Since helping to establish the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles 10 years ago, Bishop Carl Bean has been a source of spiritual healing and physical comfort for those who have had to confront the disease, particularly people of color. MAP is an outreach program of the Unity Fellowship Church, also founded by Bean. Unity now has chapters in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Dallas, Seattle and Washington.
Bean, 50, was born in Baltimore. He grew up singing gospel in the Baptist church and even took part in a gospel revue on Broadway. He is now the presiding bishop of the national Unity Fellowship organization. He said he has been openly gay for as long as he can remember and also states that he is HIV-negative. Bean was interviewed by Mark Sachs.
When I started the church in 1985, I was focused on liberating the spirituality of African Americans and people of color, and of lesbians and gays. I wanted to liberate them from oppressive thought and help them see that there were great minds who were not of the opinion that God had favorites among God's creations.
We started with a small prayer group, but it grew rapidly. I said at the time that we needed to take on HIV because no one else was going to. Why? Because it deals with the discarded, the disenfranchised, the people no one else wants to touch. Great people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and others got their hands "dirty" dealing with the people that no one else wanted to touch.
I started to glean all the information I could from the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations. I noticed from the statistical data that there was an extremely high incidence of the disease among people of color.
I discovered African American men and women with the disease in Compton and Watts that were not being visited; if they were lucky, they might get phone calls. But I said to myself that this wasn't enough. I needed to do something.
All I had at that point were the CDC stats, and my community was not so good with statistical data from "outside" the community; we were not ready to just listen to what the government said. But when I saw an article appear in Ebony magazine in 1985, finally talking about the numbers of African Americans and Latinos with AIDS, I knew my people would begin to believe the numbers.
There were so many people in places like East L.A., Compton and Watts that had the virus, but they were in hiding. They didn't understand what AIDS was, how it was transmitted, or what they could do for themselves once they had it.
We developed a brochure about AIDS and people of color, because everything before that had just been geared to white and gay men. You didn't hear anything else. The brochure was called "People of Color: Because We Care," and it talked about how one contracts the disease, what the myths were, etc. I put my phone number in it and distributed it to stores, restaurants, wherever they would let us put them.
Very quickly, we started getting media attention in papers like the L.A. Times and USA Today, and that changed everything. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) called me from Sacramento and said, "We want you to know that we want to help and want to assist you in getting funding." State Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and singer Dionne Warwick all responded in the same way.
We now have 50 people working here and a $3.5-million budget. We offer just about every kind of AIDS outreach you can imagine: heterosexual outreach, IV drug user outreach, a van that goes around the city and does testing.
And about four years ago, we started the nation's first gang outreach program. I asked for funding and got it. That program has been extremely successful. These are people with heavy jail pasts, and we pay them for their work so they can get out of their gang clothes and then go back and educate their peers.
The bulk of my clients come straight from the hospital or emergency room. They are pretty far along in the disease process. They thought they had the flu or a bad cold, and usually they are diagnosed from that setting, which is very hard to deal with. We have to make sure that they realize that they aren't dying, but can live with the disease. They can live with HIV, have friends, go out to dinner, go to church and do other things.
Touching people's lives with love and understanding can turn them around. We have been able to challenge people's thinking and make them know we're for real. We give cash grants to people, pay their gas and light bills, pay their rent, buy clothing. We give them bags of groceries from our food banks, and, in the end, we help bury people by often helping to pay for the funeral. We are involved from the moment a social worker gives us a referral to the very end.
I guess I enjoy giving back some of the love and caring I have experienced in my life. I am openly gay and have never hidden that fact because I was always loved for the person I was. But although I am free of HIV, almost all the old friends I had are now gone. It's almost like I don't have a past. But there is so much I can still do and so many people I can still help in the future.
The recent announcement by the rapper Eazy-E that he has AIDS reminded me of how much still needs to be done. I applaud him and think he's super-brave and did the right thing to open up to the youths that we can't reach. Kids into the gangster-rap thing are certainly going to hear a message from their own. It's going to make them think every time they make a move to be sexual. Word of mouth spreads the message to be careful, to take care of yourself.
Our testing volume quadrupled right after the announcement. Young people started calling the project around the clock. The van tested 50 people at the first stop alone, whereas normally we might have had 15 or so. We must have had several hundred people from last Thursday to Saturday in here getting tested. We saw some of the same thing with Magic Johnson's announcement, but this was even bigger and with so many more young people.
Eazy-E will have saved so many lives because of his bravery. He has truly proven his love for all of humankind. It could have all been hidden, no one needed to know. We sent some people to the hospital to let him know we were there if there was anything we could do. We have him in our prayers.
For more information on the Minority AIDS Project, call (213) 936-4949. Office hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.