By Neal Putman
Celebration of life planned for MCC Rev. David Farrell
“Beloved” is the word Rev. David Farrell often used when addressing the congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church in San Diego and that same word describes him, say MCC members after word of his death at the age of 80 came July 20.
The celebration of his life will be held Saturday, Sept. 15 at 11 a.m. at MCC, 2633 Denver St., in San Diego, which is the church he pastored for 20 years from 1975 to 1995.
“He would address the congregation as beloved. He was dynamic,” said Mick Donahue, an MCC member. “Excellent speaker. He could hold the audience’s attention. I just loved him.”
“Rev. David’s dynamic and hope-filled sermons helped me find my home spiritually, as a ‘beloved’ child of God,” said Teresa Biery, another longtime member. “His strength through the AIDS crisis lifted us all. I am eternally grateful for Rev. David and his ministry.”
“He gave this church the spirit it has,” said senior pastor Dan Koeshall as he announced his passing at services July 22. “Pastor David went to heaven Friday night. God bless Rev. David.”
Farrell is survived by Gil Caldwell, his husband of 43 years. He died of congestive heart failure and had been receiving hospice care at his home he shared with Caldwell in Cathedral City, said Al Smithson, the longtime MCC board vice moderator.
“David was one of the pioneers of our movement. There are just so many stories,” said Rev. Troy Perry, who founded the denomination in 1968.
Perry said he and his husband “already miss him.” He said Farrell was a personal friend and he urged members to “keep Gil in your thoughts and prayers.”
World AIDS Day, now an annual event every Dec. 1, got its start by Farrell in 1985 after he called for 48 hours of prayer to remember people with AIDS, said Rev. Houston Burnside, who worked with Farrell at the time. The church was open for people to come and pray and invitations were sent out to all San Diego County churches to share in the prayer vigil.
“He was beloved to a lot of people. He would start and finish with beloved or dear saints,” said Burnside.
“It was Rev. David’s bold leadership that led MCC San Diego to be the first gay organization in San Diego to own property when it purchased its own church at Fern and Ash,” said Smithson of the Golden Hill site that MCC occupied from 1975 to 1982.
“When we outgrew that building, Rev. David led to purchase the much larger building near 30th and El Cajon in North Park,” said Smithson.
In the 1980s and 1990s, AIDS took the lives of one third of the congregation. The membership had grown to more than 400 by 1980, but in 1996, the membership stood at 215, according to MCC records.
“Rev. David held us together during the AIDS crisis,” said Smithson.
At this same time, fundamentalists from the Bible Missionary Fellowship in Santee began picketing outside the church in North Park with offensive, hateful signs about gay people and AIDS.
The Santee group often missed their own services in order to picket MCC services on Sunday. Farrell decided to place electric speakers outside MCC to broadcast its service to the picketers on the sidewalk.
This same group also started picketing San Diego City Hall by protesting Ben Dillingham who became the chief of staff for Mayor Maureen O’Connor in 1985. Dillingham was a long-time MCC member who died in 2017 and left $600,000 to the church, which helped the church pay off its mortgage in 2018 after it moved to a new building near Mission Bay in 2009.
The Santee church also picketed the LGBT Pride parade every year, but the protests abruptly stopped in 1987 when seven members and its pastor, Rev. Dorman Owens, were arrested for conspiracy to place a bomb in an abortion clinic.
A man from the Bible Missionary Fellowship disguised himself as a woman in a dress and placed a gasoline bomb at 3 a.m. outside the family planning group on July 27, 1987. The flame on the wick went out and police arrested the man, who was the same one who piloted a plane over the LGBT parade with an offensive banner about AIDS.
Owens pleaded guilty to tampering with a witness and received a 21-month federal prison term. One of Owens’ parole restrictions after he was released was a ban on protesting against gay people.
“As I’ve said many times to Rev. David, I am forever grateful for the pioneer work he did in MCC and the San Diego LGBT community,” said Koeshall.
“There are many of us who stand on Rev. David’s shoulders as we continue the work of spiritual transformation, inclusion, social action, and community,” said Koeshall. “He will be missed.”
In 1978, Farrell spoke out against Prop. 6, the Briggs Initiative, which sought California voter approval to fire gay and lesbian teachers and also straight teachers who “promoted” homosexuality. Farrell was tapped to be the opposition speaker against the measure at various debates including some that were televised.
This was a time in which a lot of gay people were still in the closet. The trailblazer that he was, Farrell did not mind being a key person to participate in electoral debates on Prop. 6 and other issues.
The measure went down to a 58-41 percent defeat on Nov. 7, 1978, after former presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter campaigned against it.
Farrell had a keen memory, often recalling the names of visitors and others to the church, said Lyn Malone, the minister of congregational care.
Farrell began attending MCC in 1970 where it was meeting on Sunday nights at the Chollas View Methodist Church. He became a deacon in 1971 and began feeling a call to preach in 1974. He first became a full-time workshop coordinator, and in the summer of 1975, Farrell was licensed as a clergy person in the MCC denomination.
MCC had outgrown its arrangement with the Chollas View Methodist Church and escrow closed on June 1, 1975, for the Fern Street location, which served as the first building purchased by a gay organization in San Diego.
“I joined our church in September of 1970 and my life was forever changed,” wrote Farrell upon the church’s silver anniversary in 1995. “How well I remember rediscovering the joy and strength of Christian fellowship in the midst of this unlikely worshipping community.”
Farrell had his first heart attack in 1978 and his first heart bypass surgery in 1980. He took a leave of absence in June 1988, after acknowledging the strain he had over the deaths of so many members from AIDS and increased workload. There were a lot of funerals he conducted.
Rev. Donna Eubanks took over for Farrell, and he returned to the pulpit on Oct. 8, 1988. Bravo Magazine honored him as “Man of the Year” in 1989.
—Neal Putnam is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.