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Good News at Unity : For Carl Bean, Rejection by His Childhood Church Pointed the Way to a New Ministry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The suicide note is worn and deeply creased.

The man who wrote it sits at the cluttered desk in his Los Angeles office and reads in a near-whisper.

“Dear Mother and Dad, I know you don’t love me . . . . “

The 12-year-old boy who wrote the neatly penciled letter 36 years ago in Baltimore figured death would take care of the loneliness he felt when everything he loved--his foster parents, his schoolmates and his church--shunned him.

“And I had done nothing but be born gay,” says the Rev. Carl Bean of Unity Fellowship Church in Central Los Angeles.

“I loved the church. It was my haven,” Bean says. But when his foster parents took him to their minister for counseling about his professed sexuality, “the preacher didn’t have an answer,” Bean says. “There I was, 12 years old . . . I can remember more than anything leaving his office with nothing. There was only a greater void in my life.

“I went up to the bathroom and took everything in the medicine cabinet--pills, aspirin, whatever medications my parents had, cough syrup. I meant to go out of here.

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“I had locked the door, and my father forced it open and rushed me to the hospital.”

*

After that episode, Bean’s life improved. He rejoined his birth mother, who accepted his homosexuality, and enjoyed “one of the happiest times of my life,” he says.

At 16, he left home for a singing career on the gospel circuit, performing with a group for 15 years. He had roles in the Broadway productions of “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” and “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.” In the mid-1970s, he moved to Los Angeles, where he recorded a gay-themed disco single titled “I Was Born This Way” for Motown Records.

But, in spite of his success, Bean felt the void again.

“I dreamed I was in the inner city, and the people were crying out for help and support. I was hesitant, but a voice was telling me to go.”

The painful memory of rejection by his childhood church showed Bean the way. In 1982, he became an ordained minister. In 1985, he started Unity Fellowship Church, where black gay and lesbian people could find “love, acceptance and openness.”

Unity began with Bean and a few people getting together in a home for Bible study.

“I was through with the ministers who were telling me, after they took my money, that I was going to hell because I am a homosexual,” says Christine Tripp, an attorney who volunteered the use of her home in the early days.

Within two years, Unity had outgrown the Tripp home and raised the funds to buy its current location, an old warehouse on Jefferson Boulevard, a block west of La Brea. Bean’s congregation has reached almost 500. Every Sunday morning, nearly 200 pack the church for an exuberant service. The church also holds weekly support groups for incest survivors and substance abusers and provides a food and clothing bank.

“My ministry,” Bean says, “will always be a continuum of dealing with the disenfranchised, providing for the poorest of the poor, the undocumented person, persons who can’t speak the language, persons in and out of the prison system, kids out of the gangs . . . to touch those who are considered the untouchables.”

“When I first came to Unity, I felt that this was something I had been looking for all my life,” says James Miller, 58. Miller, who joined six years ago, says he is angered by the homophobia and hypocrisy of many in traditional black churches. “You can’t profess to love God and leave people out,” Miller says.

Thomas Rachel remembers when the ministers at his former church said “demons” were inside him, causing him to suffer “the curse” of homosexuality. At Unity, Rachel says, he has learned “that I can love myself, not hate myself.”

The same year Unity was born, Bean--concerned that the needs of minorities were not being met by the mainstream organizations addressing the AIDS crisis--founded the Minority AIDS Project.

“A black person with AIDS is dealing with all the things any African-American has to deal with in an oppressive, racist society,” says Bean. “But in addition to all that, having to deal with the virus is extremely difficult, and it’s hard to find self-esteem when you are living around that type of pressure.”

“There are problems that come up more frequently in blacks than in whites,” says Dr. Duane E. McWaine, a psychiatrist at the Community Psychiatric Centers in Westwood who treats many HIV-positive patients. “The church is still a focus for black folks, and the churches have been slow to support African-Americans who have AIDS.”

McWaine agrees with Bean that racism weakens the spirit to challenge the disease.

“If you are a black male, you have several strikes against you in this society. If you are black and gay, that’s more, but if you have HIV, too, you are seen as a black man who is going to die, so why should anyone pay attention to what you have to say? That affects the ability to deal with the disease.”

Bean took the message to people who might need help. “Rev. Bean used to tell folks about the Minority AIDS Project at the clubs,” says Fred Jones, a member of Unity for three years. “I used to see him at The Catch (One). He’d set up a table between the dance floor and the pool tables, dressed in his collar.”

According to Los Angeles County statistics, the percentage of people with AIDS who are black has increased from 16.4% in 1991 to 19.1% in August, 1992. Latinos suffering from AIDS increased from 26% last year to 32.5% in August of this year.

The caseload at the project has grown from 15 clients to more than 800, 65% of them black, most of the rest Latino. The staff of 23 includes social workers, nurses, health educators, psychologists and outreach workers. Services include in-home nursing care, counseling, financial assistance and anonymous HIV testing. The project also runs Dignity House, a temporary shelter for the homeless with AIDS. In a new program supported by a federal grant, the project’s staff is training 12 former gang members to be outreach counselors.

*

One Dignity House client is Terry, 32. After he found out he was HIV positive, his lover ended their 18-year relationship. Terry moved out of the apartment they shared and lived on the streets. When he grew sicker, he visited his brothers and sisters in Brooklyn.

“When I told them I was HIV positive, they told me not to come back because they couldn’t deal with the complications,” he says.

Terry moved into Dignity House. “I had lost all hope,” he says. “In a way, they gave me back my will to live. They hooked me up with AIDS Project Los Angeles, and helped me with the paperwork” for rent-subsidized housing. In a few weeks, Terry plans to move into his own apartment.

Minority AIDS Project, which is operating on a $1.2-million annual budget, is supported by state and federal grants and fund-raisers like celebrity fashion shows and gospel concerts. Rapper Ice Cube recently donated $25,000.

Dionne Warwick, a longtime friend of Bean, has performed at all of the celebrity fund-raisers for the project. The two met when Bean was singing on the gospel circuit.

Warwick says, “He is wonderful. His concerns go beyond the disease itself. I know he’s gone without eating and sleeping to accomplish what he’s been able to do so far. He is one of the most compassionate, giving people I have ever met.”

It’s late afternoon when the phone rings in Bean’s office. A member of his congregation hasn’t seen her 12-year-old son in 10 days.

He tries to comfort her and asks her to pray with him.

As he hangs up, Bean shakes his head slowly, saying that dealing with grief has become a part of his life.

“A mother called me and said she couldn’t find a church who would do her son’s funeral,” Bean said. Months after he did the service, the woman called him back. “She told me that everything she (had intended to leave) to her son will go to Unity.”

He lists the names of the funeral homes that have called, asking him to perform funeral services for young men who have died of AIDS because their churches and, in some cases, their own families have turned away.

Bean is slouched in his chair and his body is sagging. He shakes his head and exhales a long breath. He sighs. “I don’t understand the world. If we can’t love the dying, what good is any of it? What good is the church, what good is faith if you can’t reach out to life?”


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