Rev. Elder Russell E. Thornhill--educator, progressive theologian, liberated Biblicist and social justice advocate who proclaims the love of God for everyone--is the CEO of the Minority AIDS Project (MAP) in Los Angeles, California. He is also the retired pastor of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, Los Angeles. Born to Oscar and Constance Thornhill in 1954 and raised in New York City, Thornhill breaks his life down into eras. From birth up until 1969 he lived with his parents and four siblings in a three-family home purchased by his paternal grandfather. Growing up in a close-knit environment was where Thornhill learned the importance of family and family values. His paternal grandfather came from Guyana, South America and his paternal grandmother came from Barbados before establishing roots in the Bronx. After finishing junior high school, he went to live with his maternal grandmother in Middletown, Connecticut in the summer of 1969 where he worked in the tobacco fields. He asked to stay in Connecticut to attend high school and was granted permission by his parents and grandmother. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1972.
From 1972 to 1976 Thornhill was a member of the international cast of Up With People, a touring youth performance ensemble that empowered youth to be changemakers through a common message of peace, dignity, and equality for all. During the four years of touring with Up With People, he lived with 300 families on three continents in the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Germany, Spain, and Morocco. This was a transformative experience in his life’s journey.
Next came his “California Era,” during which Thornhill settled in Southern California and began his career in restaurant management from 1977 to 2000. In 1982, he was married and entered his family development era. His family became a blended one in 1984 when he, his wife, and his stepchild welcomed Thornhill’s first biological child. Though the marriage ended in 1987, Thornhill made it a point to stay involved in the lives of his children and the two other children his ex-wife had after their divorce.
Thornhill’s major shift in life came on January 15, 1990, when he joined Archbishop Carl Bean’s Unity Fellowship of Christ Church and the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles, California. This shift would take him through social justice work and progressive theology. Thornhill notes two major phases of religion in his life, the first of which came about during his youth. His family attended Butler Memorial United Methodist Church in the Bronx which was where Thornhill was socialized and received the foundation for his faith. He found himself pulling away from the church after leaving New York in 1969 but found his way back in 1990 as he began to understand the role of Christ in his life and began reading Scripture from what he terms a “critically Biblical” perspective. His ministerial journey began in 1995 as Thornhill worked with others to develop the Street L.I.F.E. Ministry serving youth who lived on the streets of Hollywood, California. These people included queer youth, specifically transgender youth and persons from Skid Row. His ministry is one concerning the question of how he shows up in the world and how to help others embrace and connect with God. Thornhill was ordained deacon in 1997.
Though he attended several schools over the years, including the University of Arizona, Cypress College, Los Angeles City College, and West Los Angeles College, in 2010 Thornhill found himself at Antioch University Los Angeles. The legacy of the school appealed to him because of its commitment to social justice. Antioch was established 1852 as a beacon for women and African Americans-Blacks to receive an education. Thornhill earned his bachelor’s degree (2013) and master’s degree in organizational development (2014) from Antioch University.
Thornhill served as full-time pastor of Unity Fellowship Church Los Angeles from 2012 to 2022. As a pastor, he practiced a theology of critical biblical engagement and biblical resistance to counteract the negative use of scripture in the LGBTQ community and towards women and other people living in the margins of life, while continuing to embrace the Divine love exhibited by the Creator for all of God’s people.
In 2016, he enrolled in the prestigious Claremont School of Theology and found himself absolutely in love with a new academic journey. He was able to ask questions and even challenge the curriculum when he found that there was a lack of teachings concerning the Black church and its specific forms of theology. Because he wanted his experience in seminary to be reflective of the communities he aimed to serve, he made it a priority to include the narratives of Black theologians such as the first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Richard Allen and the founder of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, the Archbishop Carl Bean.
After completing an M.A. degree in Religious Studies in 2018, Thornhill returned to Antioch University Los Angeles where he became a undergraduate professor in Business Management Studies with emphasis in nonprofit management. He is also the co-director of the Antioch University Bridge program that provides a free educational experience for low-income people who desire to enter or reenter college.
Thornhill considers his blended family to be one of his greatest joys and accomplishments. Though he has only one biological child, he has embraced the privilege of becoming the father to his three blended children who have different fathers. Despite the unique challenges and hurdles that came with the blending of his family, he stuck through it because of the love he had for them. Additionally, his theological journey is one that he takes pride in, especially as it relates to how it has aided in grounding him spiritually and enabled him to become a mentor. Among his greatest struggles, he names the difficulties that come with raising a blended family and doing the work of embracing them and dealing with the various conflicts that would arise.
Thornhill with Archbishop Carl BeanAmong the honors and awards Thornhill has received are: Outstanding Manager of El Torito (December 1983); Master Trainer Award/Wings of Eagles (retirement in August 2000); Founder’s Award from In the Meantime Men’s Group (December 2008); and the Los Angeles Black Elders Award Supporting Black Gay, Lesbian, SGL, Bisexual and Transgender Community (August 2008). He received the 2021-2022 Distinguished Alumnus Award from Claremont School of Theology. He was recognized with a Retirement Award from Women of Unity Fellowship Church in November 2022. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Love Freedom Movement of Vision Church Los Angeles in December 2023.
When it comes to his faith and identity, Thornhill, who retired as pastor of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in 2022, embraces taking time to metaphorically walk with his Creator to develop his spiritual identity. He was mentored by the late Archbishop Carl Bean and embraced his teachings that God is Love and Love is for Everyone. Despite the message that homosexuality has no place in the church, Thornhill still sees himself as created in the image of God. He refers to Psalm 121: 1-2 as why he feels emboldened to continue on his faith journey. His identity with its various intersections is in alignment with God and forms the basis for his own unique narrative. His hope is to instill in others that they can know God for themselves. Rev. Elder Russell E. Thornhill boldly carries a universal message from Romans 8--that nothing can ever separate you from the love of God.
(This biographical statement written by Dorya Mason from an interview with Russell Thornhill and was edited by Thornhill.)
Biography Date: September 2023
Within Academia and Spirituality, Russell Thornhill Leads Towards Liberation by Georgia Bermingham published in Common Thread: Antioch University News, September 18, 2023.
Unity Fellowship Church Movement | Clergy Activist | AIDS | Artist/musician/poet | Black | Bean, Carl | Los Angeles | California
“Rev. Elder Russell E. Thornhill | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed December 06, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/russell-e-thornhill.