables and chairs were set up in the church basement for the reception and cupcakes, cookies, sodas and three kinds of potato chips awaited the invited guests. The tuxedoed groom stood at the altar, next to the preacher. "The Wedding March" was cued and ready to go. One final detail remained before the ceremony could begin: Somebody needed to tell the bride it was her wedding day.
The sanctuary, decorated with blue and green ribbons, was filled with family and friends. Tables and chairs were set up in the church basement for the reception and cupcakes, cookies, sodas and three kinds of potato chips awaited the invited guests. The tuxedoed groom stood at the altar, next to the preacher. "The Wedding March" was cued and ready to go.
One final detail remained before the ceremony could begin:
Somebody needed to tell the bride it was her wedding day.
"Oh. My. God." That was about all Kara Harness could manage at first between teardrops Saturday after her husband of 16 years, Jim Harness, surprised her with a church ceremony to renew their wedding vows and surprised her again with the full-on reception that followed.
"This doesn't even feel real," she said, her right elbow hooked inside her father's left. "Is this real?"
Before anyone could answer, Kara Harness was walking down the aisle of Chillicothe Christian Church in the direction of her lying, conniving, deceiving husband.
"I'll probably have to go to confession for two straight months," Jim Harness said after the ceremony as he received guests next to his wife, who still wore a what-just-happened look on her face. And she still dabbed at the tears in her eyes with a tissue.
In July 1993, Jim and Kara Harness exchanged vows on the fly at the Peoria County Courthouse. They had to cancel the church wedding they had planned, because Jim Harness' National Guard unit was dispatched to the Mississippi River area to assist with that summer's flooding.
"So we had a quick ceremony at the courthouse and took a couple of photos by that little fountain out back," said Jim Harness, who works second shift as a bus mechanic at CityLink. "I always felt bad that my job interfered with the wedding we both wanted."
He decided in February to make good on a promise to supply his wife with the wedding they never had. He wanted to make it special. Something out of the ordinary. Something a little kooky. He wanted to make it a surprise.
"I like surprises," Jim Harness said. "What can I say?"
He hatched a plan that required the assistance of dozens of believable liars, starting with Kara Harness' best friend, Leanne Howald. She told Kara Harness last spring that she and her husband, Derek Howald, were going to have a vow-renewal ceremony at the Chillicothe church in the summer. Howald asked Harness to be her matron of honor. She accepted with glee.
That lie set the foundation for parallel tracks of planning - one for the real surprise ceremony for the Harnesses and one for the fake, not-going-to-happen ceremony for the Howalds. The women planned together, shopped together, even made out fake invitations together, with Kara Harness all along believing the ceremony they were discussing and working toward was for the Howalds.
The women wore identical dresses, but it was the dress Kara liked and selected, not one Leanne would have picked out for herself.
"Leanne manipulated the whole thing. Kara would point out something she liked while they shopped and Leanne would call me and tell me what it was," Jim Harness said. "Then I'd go out and buy."
A couple of weeks ago, Leanne Howald called Kara Harness and invited her to breakfast on a Sunday morning.
"It was planned. I told Kara, 'Good, then I can roll over and go back to bed,' " Jim Harness said.
His wife left for breakfast. He got up immediately, dressed and went to church.
"I sat through two services and announced to both congregations what I was up to. I asked them to please keep the secret and that they were all invited to the service," Jim Harness said.
They had two rehearsals. A real rehearsal for the Kara-and-Jim ceremony (with everybody but Kara in attendance), followed by a fake rehearsal - which Kara attended - for the fake ceremony for Leanne and Derek. Pastor Bob Hentrich, totally in on the gag, officiated both ceremonies.
"Leanne was unbelievable at her fake rehearsal in front of Kara," Hentrich said. "She really sold it."
It all came together Saturday. Jim Harness; his sons Chris, 15, and Nic, 13; Kara's father, Bill Lester; and Leanne's son, Cooper Howald, dressed in their tuxes at the church. Kara, Leanne, Leanne's mother and Leanne's daughter - flower girl Jaime Howald, 7 - got ready at the Howald house for the fake ceremony.
Guests arrived and took their seats. Jim called Leanne and told them it was time to come to the church. They arrived in just a few minutes and walked through the front doors into a front room that leads to the sanctuary. The surprise sunk in slowly and with little drama, but a lot of tears.
Kara Harness never noticed the names "Jim and Kara" spelled in tissue paper above the sanctuary door. Even when her father stepped out of the sanctuary dressed in a tuxedo and said, "Kara, the ceremony is for you," it didn't appear she was fully aware she had been lied to for five months. She walked down the aisle with her dad, then stood next to her husband at the altar.
"This is an absolutely stunning occasion," Hentrich said. "A lot of people are holding their breath, and I know God is smiling on us now. Kara, Jim thinks enough of you not to marry you once, but twice."
They exchanged vows, said their "I dos," kissed and walked back down the aisle together to a standing ovation. Kara Harness no longer was the only one crying.
"Looking back, some things Jim and others did make sense to me now," she said afterward. "But this was a complete surprise."
The basement reception room filled with guests. The opening notes of Rod Stewart's "You're In My Heart" floated softly out of a stereo until someone turned up the volume.
The Harnesses walked to the middle of the room. They faced each other, joined right hands, looped their newly re-ringed left hands around the other's waist, and their next 16 years of marriage began with a slow dance.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.