Carl Bean was born in May 1944 in Baltimore, Maryland to Arleen Hunter and Calvin Bean. They were young teenagers who were not married when Carl was born, so young Carl lived with his mom and her extended family. By age three he was attending Union Baptist Church. Next-door neighbors Harry and Jeter Smith, whom Carl called “Uncle Harry and Aunt Dee” helped raise Carl. The Smiths were from Virginia and Carl often traveled there with them in the summer to visit family and friends.
When Harry and Dee moved to a new, larger home on Jefferson Street, Carl moved in with them. There he had his own bedroom and gradually started calling them Dad and Mom. Carl found himself attracted to other young boys in the neighborhood, while an uncle forced him into regular sexual encounters.
Music was a solace for Carl during his formative years. He listened to music often and sang in a booming voice even while walking the streets of Baltimore. At age seven he began attending Providence Baptist Church with the Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood. Wood had a deep influence on Carl in hearing and embracing a theology of God’s grace and acceptance. Exhibiting leadership qualities at a young age, Carl was placed on the Jackie Robinson Youth Council of the NAACP chapter where, under the guidance of Miss Lillie Jackson, he learned about and participated in Civil Rights activism. He was also sent to Virginia Union College during summers of his pre-teen years where he was mentored by Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor in Baptist youth training.
Young Carl excelled in school and also in music, which led to his admission to Baltimore City College for a music curriculum in high school. Even as Carl appeared to be thriving in education and church and community leadership, he was leading a secret life with frequent sexual encounters with men and boys. He encountered social networks of other men who shared his interest in effeminate and flamboyant behavior. Then Carl’s world caved in when a friend from Providence Baptist with whom he had been sexually intimate told his family about this relationship. At age fourteen Carl was confronted and condemned by church leaders and family, leading to a suicide attempt and a lengthy forced hospitalization. Psychiatrist Dr. Freund at University Hospital played a pivotal role in helping Carl work through the pain and confusion he had experienced and start a path of healing over several months.
After his release, Carl went to live with his birth mother and moved into a circle of gay and Pentecostal friends in Baltimore. He received much acclaim for his singing and started circulating and performing in the gospel music world. He moved to New York City at age 16 to pursue a career in singing gospel music.
Bean joined Christian Tabernacle, a spiritualist church in Harlem, and sang with the Gospel Souls. He soon met the renowned Alex Bradford and other prominent gospel singers and writers. He was part of the initial creation of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. He joined with Calvin White and the Gospel Wonders and began touring and singing in prominent churches and theaters around the eastern U.S. Bean’s exposure and fame as a gospel singer grew, so he moved to Chicago to reconnect with Bradford and sing with the Alex Bradford Singers.
In the late 1960s, Bean returned to New York City with Bradford to work on creating a Gospel Broadway show. Building on the success of the Black Nativity productions, Vinnette Carroll had formed the Urban Arts Corps. Bean participated in the series of workshops that lead to the opening of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope on Broadway in 1972. In spite of his success in music and theater and being accepted in the circles of the most prominent African American entertainers of the day, he felt something missing in his life. He felt pastors and mentors from his young Baptist years calling him to be in ministry.
Bean decided he needed a radical change in his life in 1972 and left the Alex Bradford Singers and traveled cross-country by bus to Los Angeles. He arrived with no money and no job. He had dreams at this time about serving people suffering and in need. The next few years were time of struggle and transition. He moved between clerical and sales jobs in L.A. while living in rundown hotels. He found Troy Perry and his fledgling Metropolitan Community Church congregation where he reveled in the expression of God’s radical love for all people.
Bean maintained connections with the gospel music world and formed a group called Carl Bean and Universal Love. Producers at Motown heard him sing on the 1974 Gospel album Gotta Be Some Change and offered him a recording contract–to sing a song by Bunny Jones, “I Was Born This Way.” The experience of recording this gay anthem in 1977 affirmed and illumined his call to ministry. The song received widespread play–moving up to #14 on the Billboard charts. He was finally able to publicly affirm being gay as a God-given gift.
Bean turned down Motown’s offer of more recording work and enrolled in MCC’s Samaritan College to study for ministry. He asked Archbishop William Morris O’Neill of the Christian Tabernacle Church to ordain him to start a specialized ministry. He was ordained on August 17, 1982, in Morris’ home on South Burnside Avenue. Bean began his ministry–which he called “Unity Fellowship of Christ Church”–in south central L.A. He arranged a notice in The Sentinel, L.A.’s African American newspaper about an openly gay minister starting a Bible study with gays and lesbians. The Bible study initially met in his home on Cochran Avenue.
The Bible study grew and moved to other, larger homes. The first worship service was held at the Cockatoo Inn on Hawthorne Avenue in Ingleside. Seeking to keep the worship services easily accessible to residents of south central L.A., Bean arranged to use the prominent Ebony Showcase Theater on Washington Blvd. for worship starting in 1985. In 1988, the community purchased an old warehouse on West Jefferson Blvd. and converted it to what has become the Mother Church of the Unity Fellowship. In 1990, the Unity Fellowship Church Movement was incorporated and began expanding its ministries to other parts of the U.S.
The beginning of Bean’s ministry coincided with the outbreak of AIDS. Bean sought out and responded to needs of African American gay men with AIDS. He encouraged his fledgling community to serve persons with AIDS–many of whom were ostracized and alone. Bean initiated the Minority AIDS Project and embarked upon an educational mission to lift up the needs of persons with AIDS. He received widespread media attention–first locally and then nationwide–as one of the very few African American clergy initially responding to the AIDS crisis. Bean was passionately committed to the Minority AIDS Project and worked tirelessly over the years to raise funds to support ministries of HIV/AIDS education and service. He received honors and awards from many local and national organizations for his leadership in AIDS ministries.
Archbishop Carl Bean is the presiding prelate of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement that proclaims “God is Love and Love is for Everyone.” The UFCM is rooted in liberation theology that “frees the oppressed” and recognizes that “God is greater than any religion, denomination or school of thought.” Today the UFCM encompasses 17 congregations in cities across the U.S. and other outreach and communications ministries.
Bean’s autobiography I Was Born This Way was published in 2010.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from information in an unpublished 2008 interview with Carl Bean by the Rev. John Selders and from I Was Born This Way.)
Biography Date: December, 2016
Unity Fellowship Church Movement | African American | AIDS | Artist/musician/poet | Bean, Carl