Archbishop Rev. Carl Bean doesn’t mince his words, and about the following point, he is absolutely clear. “Love,” he explains, “saved my life.” Growing up in 1950s Baltimore, Maryland, Rev. Bean saw no reason to conceal the fact that he was gay. That decision sent him down a tough road, and at age 15 years, he attempted suicide. In the hospital, a nurse told him she couldn’t and wouldn’t try to ‘cure’ him—as his parents wanted—but could help him accept who he was.
Today, he credits that experience with launching a spiritual journey. Since then Rev. Bean has won acclaim as a gospel music singer, founded a national fellowship of Black churches that embraces sexual minorities, and built what is now the nation’s oldest AIDS organization designed by and for people of color.
In the late 1970s, his gospel career now having moved him to Los Angeles, Rev. Bean decided to record a song for Motown Records in which he celebrated his sexual orientation. It was during production of that song, released as “I Was Born This Way,” that Rev. Bean realized his calling would go beyond the music career he had already built. Colleagues urged him not to do the project, fearing he would destroy himself by being so publicly gay. But the bishop tentatively pushed ahead. “I knew the path was determined,” Rev. Bean recalls, “but I didn’t know what it was.”
A few years later, in 1981 and ’82, when he started getting calls from all over the country about gay friends in the business who were dying, that destiny came into focus. “People would just say so-and-so is ‘sick.’ At that time they didn’t understand,” he explains. “Everything that I had learned in my life said to me, ‘You must act upon this.’ I knew better than anyone that the church was going to be silent.” For him, that wasn’t an option. “It was my friends,” he sighs. “And I just could not be silent.”
After learning of this mysterious illness’s disproportionate impact on African Americans, Rev. Bean became even more alarmed. “I said, ‘I know my people don’t know about this.’” He placed a cold call to the Los Angeles Times and offered himself as a profile: An openly gay Black minister who wanted to help others like himself, people who were falling ill and had no one to turn to.
The ministry that grew from that article eventually became the Unity Fellowship Church Movement and the Minority AIDS Project (MAP). Targeting Central and South Central Los Angeles, MAP today serves over 1,200 clients, primarily Blacks and Latinos. The agency’s work not only includes HIV prevention and treatment programs, but encompasses a range of services tackling the stresses of urban life that often complicate efforts to fight the epidemic. MAP’s case managers and volunteers help clients navigate government bureaucracy in accessing public benefits, offer counseling, make employment and housing referrals, and provide rental assistance, among other things.
But Rev. Bean recalls the early days of the epidemic, when his AIDS ministry largely meant simply being the one willing to sit in a hospital room with a dying patient. He remembers seeing food trays piled up outside patients’ rooms, lingering from meal to meal as attendants refused to carry them in for fear of becoming infected. “All I knew,” he says, “was that everything I had learned in my spiritual journey said love is what will take care of this.”
Today, the bishop adds, the love most needed is the sort which that nurse back in Baltimore instilled in him at age 15: a love for ourselves. He believes too many African Americans have internalized American culture’s negative messages about the worth of a Black life. “If that kind of oppressive thought thrives in the psyche of a human being, it is very difficult to say to them that they have to save their own lives,” Rev. Bean explains. “You cannot save people who don’t believe they have a right to live.” The bishop believes that MAP’s success has come from its willingness to counter the broader culture’s lessons of self-hate and division. He speaks with pride of the way visitors marvel at the mosaic of clients who feel comfortable at MAP—from gay men to gang members to single mothers. “We really are the same,” he concludes. “That other stuff is made up. If you offer love to a Crip, a Blood, or a drag queen … you see the transformation before your very eyes.”