What made you decide to perform a gay marriage and to invite other clergy to
perform it with you?
The longtime pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church of Sacramento, Donald
Fado made national headlines in January of 1999 for organizing and presiding
over the holy union of a lesbian couple. The ceremony, witnessed by more than
a thousand clergy, lay leaders, and gays and lesbians who gathered at the
Sacramento Convention Center, drew protests from anti-gay activists. The
Methodist Church's governing body spoke out against Fado's action and ordered
an investigation which was underway when Fado spoke to FRONTLINE about gay
marriage and other religious questions affecting homosexuals.|
Actually, we should probably call it a holy union rather than a marriage,
because "marriage" is a legal entity of the state. People who get married, in
California at least, have over 140 different rights that are given to them
because of their marriage. Gays and lesbians do not have those. So this is
simply a blessing by the church. It wasn't a recent decision. I made the
decision at the beginning of my ministry. I made a commitment to be a pastor
to all the people, and to serve my congregation. This is my calling in
ministry--to serve the world--not just the congregation. I had done holy
unions over the years, as a number of pastors have, and it was only last year
that we were told it was now illegal to do so.
Who told you it was illegal to do so?
Well, actually it was voted in 1996, but it was part of our social principles,
which is an area for debate. Our judicial council then ruled in August of 1998
that we would all be held accountable to that, and that a person could be
dismissed from the ministry if charges were brought. When I heard that . . .
That is so out of keeping with our tradition as United Methodists. Local
churches determine the services they're going to have. It's a part of our
constitution. And here we are, a church that says that gays and lesbians have
full rights in our church. That's part of our discipline. And then we can't
use their church building for a holy union, and they cannot have their pastors
offer prayer for them at a holy union.
To me, that is immoral and wrong. I shared with my congregation last October
that, if I was asked, and it was appropriate, I certainly would go ahead and do
a holy union. I'd prefer not to do it by myself, and if the couple were
willing, I would invite other pastors. And that's what happened.
So a couple approached you and wanted to have a holy union?
Yes. A couple in our congregation, who've been together for 15 years, said,
"We have never had a holy union, and this is the time." One of them is our
conference lay leader, which means she's the highest elected official in our
annual conference. . . . She said she would like to have the ceremony with her
partner, who is a member of our conference board of trustees. They're both
very active in our local church. They started an after-school program here.
They're dearly loved by this congregation. So when they said, "We're your
couple," we were on our way. I sent a letter to 107 retired clergy.
What did you say in the letter?
I told them the situation, and asked if they would like to join with me. I
said to them, "What can happen? If you're found guilty of breaking the rule
and you are cast out of the conference, you lose your medical insurance."
That's a major thing for retired clergy. They would no longer be covered by
our conference policy, and they would lose any incremental increases in their
pension. But I felt that those of us at retirement or close to retirement need
to stand up and speak out. . . . At the end of the two weeks, we had 67 who
said they'd stand with me on this. And they all knew the lesbian couple, Jean
and Ellie. So our desire to celebrate their holy union had integrity.
How did you feel when you got that much of a response?
It felt good. This is my family. I've been in this annual conference now for
over 40 years, and these are my brothers and sisters. We ended up with 95 from
our annual conference. . . . and another 25 from outside our annual conference,
people from other denominations. In fact, we had requests from all over the
country, from people who wanted to come, and we had to write back and say, "We
can't really handle any more people." Some of them said, "This is the Selma,
Alabama, of the gay rights movement, and we want to be there and make a
statement to the country." But we don't have the facilities; we weren't ready
for that. We wanted to keep the integrity of the ceremony. So we asked them
just to send one representative.
Did you say to yourself, "This is truly an act of defiance?"
When I preached the sermon, telling my congregation what I would do, I made the
mistake of using the word "ecclesiastical disobedience"--that I would be
disobedient. It was hypothetical. When it became Jean and Ellie, it wasn't
disobedience any more--it was obedience to my calling as a pastor. I'm their
pastor. So it was no longer disobedience. It was being faithful to my vows,
and faithful to my calling as a minister.
Is the Bible the word of God?
The Bible contains the word of God. The Bible was written by human
beings who were inspired. It is a setting of the culture from which it comes.
To keep the good news of the Bible alive to us, we need to understand it and
its meaning, and apply it to our culture. The Bible itself says in the New
Testament, "In the beginning was the Word," and the word is Christ. Word is
not the Bible. Jesus Christ is the word of God that reveals to us the nature
of life and what life is supposed to be like. So it's a living word, and it's
dynamic word. The Bible contains that witness.
What do you think of literal interpretations of the Bible?
I go along with Paul, who said, "The letter kills, and the spirit gives life."
Literal interpretation literally does kill it. Back during Copernicus and
Galileo, some of the Christians opposed this thinking, on the basis that, in
the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelation, it says there's an angel on each
of the four corners of the earth, therefore the earth can't be round. It was
using the Bible as a textbook for science, which it was never meant to be. It
understands the science of its time. It is talking about human relationships
with God and relationships with each other. I could go into lots of other
Bible illustrations where, if you take it literally, it's absurd, and we lose
the impact of the message of God's love. Like acceptance of slavery. . .
Why do more fundamentalist, conservative denominations really stick with the
I think there's a security. Everything around is falling apart in the world.
A lot of our values have been lost, and people are clinging for something out
of the past. It's a surety. There's a rise of fundamentalism all over the
world. In Islam, we see it in Iran. You see it in Judaism. Our own
Protestant denominations had a conservative takeover, the Southern Baptist
convention. There's the same kind of struggles in United Methodism. I think
it's across the board--as things change, people want to cling to sureties of
the past. . . .
How have things changed from your early days in the church?
When I became a minister, it was the first time they allowed women to be in the
ministry in our denomination--1956. I was in the first class that had women in
it. And at the same time, in 1956, I was forbidden to perform a wedding
ceremony for a divorced person. It used to be very clear-cut. And now, these
lines have been blurred. The last bastion of holding on to the way things used
to be is the gay issue, and I think it's a political issue. Many of my
brothers and sisters in this area who disagree vehemently with me will say the
issue is not homosexuality; that the issue is the authority of scriptures. Who
says what is the proper scriptural interpretation for a denomination? Can a
denomination say, "This is the way it is?" How much diversity does it allow?
How much pluralism can there be in a denomination? That's the issue that we're
struggling with. . . .
What is the last time United Methodists split?
In 1844, over the issue of slavery. There may be some smaller groups that have
broken off, but that was the last major split in our denomination. In 1939, we
got back together in a group with the Protestant Methodists, who had earlier
had a split over bishops and so forth. We all got back together.
What do you think homosexuality will do to the United Methodists?
This is the most contentious issue of our time in terms of the church and the
church's stand. There are those who will say, "This brings it to a head, and
if you don't like the denomination with its rules, then get out." And they
would like us to get out, because then they can control the denomination. They
won't have to be pluralistic and recognize a variety of viewpoints. But I love
the church, with all of its fallacies and problems. I believe the love of God
is revealed through it, and I plan to be part of the church.
I did a word search on the computer for our Book of Discipline, which is our
book of rules. The word "shall" appears 2,351 times. I challenge any pastor
in Methodism to say that he or she fulfills every single "shall" that is there.
Of course we don't. . . . We're not a religion based on law. We're based on
grace and love and trust, and that is our thrust. It is contradictory to our
denomination and our heritage, to say, "Boy, you don't agree with this
particular point here. Get out." I don't plan to.
What did you grow up thinking?
When I was a boy, I delivered papers. I was not allowed to go to one man's
house and collect, because he was the town queer. . . . Everybody in town knew
him. When I was in high school, I worked at the swimming pool. We did not
allow him in the dressing room or restrooms. He was strange. The thing that
really made him strange is that he wore orange-colored pants, and the men in
the 1950's did not wear orange slacks. We knew. And he just was really
strange. And that was my image of "queer."
I went to graduate school at the Boston University School of Theology, which
was a more liberal institution than my undergraduate. . . . No one ever
challenged that image of what a homosexual is in all of my college days, in
fact, it was verified. Queers, weirdos. I preached Sodom and Gomorrah as a
story of male rape, and that's horrible in God's judgment. Early in my
ministry, I preached that this is a sign of the decadence of a society. . . .
It's easy to preach that to a congregation, when no one has told you they're
gay and lesbian. . . . I don't know any one given time I began to raise
questions, but it was probably when some members of my congregation shared
their struggles of their sexuality. . .
When you found that there was a different way to interpret Sodom and
Gomorrah, and interpret Leviticus, what did you think? Were you shocked?
I'm embarrassed by some of the things that Paul says, about women, slaves and
so forth. But I realize, that's Paul and that's where he was in that time.
I've never been particularly bothered by it, as long as we take the context and
see the whole picture. As he said, the spirit is what gives life, and the
letter kills. The spirit is that of Jesus. And if we go with that, we can
read the scriptures, and we can understand that it has the gamut of human
emotions and perspectives, and the struggles that people have. . . .
Was it difficult to reconcile this reality with church rules and
If people are created with a particular sexual orientation, then woe be to us
if we call that sin, or call that unclean. This is the way they are created.
I'm not saying there aren't some people who experiment and do different things,
just like heterosexuals do all kinds of things. But homosexuals and
heterosexuals alike are held to a high standard--not manipulation, not
promiscuity--but commitment. People like Jean and Ellie have a deep commitment
to each other, and they're a witness to what a family ought to be, where they
really love each other and care. So I don't think the church ought to be
persecuting people or calling them second-class citizens because of their
What could happen to you and the other clergy who participated in that holy
The worst that could happen is that there would be a trial. A committee will
have hearings to decide whether or not there should be a trial. If they found
us guilty in a trial, they remove us from the ministry. . . . At the absolute
worst, they would have the power to remove us from the ministry.
You could lose your church?
I could lose the appointment. Next would be probably suspension for a period
of time. The penalty is not described by our discipline. It's up to the
committee, to the jury, if there is a jury in a trial. I'm not sure what's the
best possible outcome. We did our witness, and we want to witness that there's
another position. There are Christians who have a different viewpoint than
that which the media often covers, the images of those who are opposed to
homosexuality. So we want to get that message out. If a trial's the best way
to do it, fine. We'll do whatever comes. We want to use it to further
compassion and understanding and acceptance of people who are different. So
the best thing is for the church to wake up to what it's doing to people, and
to change its ways. That's the best alternative. But we've got a long way to
go before that happens in our society. We've got all this ingrained in us over
the years, this homophobia and fears. It's going to take a long time.