Don Fado was born in 1933 to a Pennsylvania family. At a young age the family moved to Redding, California, where Don grew up in the Methodist Church. His first recollection of a gay person in his life was a man named Francis who was known for his style of dress. However, Don was taught to distrust him. As a newspaper delivery boy, Don was instructed to never go near Francis' door. Furthermore, when Don worked as a cashier at a swimming pool in high school Francis was not allowed to come to the swimming pool.
During high school Don first began to feel a call to ministry. He was active within his church and at a summer camp in his freshman year, he heard the passage from Isaiah where God asks “Whom shall I send?” Although his admiration for his pastor was an influence, he was particularly encouraged to the ministry by his annual conference's Student and Youth Director, Robert Carey. With Robert's encouragement, Don was fostered in his feeling a call to ministry. Although he felt this call, Don first went to Shastah College in 1955, majoring in philosophy.
Don's call then led him to move to the other side of the U.S. to study for a Masters of Sacred Theology at Boston University of Theology. At Boston he learned theology with a focus on the Social Gospel, which would be a backbone to his ministry. Although at the time they were not speaking of LGBT people, Don learned about the need to include all types of people into church life and became committed to this. While studying at Boston University Don became the assistant chaplain at Harvard, where he worked primarily with Harvard and MIT doctoral students. After graduating with his degree in 1958, Don became the pastor of Sierra Vista Methodist Church in Fresno, California.
Although he was not involved in any LGBT-related ministries in his first churches and, in fact, did not know anyone who was openly gay during his early ministry, Don was heavily involved in other social movements. When he became pastor of Hanford Methodist Church in Kings County in 1963, he became involved in the Great Strike. He also worked in a ministry that served the needs of migrant workers in the area. In particular, he worked with an underground railroad for Honduran refugees who were going through California. When he was pastor of the Burlingame Methodist Church in 1966, he began to work for racial justice. It was a tumultuous time with race riots and student uprisings occurring throughout his tenure there.
While he was at Burlingame, his old mentor and friend Robert Carey had his position dropped from the annual conference budget. So Don invited him to work at his church. During his retirement party a few years later, Don was talking with Robert about the situation of homosexual people in both the church and in society. Don told Robert that he was completely willing to give gay people all the civil rights that they wanted, but he felt that there was one area that gay people should not be involved--as people working with youth and students. It was at this time that Robert came out to Don as gay. This revelation caused Don to re-examine the biases that he did not know that he had. This was the beginning of Don's work with LGBT people.
At his next church, Wesley United Methodist Church in Fresno, Don heard about a new ministry with LGBT people called Reconciling Congregations. He led the congregation to study becoming a Reconciling ministry which they affirmed in 1984. Wesley was one of the first two parishes in the United Methodist Church to become Reconciling Congregations.
The next major step in advocacy for LGBT persons was at his last church, St. Mark's UMC in Sacramento. Although he began his ministry there in 1987, it was in 1998 that he gave a sermon on how the ugliest word in the church was "exclusion." In this sermon he said that if he were asked to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay couple, he would do so. A lesbian couple in the parish then came and asked him to perform a holy union for them. Don was worried about how the national church would react, so he decided that it would be safest if there were many clergy participating in this act of “ecclesiastical disobedience.” He invited 44 clergy to join him at the ceremony. But when word of mouth spread about the coming marriage, Don started getting letters from other clergy offering to participate. Although the large number of clergy participants was helpful, Don wanted to keep the focus on the worship service rather than a purely political action. So the number of clergy was limited somewhat with 95 eventually joining him. Retired clergy and laity from Reconciling Congregations across the country also were invited to attend the holy union. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton were married at the Sacramento Convention Center. Don made sure that the event was one that fit the religious importance of the union with clergy wearing vestments and carefully crafting the prayer of blessing for the two women that could become the basis of ecclesiastical charges being filed against them. The union was well-attended, including a 500 person “circle of hope” around the couple.
Don was then elected a delegate to the next United Methodist General Conference in 2000. Although he went with the intention of changing the policy towards ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, as well as the church's stance on gay and lesbian unions, the church maintained its exclusionary policies. The work and frustration that Don experienced at that conference left him feeling burnt out. He retired in 2001 and took a six-month sabbatical from preaching or teaching anywhere. Afterwards he became the co-chair for the Reconciling Ministries Clergy group, along with the head of the Sacramento chapter of Family Promise. He is also currently on the board of Loaves and Fishes.
(This biographical statement written by Joel Layton from information provided by Don Fado.)
Biography Date: August, 2012
Methodist (UMC, United Methodist Church) | Ally | Clergy Activist | Marriage Equality