A historic church is the setting for a celebration of faith and family

No one was really surprised when best buddies Michelle Hord and Neil White decided to take their 14-year friendship to a romantic level. “The sparks were always there,” admits Michelle, 37, who was introduced to Neil, 38, by her brother. “It was just a matter of timing and opportunity.” And, as became even clearer during the wedding planning, common ground. “We both felt that our union was first and foremost a spiritual one, so we wanted to really focus on the ceremony first, the party second.” With that goal in mind, Michelle and Neil set about securing New York's majestic Riverside Church for their September wedding. “Dr. King spoke there,” explains Michelle. “Enough said.” Next, they asked the bride's cousin, a minister, to officiate. Another coup for the couple: landing the acclaimed Harlem Gospel Choir, who began the service by belting out “Oh Happy Day,” a song the group reprised as Michelle and Neil honored the African-American tradition of jumping the broom, signifying their leap into a new, married life. “At first guests weren't sure if it was okay to clap along with the choir, but they really got into it,” recalls Michelle. “It was a very joyful moment.”

The revelry carried through to the church's grand reception hall, which had been transformed into an autumn forest with warm tones and shimmery willow branches. An acoustic guitarist and a jazz singer entertained during cocktails, after which the 200-plus crowd dined on fancy fare (New York strip steak) and comfort food (fried chicken). A DJ took over the musical reins for the rest of the evening, playing a mix of '70s disco and new-school R&B. “People were having such a good time dancing, no one wanted to leave,” says Michelle. “In fact, the staff had to kick everyone out.” After 14 years, what's a little overtime? —Terrie Collymore

Our Favorite Things

Mother's Day: Michelle carried her late mother's Bible down the aisle and wrapped a piece of lace from her mom's wedding dress around her bouquet. “She taught me to be a woman of faith,” explains Michelle, “and I wanted to remember that.”

No Flying Flowers: To avoid putting her single friends on the spot, the bride decided not to toss the bouquet, instead giving flowers to two couples who had been wed the longest. They, in turn, offered words of marital wisdom.

So Corney: “I absolutely love, love, love popcorn,” admits Michelle, who had a popcorn bar during the dessert hour. Guests scooped up caramel, cheese and kettle corn flavors, and tossed them into small monogrammed bags.

The flower girls carried mini mango calla lilies collared with loops of lily grass.