Sharing Jesus at Hope Central Watts, L.A.

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Calvary Chapel Chino Hills Invests in Hope Central Watts

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Josh Larson

“You’re going to walk me home, right?” the 5-year-old boy asked Raquel Aguirre as they worked together on a craft during a one-day Vacation Bible School (VBS) in September 2021. Raquel had been telling him how much God loved him as he joyfully placed colorful stickers representing the Gospel message on a reusable water bottle.

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Raquel Aguirre from Calvary Chapel Chino Hills (CCCH), CA, works on a craft project with a young boy from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles during a one-day VBS in September 2021. After Raquel spent time with him and told him how much Jesus loved him, he asked if she would walk him home. Because of the dangers of the area, that wasn’t possible, but the encounter with the boy touched her heart.

“He just stopped mid-sentence, looked me dead in the eyes, and got super-serious,” Raquel said. “My heart just sank, because it was a quick slap back to the reality of what these kids live with. I forgot where we were. For that moment, it just felt like a normal day playing with kids at a Sunday school.”

It would have been unwise for Raquel to walk the boy and his 10-year-old sister home alone. The VBS was held at Nickerson Gardens, one of the largest and most notorious housing projects in the western states. It’s located in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA. Raquel was one of 10 volunteers that day from Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, CA, who had come to help Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel serving the often dangerous and impoverished area. 

A Hope Central leader took the children home, carrying an overflowing box filled with practical and fun items the boy had collected from a giveaway table.

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Pastor José Hernandez of Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel, has been ministering to the crime-ridden Watts neighborhood for 10 years. He grew up in Watts, moved away, and then returned to shine the light of Jesus Christ.

The VBS followed an outdoor service hosted by Hope Central Watts at Nickerson Gardens. Pastor José Hernandez and his small flock have been ministering to the crime-ridden Watts neighborhood for 10 years. José grew up in Watts, left, and then returned to bring the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ to this challenging domestic mission field, living it out in the neighborhoods. And he’s asking for help.

Raquel’s husband, Jonathan Aguirre, missions director at CC Chino Hills, taught for José that day, freeing the busy pastor to relax. Before the service, Jonathan noted the few people outside: “It was like a ghost town.”

José responded, “Bro, we’re in the middle of the projects. People are afraid to go outside, so they stay inside most of the time.” But, attendees started trickling in—about 40 adults and 60 youth.

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Jonathan Aguirre (left), missions director at CCCH, shares counsel and Scripture with a young man after a Sunday service in Watts. CCCH sent a team to assist Pastor José and run a VBS for the children in the neighborhood. Jonathan taught for José as well.

At the end of the service, a man in his early 20s approached Jonathan for prayer, opening his heart to him. He had only recently started coming to Hope Central’s services at the invitation of his aunt.

“I’ve been on some of the craziest drugs. I’ve been in and out of jail. I’ve been stopped by the police multiple times,” the young man confessed. “But I want to turn my life around; I don’t want that lifestyle anymore.” Jonathan prayed with him, encouraged him, and asked if he wanted to accept Jesus as his Lord—the young man did.

A Nickerson Gardens teenager was also saved that day. In summer 2021, he had witnessed a murder—a playground fight between two young men led to a shooting. Pastor José recalled, “He got trauma therapy, but we could just tell that he needed something more. So, we’ve been ministering to him and loving on him.” That included getting him new shoes and a backpack.

José explained, “In such a dark and scary place, when the Word of God and worship go out, there’s a calmness that comes over this place; you don’t feel like it’s dangerous. This day, kids were able to come out and play, hang around, run around, and just be kids.”

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A member of Hope Central Watts leads kids in a hula hoop game at the September VBS. Volunteers from CC Chino Hills came alongside Hope Central believers to give the children a safe, fun afternoon. Pastor José is asking suburban churches to support this small church in many ways.

More importantly, several kids and four young men gave their lives to the Lord that day. One was baptized the following weekend and will be discipled. The church continues to minister to the others. “It doesn’t get any better than that, you know?” José said.

Hope Central provided free lunch for about 100 people and welcomed nearly 30 children to the VBS.

Raquel believes the little boy felt safe that Sunday. “It was because Jesus was there,” she said. “Kids have that sense of what’s safe, and what’s not, who they can trust. Because the people there loved the Lord and loved these kids, he got that.”

But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them. Matthew 19:14-15a

Raquel added, “I just picture Jesus interacting with these younger kids, no matter what situation they live in. I have no doubt that kids that young can start a relationship with Jesus, and He wants that to happen here.”

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Children enjoyed the afternoon of play, good food, and fellowship. More importantly, several kids and four young men gave their lives to the Lord that day.

Disrupting the Work of the Enemy
Between June and September, José took his church to the streets of Nickerson Gardens on the last Sunday of each month. The service location, bordered by a baseball field, basketball court, and skateboard park, was significant—it had been the site of two murders in the past year. José expounded, “Earlier in the year, lawlessness and crime, especially murder, increased dramatically. So, God gave me a word to disrupt the work of the enemy, Satan. [God] impressed on my heart to start praying for the area.”

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John Coughlin (left) is a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer who’s been assigned to Nickerson Gardens for the past 25 years. Here he speaks with José during an outreach. Officer Coughlin is a strong supporter of the ministry José is leading and has seen firsthand the positive impact that Hope Central Watts has in this inner-city neighborhood. “One thing that separates Pastor José most from others is that he works with the most difficult kids; kids who literally have no chance, the kids who are vulnerable, the forgotten,” John said.

John Coughlin, a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer who’s been assigned to Nickerson Gardens for the past 25 years, observed that Nickerson Gardens struggles with violence, with more than six homicides in the last six months (as of September 2021). “But it’s also an area blessed with a lot of good, hardworking people. Unfortunately, their voices are silenced because of the violence.” He added, positively, “People like José and the volunteers here, along with the LAPD, are working hard to get those innocent, hardworking voices [ringing] out.”

As José and his fellowship started praying around the neighborhood and holding services there, “God started moving, and things actually calmed down,” José confirmed. In those first few months, the grateful LAPD commander told him there were no homicides in Nickerson Gardens.

Children at Risk
Jonathan noted that children and teens in Watts often don’t have stable family lives. “José and the church may be the only positive influence they receive,” Jonathan said. “If they don’t reach the kids, then the gangs are going to reach them, and they’re going to end up throwing their lives away. The police captain said that if José doesn’t reach these kids, the statistics are incredibly high that they will grow up to be drug abusers, prostitutes, or even end up in jail or prison.”

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Young adults from CCCH lead kids in songs during the VBS that they helped put on.

Officer John Coughlin, who runs a ministry providing college scholarships for students in Watts, described the work of Hope Central Watts, saying “One thing that separates Pastor José most from others is that he works with the most difficult kids; kids who literally have no chance, the kids who are vulnerable, the forgotten. And if José doesn’t help them, they’re going to end up at the LAPD, and it’s not going to be positive.”


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Breaking Concrete
The ministry is difficult, José admitted. “It’s not clean-cut; you have to get in here and get your hands dirty.” He compared the work to trying to break concrete with just your fist. “A lot of the issues that we have here are generational. For us to be really effective in this community is to just keep doing it. The seeds are planted, we water, and God brings the increase. The ground has been so hard that it takes a really long time to turn it.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20a

Yet José recognized, “I think that where it’s the darkest, the light shines brighter. The ‘trophies’ that come out of here are trophies of His grace because God gets the glory. Our mission is to lead people to Christ, that they might be transformed, that their chains would be broken.”

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A volunteer from CCCH lovingly helps a little boy with a craft at the one-day VBS.

Partnering with the Police
José’s success also depends on a strong relationship with the LAPD. He acknowledged, “You get to know these women and men. They’re just regular people trying to serve and do a job in a very difficult area. When they see what we’re doing in the community—that we’re not here to disrupt, make money, or to bring glory to ourselves—they’re like, ‘Wait, what’s this about?’”

John added that the 30 officers in the unit all know José. “Everybody in Watts knows him and the work he does. He’s just different, not demanding attention. He just does his thing.” John cautioned that current economic and cultural challenges will increase crime. “The good people in this community are going to suffer more unless private citizens, churches, and businesses show their support for someone like Pastor José. I just thank God that we have Pastor José, who’s willing to come down here and grind it out. That’s the only way we’re going to [see] change.”

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

Meeting the Need
José admitted he’s been discouraged. “We’re only 15 minutes from LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). So many people drive from southern California to LAX on the 105 Freeway—right behind Nickerson Gardens—to fly to other countries for ministry. There’s so much to do right here in the inner city.”

Those who attend José’s church love being there, but they are limited by their poverty, he shared. “Some kids show up hungry, and we need to feed them. We need help from people who would be willing to come to serve, to make this a mission trip, to send resources.”

Sometimes giving money is the easy part, José exhorted. “We need people who love God and want to love their neighbors. I call Watts, or any inner city, the ‘church in Samaria.”’ A lot of times the Christian church goes around Samaria, like the Jews did in Bible days, to minister in other areas. We need to engage because out of the inner city a lot of problems are cropping up that are affecting the world.”

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Steven Shin (center), youth pastor at Hope Central Watts, uses the time after a Sunday service to build relationships with the people who live in the Watts neighborhood. Once a month in the summers, the service is held at Nickerson Gardens, one of the largest and most notorious housing projects in the West.

José suggested ways others could help, including mid-week mission trips; and legal, IT, medical or educational support. The need is spiritual as well. “[Our church does] need mentors, people to be a Paul to a Timothy. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1, ‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.’ We need Pauls here in the community that these kids might follow.” He wants to start a program to train interns to serve in the inner city.

José addressed the fears of those who are considering inner-city mission work. “In the 10 years of our existence, we have never had an incident where something bad has happened to somebody who’s visited us. We work with law enforcement and the community and do not put them at risk. We use wisdom, discernment, and a lot of prayer.”

José added, “For the last seven years, CC Chino Hills has generously supported me as a domestic missionary, offering physical and spiritual support.”

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Sunday school teacher Rebekah Shin, wife of Hope Central Watts youth pastor Steven Shin, shares a Bible lesson with kids during a Sunday service.

From Darkness to Light
Jonathan reflected, “When I hear about the fact that José is baptizing ex-gang members and drug users, and that they’re turning their lives around, that’s God rescuing people out of darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to the power of God. That’s what God is doing in Watts, through this ministry.”

“To open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” Acts 26:18


Click to learn more about Hope Central Watts


(To learn more about Calvary Bible Institute, visit their website or read our past coverage on the school)

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All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

© 2022 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.