Compassionate, Affirming, Wise

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An Interview with Rev. Russell Thornhill

By Jeffrey King

Every journey begins with the first step, and every story with the first word. It’s incredible how a single intention to help can turn into one’s calling.
Rev. Russell Thornhill’s journey began Sunday, January 14, 1990, at the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church on Jefferson Blvd. in Los Angeles, Calif. While the charismatic Archbishop Carl Bean was spreading the mantra “Love Is For Everyone,” people were dying and struggling to live with the AIDS virus. It was during his attendance at a Sunday worship service that Rev. Russ, as he is so fondly referred to, was introduced to another level of service.
Rev. Thornhill recalls the very Sunday that Archbishop Carl Bean invited him to service by saying, “Come on in and get to work.” Rev. Russ was introduced to the Minority AIDS Project that was almost inseparable from Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, as parishioners were also engaged in HIV/AIDS service delivery. Rev. Russ was first introduced to the buddy program, working with a number of men living with HIV and dying from AIDS. Here is his account of that time:

“I provided one-on-one support for men living with AIDS. I helped to facilitate the men’s support groups. I later met with clients one on one. It was like a big brother program. Going in, you knew that they would probably not live very long. Our people were dying. The rewarding thing was to be able to give back to the community that had given so much to me. There were a lot of positive things happening at that time. Clients were receiving mental health services and other needed client services as well.
There was a vibrant Black LGBTQ community working together around HIV to include the Oasis Clinic and others in the Black community. Black people in the broader community were also in denial, and the mainstream church was a negative voice at that time. People were in hiding. If you didn’t know MAP, OASIS, or The Catch One you were lost and suffering in isolation. The Black clergy said that LGBTQ+ people were going to hell. I had become part of a growing movement that would engage them and would not step back.
We were burying people on a weekly basis. By the time I got to them they were already dying, and you knew when they were wasting and not eating. It was just a matter of time before they would pass away. We made sure that they were being cleaned and cared for. It was about making them comfortable. Almost every week we were facilitating home-going services. I saw people coming to the church knowing that they were dying. They were looking for some peace of mind and to make peace with God. We didn’t have a lot of money at that time. We had to purchase cushions, because many of the people who were showing up were skin and bones.
The address 5149 Jefferson Blvd. became the Mecca for our people. I remember men being wheeled into the church to be blessed and to receive prayer. They were dying in the church. Most of them would be gone in less than two weeks. People found their spiritual center through the church. MAP and Oasis gave them their medical and social support.
It was difficult fighting the government to provide support. Archbishop Carl Bean did his best to bring attention to the plight of Black people and HIV/AIDS. A mural was painted on the church to help raise funds and bring about awareness of the devastating impact of the virus on the Black community. I remember people like Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, Sup Burk, Dionne Warwick, Jewel Thais-Williams, and others coming out to help raise funds and resources. They understood the depth of the issue and the importance of bringing attention to HIV/AIDS at the local, state, and federal levels.
It was 1991, during the Clinton administration, that Maxine Waters was the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and developed the Minority AIDS Initiative. Men were dying and Black women were supporting them. Women played a major role in all of the critical settings. I don’t know where we would be without women. The Archbishop was surrounded by women. Women like Christine Tripp, Vera Owens, and Jewel-Thais Williams.
I was a volunteer. I wasn’t looking to get paid. It was amazing to see so many people show up asking how they could help. It was a time of spiritual renewal and a call to service. I was already working as a corporate director, and when I saw my brothers dying, I asked myself how might I be of service.
I came out around my sexuality in 1990. I was engaged in a lot of spiritual development and preparation for my baptism. I didn’t want to die living a lie and hiding in fear. I felt that if I was truly to be renewed that I had to release my fear and tell my parents, my former wife, and my brother. They were the most important people in my life at that time. I remember my brother asking if I was OK and if I wanted him to come out and see me.
My mother and father expressed disappointment at first. When I came out to my mother, I thought she already knew, but to my surprise she didn’t know. In 1991 they came to stay with me and my partner. This was a major event in my evolution. This was a part of my own liberation as I went on to help others become free.
As time progressed and my role in both MAP and Unity expanded, I stepped fully into my life and purpose.”
Rev. Russ earned a master’s degree in Organizational Management (MAOM) from Antioch University in 2018 and an M.A. in Theological Education from Claremont School of Theology in 2018. He is a faculty member at Antioch University in the undergraduates studies department teaching Business and Management Studies, as well as the co-director of the Antioch University Bridge Program and the co-pastor of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, The Mother Church in Los Angeles, Calif.
Thornhill is also the CEO of the newly organized Archbishop Carl Bean Spirituality and Social Justice Legacy Center in Los Angeles, which is the new home of MAP and Unity Fellowship of Christ Church.
Rev, Russ has a profound love of studying and teaching liberation theology, progressive thought, and social justice as a platform for biblical freedom and espousing the call of justice for everyone.
He is the proud father of four and grandfather of 10.

“Today we are looking at our people’s lives beyond HIV/AIDS. There are affirming settings and traditional religious settings that are coming around. We have come a long way and there is still work to do,” says Rev. Russ.
“I am honored to be the CEO of the Minority AIDS Project and to carry on the legacy that began by our founder in 1982 as he brought this groundbreaking work to Los Angeles and to the world. MAP is poised to continue the tradition of making a difference in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and those who face issues of addiction and mental health challenges and other maladies that impact the human condition.”

Jeffrey C. King is Founder and Executive Director of In The Meantime Men’s Group.

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