Ashley Gruber always made a point of paying attention in church. This helped salvage her wedding.
Ms. Gruber and her fiancé, Jeph Mwaituka, had planned to be married March 21 before 230 guests, some traveling from as far as Tanzania, when group-gathering restrictions because of the coronavirus started tightening in Alabama. “It went from 50 to 25 to recommendations for fewer than 10 in a matter of days,” said Ms. Gruber, 33. By March 15, “things were starting to look bad, and I realized we might be in trouble,” she said.
Much would be lost: the collective tears shed in the packed church, the hugs and kisses from loved ones at the receiving line, the crowded dance floor and clinking of champagne glasses during the reception. But what both thought of as the most important part wouldn’t have to go.
“The point was to be married,” Mr. Mwaituka said. “That’s something we could still do without the social interaction.”
Ms. Gruber and Mr. Mwaituka met in 2018 on the dating app Tinder. Ms. Gruber, a native of Birmingham, had recently returned from working overseas with the nonprofit organization International Relief and Development, which was at a Yemeni refugee camp. Since graduating in 2008 with a degree in nutrition from the University of Mississippi, she had spent several years abroad doing service work, including two years in Madagascar teaching expatriate children. In between stints overseas, she was a nanny for local families.
Altruism, she said, was a calling. She grew up Methodist with her parents, Connie and Tim Gruber, and a younger brother, Cory, and then became a Southern Baptist in college, before giving that up to join Mr. Mwaituka at the nondenominational Oak City. “The only way I can explain my wanting to help people is that it comes from the Lord,” she said. “He’s given me the ability to live in hard places.”
Her 2018 return from abroad was prompted by a desire to help others more expertly. After working with a midwife at the refugee camp, Ms. Gruber said, “I saw how much more she could do than I could, and I figured I could help more people if I became a nurse.” She graduated from Jefferson State Community College with a nursing degree at the end of April.
Signing up for Tinder while taking nursing classes and working full time as a Medicare recovery specialist for a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield, her current job, was more an afterthought than a priority.
“I know this is going to make me look weird, but the few times I got asked out through the years it didn’t seem right to me,” she said. A handful of first dates did not turn into second ones. “I think as women we go through phases. Sometimes I would be, like, ‘Nobody loves me, I’m all alone.’ But most of the time I was cool with being alone. I thought, I’m going to be productive.”
Staying single had the benefit of nurturing a sense of adventure and of oneness with the world. After college, she went to Australia for a summer of church work. Later she traveled to the Philippines to teach English. Before she left for Madagascar in 2012, she visited Thailand to volunteer with the nonprofit Compassion International. Always, she kept in touch. “I made really good relationships everywhere I went, and now I have extra families around the globe,” she said.
Mr. Mwaituka, 29, didn’t need to leave his Birmingham home to develop an appreciation for other cultures. His parents, Helen and Fred Mwaituka, and younger brothers, John and Jerry Mwaituka, arrived in the United States in 1995 from Tanzania, after years of unrest in that country. Since then, their home has been a refuge for visiting family members. Some have stayed weeks. Some for years, including a cousin who is now like a sister, Hellen Mathias. “Growing up, it was always that way,” Mr. Mwaituka said. “Now I care for people from other places and people who need help by nature.”
For a while, the aim of his helping instinct was spiritual. After graduating from Thompson High School in 2008, he went to Birmingham Metro Master’s Commission, a local Bible college. But less than a year into a position as a youth pastor, he switched professional gears, taking jobs in sales and as an electrical apprentice. Since 2018, he has been a groundskeeper at a local apartment complex.
Before he met Ms. Gruber, he tried a few dating sites. “I was on Christian Mingle, and then I tried Bumble, but nothing was happening,” he said. He deleted both accounts after what he called a lot of false starts. “Of course I had the desire to be in a relationship, but after a while I learned how to be on my own.” Romantically, anyway.
Mr. Mwaituka describes his personality as “bubbly.” Ms. Gruber said he knows “about a bajillion people. He doesn’t ever leave anyone a stranger.” His ease around others was on full display on their first date in November 2018 at Brixx Pizza in Birmingham.
“We were just really comfortable with each other,” Ms. Gruber said. So much so that the waitress who served them assumed they were in love. “She thought we were a full-swing couple because we were so natural together.” Mr. Mwaituka was hoping that was the way it would stay.
“Ashley was really direct, and she loved to laugh, and she got my silly side, and it was just a hit,” he said.
For Ms. Gruber, the ability to be herself felt freeing. The few dates she had gone on before Mr. Mwaituka had been a lesson in playing coy, or in needing to reel herself in. “I had to figure out, how much should I hold in? How much do I need to give to connect with somebody?” she said. “With Jeph, I stopped doing that. I was just like, ‘Hey, this is me, this is who I am. If you’re going to play a game, that’s on you.’”
But both wanted a serious relationship, the kind that led to marriage. Getting there didn’t happen overnight. “It took eight or nine dates until our first kiss,” Mr. Mwaituka said. “We were really just trying to figure each other out.” By early 2019, after meeting each other’s friends and families and spending more weeknights together than apart, they became a committed couple.
“It was dating with a purpose,” Ms. Gruber said. After she told him she loved him that spring, they started talking about marriage. Mr. Mwaituka was in no rush. “I wanted that to be the goal,” he said. But a walk down the aisle didn’t feel pressing until he started sensing Ms. Gruber’s anticipation. “Finally I said to myself, ‘Look, Jeph, you’re not going to meet another person like this.’”
October brought a trip to the Grand Canyon. Ms. Gruber was expecting a proposal there, but she wasn’t discouraged when it didn’t happen. They had already gone ring shopping at Diamonds Direct, so she knew it was a matter of time. Mr. Mwaituka was waiting for the perfect moment.
“You know how they say men don’t listen?” he said. He had been listening. “I knew she didn’t want to do it in public in some crazy way. She wanted it to be just me and her.”
After attending a friend’s engagement party on Nov. 22, he suggested they go to Brixx for pizza. On their way in, he dropped to one knee, pretending to tie his shoe. When Ms. Gruber turned to him, he produced a blue topaz ring they had chosen. “Will you marry me?” he asked.
“She was jumping and giggling,” he said. As she said yes, strangers in the parking lot snapped pictures. Brixx celebrated with a free bottle of prosecco.
The next four months were spent planning the wedding with Ms. Gruber’s mother. By February, their guest list had swelled to 275. Ms. Gruber chose three attendants; Mr. Mwaituka had four. When coronavirus restrictions hit in March, they were still receiving R.S.V.P.’s and had started working with a local wedding planner, Becky Dedge, to sort the details. On March 15, Oak City Church, where they were to be married, announced its temporary closure. The McWane Science Center, where they had planned a reception, closed the next day.
The church was willing to open its doors for a smaller ceremony. But then “our governor, bless her heart, instituted the 25 or less gathering policy,” Ms. Gruber said. Her thoughts turned to the church’s livestream, and the possibilities livestreaming presented for a wedding. Both rejected the idea of postponing.
“I didn’t want the current circumstances to dictate how I live,” Mr. Mwaituka said. Ms. Gruber didn’t either. Cory Gruber offered to put on a pared-down wedding on the deck at his Pelham house for the couple’s immediate families and close friends, like Sara and Kevin Ledlow.
“They were laughing and smiling through all of this, which is just who they are,” Mr. Ledlow said. “We weren’t going to miss it.”
On March 21, with their hundreds of distant guests watching via Facebook Live and their parents, siblings and handful of friends seated in folding chairs on Cory Gruber’s deck, they were married by the Rev. Jonathan Henderson, the lead pastor at Oak City Church. Ms. Gruber walked with her father down a short makeshift aisle. She wore a cap-sleeved white dress with a long train from Bella’s, a bridal boutique in Hoover, Ala.
“I waited 33 stinking years to wear that dress,” she said. “That part I wasn’t going to change.”
Alesia Pruitt, a friend since middle school, stood by her side. Mr. Mwaituka wore a navy suit. Mr. Ledlow and another friend, Jeremy Smith, served as groomsmen.
After a prayer, Mr. Henderson saluted Ms. Gruber and Mr. Mwaituka for their perseverance. “Love never gives up,” he said. “We’ve seen that this week.”
On the livestream video, birds could be heard singing in nearby trees as Mr. Henderson encouraged the couple to be fruitful and multiply. Just after he pronounced them husband and wife, they threw up their hands in victory.
On This Day
When March 21, 2020
Where Pelham, Ala.
Cheek to (Single) Cheek At an intimate reception, couples used the deck as a dance floor. They all proceeded with caution. Because of social distancing, “nobody changed partners,” Mr. Ledlow said.
Leftovers A wedding cake for 250 from Daughters Baking was too far along to be canceled, so a portion was brought in for the scaled-down reception. The rest was frozen. “We’re going to be eating a ton of cake,” Ms. Gruber said.
Post-Wedding Pack Up Throughout their courtship, Mr. Mwaituka had been living with his parents. Just after the wedding, he planned to move into Ms. Gruber’s townhouse in Birmingham.