If an overdose occurs at Wilfredo Laboy and Cristina Pintor’s wedding, they’ll reverse it. When the El rumbles by, they’ll pause the ceremony, and continue when it rolls away.
“This is our reality out here,” said Laboy, 52, from a church pew in the upstairs stained-glass sanctuary at Prevention Point.
“That, or the sirens,” said Pintor, 51.
On June 1, the couple is getting married outside on East Monmouth Street near Kensington Avenue, with Prevention Point’s shelter on one side, its social services center on the other, and party lights overhead. They’ll be wearing white shirts, white pants, and pink shoes.
The wedding isn’t so much for them as it is for the people they’ve met while living and working in Kensington — especially the people who use drugs and stay in nearby shelters — who don’t always get invited to family events.
“How many of them are going to be invited to a wedding this year in the condition that they’re in?” Laboy asked. “Probably none.”
The couple first met at an overdose prevention training in 2017. It was an ordinary workday at Prevention Point, the harm reduction nonprofit where Pintor works as the director of human resources, and Laboy as a Hepatitis C navigator for the Health Federation of Philadelphia. As Pintor stared at the back of Laboy’s head during the training, it was a far cry from love at first sight.
“She said she wanted to slap me in the back of the head and kiss me,” said Laboy, grinning.
“I just wanted to hit him,” Pintor clarified. “Because he was happy.”
And Pintor was not.
Like any good love story, Laboy’s and Pintor’s is filled with twists and turns. First, there was an engagement — but not to each other. Laboy was engaged to someone else. Then, there was the night Laboy helped Pintor involuntarily commit a family member in crisis to a behavioral health facility — the night she “saw him in a different light.” Next was the gay bingo gala, or as Laboy described it, “the night [their] lips touched.”
But their connection really began decades before they met, when they were just kids growing up in Kensington. As a child, Laboy moved around a lot to various blocks south of Lehigh Avenue. Pintor lived on Orkney Street between Somerset and Cambria until she was 10. Then she moved to South Philadelphia.
“Even little things, we’ve gone through very similar experiences — unpleasant experiences,” Pintor said.
As kids, they each experienced a lot of trauma, which they both survived, but not without scars. Pintor carried her experiences to adulthood and often turned to alcohol and anger to cope. And Laboy coped with his trauma by using substances, too.
Pastor Mark Abrams, who will marry the couple, first met Laboy at Ben Franklin High School. Laboy had recently been released from state prison and was with his son — the youngest of his three children — participating in a Father’s Day costume contest at the school. The father and son wore matching bow ties — purple with stripes.
“The minute you meet him, you love him,” said Abrams, of Cavalry Chapel Word of Life Church.
But Laboy was just beginning to heal.
“God gave me that passion for broken down people,” added Abrams, who attributes this to growing up in North Philadelphia with a single mom. “I knew Wilfredo through tough times, and I always stuck with him. He could kick and scream — I didn’t care.”
Laboy eventually found recovery through church and a 12-step program, both of which he still attends regularly today.
Eventually, last March, Laboy’s and Pintor’s shared experience became clear to them. They were on an annual work retreat, and Laboy could tell Pintor was in pain. During a group session, their coworkers shared some of their traumas, and she fell apart.
“Having to sit there and listen to everyone else just broke me,” she said.
But instead of isolating herself like she usually did, she stayed up that night and shared with Laboy what she was feeling.
The following day, Laboy was supposed to go on a date with somebody else. But when he saw Pintor still struggling, he canceled and took her to the movies instead.
“I always had to watch her back,” Laboy said. “I felt like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’”
From that point on, that was it — they were a couple. Pintor hasn’t had a drink since last April, and her anger has started to dissipate.
“She’s got a bad temper,” said Nancy Santiago, who works at Prevention Point and calls Pintor her “sister.”
“She can go off like that,” Santiago said, as she snapped her fingers.
“But she don’t do that no more.”
In January, the couple got engaged by the river at Penn Treaty Park. Before he proposed, Pintor was worried because Laboy — who always has something to say — was being really quiet. When he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him that night, she cried.
“Then I just wanted to hit him some more because he made me cry, even though it was a good cry,” Pintor said.
Their wedding plans are just now coming together. On Sunday, they’re meeting with six current or former Prevention Point employees, who’ve affectionately called them “mom and pop” since before they were together. The group of women offered to be their wedding planning committee.
The couple isn’t sure how they’re going to pull off their vision — especially since they’ll be paying for the wedding with no outside financial support — but they have faith it’s going to work out.
So far, four adult women volunteered to be flower girls, but they’ve decided the flower girl will likely be Santiago, who is 60 years old.
“She’ll be a one-woman show,” Pintor said. “She’s a clown.”
Instead of formal invitations, they plan to hand out flyers designed by one of Pintor’s two daughters. They’ll be distributed around the neighborhood, like at Prevention Point’s drop-in center, local shelters, The Kensington Storefront, and St. Francis Inn.
They’re not sure how many people to expect, but Abrams said that about 10 years ago, his church married a couple that did something similar at the YMCA at Broad and Master Streets. They invited people from nearby shelters to their reception — a cookout lined with food “like a farmer’s market,” Abrams said — and about 1,000 people showed up.
For Abrams, weddings like these — especially Laboy and Pintor’s — send a strong message.
“No matter what you’ve been through — no matter what it might look like now — there’s always hope that you can be what God wants you to be,” he said.
It’s the same message Laboy and Pintor want to send to their community: A message of hope.
“People should be able to see a story come together,” said Laboy. “We on Kensington Avenue — we’re loving people, too.”
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Editors: Erin Blewett, Claire Wolters, Julie Christie / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Solmaira Valerio