Why did you join the Metropolitan Community Church?

I always felt a calling. At church, I felt a peace that I couldn’t find any other place—and I wanted other people to experience that peace. I was only 15 years old when I expressed wishes to join a seminary, but was told I was too young.

I left Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised, and moved to Los Angeles, where I got my bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, studying theology and teaching. In 1986, I was ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).

How did you start working with HIV/AIDS?

I was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. I was told I had one year to live. One of my first thoughts was I could never go back to Puerto Rico, because I could never put my mother through the suffering of losing a son in his 20s.

I started working with nonprofits. In the late ’80s and ’90s, a lot of people were dying every day of AIDS. Families were leaving their sons behind because of being HIV positive. They didn’t want them in their homes, they were afraid.

In the ’90s, I was a chaplain. I used to visit hospices. I call them “death buildings” because there were really no services, they were just places for people to go to die. The first man I visited in one of these places told me to pray to God to take him away. He told me not only did his body hurt, but he was alone—and that was what hurt the most.

That marked the beginning of my advocacy. No one should die embarrassed and alone, without love.

Do you find tension between churches, which are often considered homophobic, and your advocacy?

To be honest with you, I think it’s a little bit of a stereotype. Things are changing. MCC does encounter churches that refuse to work with us, but we have friends of all denominations who are there when we need them. They talk with us, fight with us and walk with us.

They have active, self-assuring, loving ministries that accept us as we are. The number of churches that have come out, put their names down and said “we support you” has amazed us.

MCC is well known as a “gay church.” It was founded by a Pentecostal minister who came out of the closet. But over the years, we’ve seen many straight people joining us. It has been a journey.

What is the work of the MCC HIV/AIDS ministries?

Christianity is based on helping the poor and isolated. Through the years, thousands of MCC members have passed away from HIV/AIDS isolated because of their status. The situation is the same now. Washington, DC, has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country, even higher than some countries in Africa.

We continue to help the poor and isolated. One way we do this is through support groups. I listen to our members’ specific situations, their needs, and make the calls they are too afraid to make. Someone has to be their advocate, in their own language.

The church also houses the Metropolitan Latino AIDS Coalition, and we work with the National Latino AIDS Action Network.

We also work with the TransLatina Coalition, a national coalition of transgender people, and we offer services for the transgender community.

You’ve been fighting for immigration reform to become part of health care reform, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act. Why is that?

I wish I could remove the words “immigration” and “reform” and just use the term “human rights.” Health care is a human right.

When I was an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, while studying toward my degrees, I saw parents unable to take children for a physical exam, struggling to find health care services.

I particularly saw the heartache of those with HIV/AIDS. Latinos have the highest rate of death from AIDS within a year of being diagnosed with HIV. This is because they don’t have access to health care services. They go to the emergency room when it is too late.

There should be no reason to hide if you have HIV/AIDS, if you’re gay, if you don’t have legal immigration status.

Immigration laws need to change in this country now, because people are dying. Everybody has the right to live. We need to protect that right. It is sacred.

You’re also a big proponent of marriage equality. Why is this an important part of your work?

Thanks to the laws changing in DC, my partner and I are legally married. And that is a human right. It provides protection and benefits, such as health insurance and medical rights.

Years ago, I would visit people dying in hospitals and see their partners screaming in hallways, partners who were denied rights, both financially and emotionally. And it breaks my heart. Marriage equality is more than a human right—it’s protection for those in our community who have suffered.

What are your future HIV/AIDS advocacy goals?

I would like to see a dedicated committee in Congress for Latinos living with HIV/AIDS. I would like to see six members—three Democrats and three Republicans—that will sit together with us and help us solve the issues of Latinos in the United States.

I would like to have an open conversation based on data, on the numbers, and not based on what is politically correct to do. If I’m able to do that, it could affect so many other issues. I want to give Latinos and Latinas living with HIV/AIDS a voice.