The backpacks are parked in a pile on the sofa. The boys play a video game while their older sister checks the laptop.
Wedding photos hang by the front door. Clean dishes dry in the sink.
Lenny Johnson and Ryan Hildebrand sit at the dining room table in their sometimes-tidy brick home in Granite City. Agreeing to talk about being a gay couple has them a bit nervous. They chuckle. They're hoping their openness will show they aren't that much different from their neighbors.
"I just picked up the kids from school," said Ryan, 34, who recently left his 13-year jobas a business analyst with Edward Jones. He's also a freelance architectural photographer. For now, he's the stay-at-home parent. When foster sons Andrew, 6, and Deshaun, 3, came to the table, he handed out crayons and head rubs.
The couple have been together since 2001. The boys have been with them two years and are their second set of foster children.
"We did it because Karmyne told us she was tired of being an only child!" said Lenny, 34, of going through the process to become a foster parent. He is the full-time pastor of Light of Love Fellowship St. Louis (lolstl.org).
Karmyne, 12, divides her time on a weekly basis with them and Lenny's ex-wife.
"I'm Dad and he's Daddy," said Lenny with a grin. "One day she came up with that on her own."
It was a simple solution to a modern problem, they figured.
"Karmyne has known Ryan all her life," said her dad.
The two men wear matching silver wedding bands, which they gave each other during a commitment ceremony in 2006. Their civil union occurred in June 2011 at the Madison County Courthouse, a week after the law allowing civil unions went into effect in Illinois.
If the state becomes the 10th to recognize same-sex marriages, they don't plan on another celebration.
"We've been told we'll be grandfathered in," Lenny said.
In the 2006 wedding photos, he is in the white tuxedo; Ryan is in black.
"That confused some people because he came down the aisle first," Ryan said, grinning
Flying in the face of convention may seem part and parcel of life for gays, but these two men center their world around what many Midwestern straight couples do: family, friends and church.
"We work. We take care of our children. We pay bills," Lenny said. "The way the world sees us, though, is different."
They are comfortable living in Granite City, and mention that there are several other gay families on their street.
Still, they do not wish for undue attention, so there are no public displays of affection, not even holding hands.
"We'd be killed," said Lenny quietly. "... We have children and that changes everything."
Lenny and his wife separated, then divorced in 2002 when he realized he had to "come out" and reveal he was a homosexual. He calls their relationship now "peaceful."
Born and raised in Granite City, "I'd lived here all my life and didn't know anyone gay," he said. "Online was the only way to have any communication -- to try and find a life. I didn't even know about gay bars."
Working at Express Scripts in St. Louis at the time, he struck up an online friendship with Ryan, who also had married young and divorced.
Originally from Louisiana, Mo., and living in Pevely, Mo., at the time, Ryan said they connected immediately.
Lenny smiled. He wouldn't call it love at first sight because "I didn't have to see him to love him."
Lenny moved to Pevely to live with Ryan. They came back to the St. Louis area after four years for two reasons: They missed helping raise Karmyne and felt unsafe in the Missouri town, where living together was so controversial on their block that some teenage boys tried to blow up their car.
Ryan and Lenny said they recognized something was different about themselves when they were little boys.
As they grew up, "I was just trying to live in a straight world," said Ryan, who was raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.
"And conform," added Lenny, who attended church five days a week as part of a Pentecostal family.
Ryan, who was very involved in his church when he was younger, told his mother at one point that he wanted to be a minister.
When he acknowledged he was gay, he didn't want to believe God had turned away from him.
"God's not that hateful," Ryan said.
For Lenny, "There were expectations from my parents. ... You grow up with that silent understanding. You want to make them proud."
But reconciliation is possible, they said. Both sets of parents, most of their siblings, and other family members attended their ceremony and reception.
"I am so glad they found each other," said Ryan's mother, Connie Hildebrand, of New London, Iowa. "I've loved Lenny since the day I met him. I'm so proud of both of them. They are caring and compassionate and loving guys."
Lenny said it took his sister about five years to come around.
"Her issues were church-related. She bought into it. She didn't come to our wedding."
Determined to try and forge a relationship, the two men later threw her a baby shower at her church.
"'Us' in general has changed the mentality of our sisters and cousins," Ryan said. "They and their children accept us."
"Let's be real. The shocker was our moms took it harder than our dads. They felt we couldn't come and talk to them," he said. "Our macho manly dads? It was OK. We didn't force it on them."
Donna Johnson, Lenny's mother, said the sad little boy who was a loner and got picked on is happy now.
"This is not what you wish for your child because it's a hard life -- and it can be dangerous," she said. "But they are both so much happier now -- and you want that for them."
Donna attends church with her son and his family.
Having a church home has made a great difference in their lives.
"We don't have to hide, we're very fortunate," Lenny said of Light of Love Fellowship. He and Ryan, and a lesbian couple, Jacque and Marie Griffin, started the church in 2009, with Lenny becoming pastor and going on to be ordained through Reconciling Pentecostal International.
The membership, about 20 to 30 right now, is evenly divided among straight people and gays and lesbians.
"The emphasis has been on getting the straight and gay community together," said Pastor Lenny.
Both men call it a blessing to be able to study the Bible and find acceptance.
"From all I had learned, I really believed I had committed a sin. I was gay!" said Lenny of his early years struggling with what the church said and how he felt. "You can accept an adulterer before you can accept a gay? I believe I'm OK with God. Being a homosexual man is not an abomination in his eyes."
Today, church involves the whole family.
"Ryan is definitely the pastor's husband," said his partner proudly. He handles newsletters, events, videotaping and the website. He also teaches Sunday school.
Bible study is every other Monday at their home. Counseling for the boys is Tuesdays. Wednesday night is family night, when "we go out to eat, rent a video, be together," Lenny said. Thursday is Bible study at the church.
"Friday and Saturday are our days together," Lenny said. "We run errands and stuff like that."
From 10 a.m. to about 8 p.m. Sundays is spent at church.
Lenny said the life they now have together was unimaginable before they met.
"What we live now seems like a dream."