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reverend donald fado

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.
What made you decide to perform a gay marriage and to invite other clergy to perform it with you?

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.

The last bastion of holding on to the way things used to be is the gay issue ... Many  who disagree  with me say the issue is not homosexuality; it's the authority of Scriptures. 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 literal interpretation?

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 teachings?

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 orientation.

What could happen to you and the other clergy who participated in that holy union?

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.

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