A crowd of more than 100 recently crammed the second-floor ballroom of the William Way LGBT Community Center to celebrate the life of John Bell, a longtime leader of the rowdy AIDS activist group ACT UP and an employee of the AIDS service organization Philadelphia FIGHT.
“It’s not too many built like that, straight up,” says 55-year-old Samuel Morales, a student in the first session of TEACH Outside, a FIGHT program Bell co-founded to help HIV-positive ex-offenders navigate the outside and stay healthy. Morales now teaches the Spanish-language version of the TEACH course.
HIV-positive people walking out the prison gates often had Bell’s cell phone number in their hands. And that phone, friends say, was never off.
“I would not be alive today had it not been for John Bell,” says AIDS activist Waheedah Shabazz-El. “I am a person of faith and I do believe that God works through people. And in June of 2003, God came to me in the person of John Bell. And I knew it had to be God, because it takes God to save lives, and that’s what John did. And I said that he saved my life because of where he found me. Because I was in a prison.” Bell introduced Shabazz-El to FIGHT and ACT UP. “This man showed up. He was an official visitor. I thought he was my lawyer,” she said, prompting laughs. “Until he started talking about AIDS. And then he told me that he had came in to tell me that I wasn’t going to die because he had been living with AIDS for 20 years.”
Former Philadelphia Prison Commissioner Leon King credits Bell and other ACT UP members for pushing him to bring condoms and rapid HIV testing to inmates. King recalls Bell insisting that he take a photograph with him — in uniform. King asked why. “He said, ‘Well, it’s very important that the inmates see the commissioner touching an ex-offender who has HIV, so they all know it’s OK.’ That blew me away.”
Bell worked for Amtrak in Washington, D.C., after fighting in Vietnam. Hooked on heroin, he contracted HIV. He made his way to Philly, where he got clean and met his partner, Gloria Prusakowski.
Rev. Dr. Ernest McNear of the True Gospel Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church in South Philadelphia, calls Bell “a great witness for life.” McNear, a former heroin addict and prisoner, is, just like Bell was, not only a teacher but a true living example.
John Bell, a prominent member of one of Philadelphia’s most hell-raising movements, died at age 64. In a community that once witnessed too many premature funerals, there are far fewer today because of people like him.