Serena Powery did not know that Joseph Tillman was fasting when they met as youth ministry volunteers on a church retreat in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York in August 2014.
“We talked for hours that first day, and though I had been dating someone else at the time, I was immediately attracted to him,” said Ms. Powery, a 24-year-old social worker in the Bronx.
“I’m really good at being able to tell if someone likes me, but I never got that vibe from Joseph,” she said. “There was never an underlying tone of flirtation, and he made it clear from the start that we were never going to be anything more than just friends.”
Mr. Tillman, a 31-year-old associate at a Manhattan law firm, clearly liked what he saw in Ms. Powery. “She had a great sense of humor and was wise beyond her years,” he said. But having had some bad luck on the dating scene, including a tumultuous breakup earlier that year, he refused to view her, or any other woman, through romantic eyes.
“I had been dating a person I thought I knew very well, but after two months, the whole thing just crashed and burned,” he said. “I was completely thrown for a loop, and I kept asking myself, ‘Why do certain relationships fail?’ I needed to take some time to reassess things.”
Mr. Tillman consulted with his pastor at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church.
Pastor Craig Holliday had suggested a fast, though not from food but rather from romance. It is advice he has given others in the church.
“It all depends on the individual situation and what’s going on,” Mr. Holliday said. “When it came to Joseph, there were a number of things that had gone on in his social life that he and I had discussed. I recommended the dating fast as a way to clear his head. I said, ‘Don’t date anyone for the rest of the year and let’s talk around the beginning of the New Year.’”
Mr. Tillman took the recommendation to heart.
“It was a time in my life when I had asked God to give me some clarity in terms of what I was looking for in a woman,” he said.
But it was clear that Ms. Powery was everything he was looking for in a friend.
“She was so much fun to be around,” he said, “and we had so much in common.”
They grew up in California, she in San Jose and he in Perris, and each stayed in-state to receive a bachelor of arts degree, she in psychology at U.S.C., and he in finance at California State University San Bernardino.
Mr. Tillman moved to New York in 2009 to study for a law degree at N.Y.U. In 2012, he became a volunteer member of the young adult ministry of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. Ms. Powery, who arrived in New York in 2013 to study for a master’s degree in social work from Columbia, joined the church a year later and volunteered in the same ministry.
They made the California connection at the church retreat, after a quick introduction on a soccer field.
After an evening sermon that night, Mr. Tillman was walking back to his cabin when he spotted Ms. Powery sitting alone on a bench around midnight, gazing at the stars. They began a conversation that lasted until 5 a.m., wandering around their campsite and engaging in what Ms. Powery described as “a very deep, transparent conversation that set the tone for our friendship.”
“We talked openly about everything, including ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, I mean everything,” said Ms. Powery, who sings with a smaller segment of the renowned Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir during Friday night church services. “We learned a lot about each other on that trip.”
Those free-spirited discussions, Mr. Tillman said, were the byproduct of the fasting advice.
“Since I wasn’t interested in dating Serena, I allowed myself to be more vulnerable in conversation than if I had approached her in a romantic way,” he said. “So we were able to be completely honest and nonjudgmental, and we just clicked and talked for hours and hours.”
They talked about continuing their education, and their lives, in New York. Ms. Powery was still studying for her master’s (which she earned in May 2015), while Mr. Tillman, who had already earned his law degree, was specializing in private equity fund formation at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, overseeing general fund structure and United States regulatory matters.
“The fact that Serena and Joseph were both from California was a definite factor in the two of them hitting it off,” said Juliana O’Brien, a lifelong friend of Ms. Powery from San Jose. “We’re a different breed out in California, much more relaxed and much warmer, and they found those qualities in each other.”
Three months into her friendship with Mr. Tillman, Ms. Powery broke up with her boyfriend. Her friendship with Mr. Tillman remained strong as they continued worshiping together and often going for long walks and talks around Manhattan, where Mr. Tillman lived.
But the dating fast continued. There were no romantic overtures.
“Just hanging out and telling jokes,” she said. “Not taking life too seriously.”
In January 2015, Ms. Powery was aware that Mr. Tillman had begun dating again. Three months later, Ms. Powery told him that she had been accepted to the Peace Corps, in rural El Salvador.
“I didn’t mean it as if to say, ‘Well, if we’re not going to be together, I’m going to run off and join the Peace Corps,’” she said. “I was already resigned to the fact that Joseph was just going to be a good friend, but I was also of the mind-set that I was young and single, and I thought that if this is where God wants me to be, then why not pick up and leave?”
Mr. Tillman was shaken by her decision. “My head started spinning,” he said. “I was like: ‘Whoa, wait a minute. I need more details.’”
They discussed it the next day over lunch, during which Mr. Tillman made a confession.
“I told her that since she was leaving anyway, it couldn’t hurt to tell her that I remembered thinking after our first conversation that we had a great connection, but since I wasn’t dating anyone at that time, I just sort of ignored it. I told her that I did think something was there, and though I didn’t know if it was friendly or romantic, it was something I didn’t want to let go of.”
In recalling the moment, Ms. Powery offered a confession of her own.
“I’m sitting there pretending to be all cool,” she said. “Deep inside I’m shouting: Yes! Praise the Lord! We’re finally on the same page.”
In June 2015, Mr. Tillman officially began dating Ms. Powery, who was then living in Harlem and working in Brooklyn as a social worker at New York Therapeutic Communities.
In October 2015, she began working in the Bronx as a youth justice social worker for the Center for Court Innovation, seeking alternatives to prison for 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanor crimes.
Earlier that month, Mr. Tillman had gone back to the West Coast to cheer for Ms. Powery, who was participating in the Arthritis Foundation California Coast Classic Bike Tour, an eight-day 525-mile bike ride that began in San Francisco and ended in Los Angeles. Also riding were Ms. Powery’s parents, Maria Powery and Dwight Powery, and her sister, Evelyn Powery.
“We do it every year in memory of my younger sister who died from a more complicated disease, but she also had arthritis,” Ms. Powery said.
Soon after she rode across the finish line, Mr. Tillman, who had been waiting there, proposed.
“Serena knew all along that Joseph was the one,” said Maria Powery. “Everything has worked out perfectly for them.”
Including Ms. Powery’s commitment to the Peace Corps, which was scheduled to begin in March. Though she had intended to forgo her service, she received an email two months ago from the Peace Corps, and learned that the cohort that she was to be a part of had been canceled. “It was further confirmation that Joseph and I were meant to be together,” she said.
They were married Jan. 31 by their pastor, Mr. Holliday, at the Kirkpatrick Chapel on the campus of Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J.
The groom waited and watched with 160 guests as the chapel’s center doors opened wide. There stood Mr. Tillman’s best friend, clutching a bouquet of white roses in her hands.
“In every home, there is a thermostat and a thermometer,” Mr. Holliday told them. “Joseph, you are the thermostat. You will regulate the spiritual temperature in your new home, and based on your actions, Serena, who is your thermometer, will let you know what the temperature is.”
Gail Tillman, the groom’s mother, with tears in her eyes, watched her son and his wife enjoy their first dance togetherto “At Last,” by Etta James. “They’re perfect soul mates,” she said at the reception, held at The Palace at Somerset Park in Somerset, N.J.
Mr. Tillman had, at last, found in Ms. Powery the answer to a question he need no longer ask.
“The moment I slipped that ring on her finger, I knew why so many relationships fail,” he said. “A true relationship can only last if it begins with an honest, solid friendship, like the one Serena and I have had from Day 1.”
Stopping Dating to Understand Love
Mr. Tillman was inspired to go on his “dating fast” by Pastor Craig Holliday, a minister of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church in Brooklyn, where the groom is a congregant. Pastor Holliday discussed what inspires him to sometimes advise men and women in his church to take a break from romance.
Q: Have you given this advice to anyone else in the church?
A: Yes, on occasion. It’s important because unless you begin to identify the areas in your own life that you need help in, by God’s grace, then all you will do is jump from one bad relationship to the next because you have brought these problems with you. And that is what I didn’t want Joseph to do. He had been going through some bad relationships over a two- to three-year period, so finally I just said, “Stop, it’s time to look at your own life and ask yourself ‘What is it about me that needs to change?’” Because ultimately, the common denominator of every relationship he got himself into was himself. So now you have to step back and say, “These things aren’t working out.” You need to take the time to ask yourself, “What am I bringing to the table?”
Q: Do you recommend a dating fast to women as well as men?
A: I have advised both men and women, who have sought my counsel, to go on dating fasts. I currently have a couple of young ladies within the church who are in that kind of holding pattern when it comes to dating.
Q: What kind of feedback do you receive from people who have taken your advice?
A: I’ve never had anyone come back to me and say “I don’t think it was such a good thing.” I would say that every single person has come back to me and thanked me for encouraging them to do it, and all of them have said that it was a good way to help keep themselves accountable in relationships.
Q: Is there a timetable for these dating fasts?
A: It all depends on the individual and his or her situation. The shortest dating fast I ever recommended has been six months. You first have to get to a place of acknowledgment and then start working through certain issues, and I don’t think anyone can do that in 30 days. I currently have another young man on a dating fast for the past year, and though he has really grown during that time, he has told me that he will continue to fast because he still needs a lot of work.
By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI
Source New York Times