A Year in Review: Hope for Watts

A Year in Review: Hope for Watts
A Year in Review: Hope for Watts

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Hope For Watts—Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel, CA: Shining Christ’s Light and “Walking the Talk” in a Poverty-Stricken Area of Los Angeles

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Gabriel Arreola and Ricky Garcia

This story first ran in Issue 84, Summer 2020, of Calvary Chapel Magazine.

The Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA, has historically been a hub of racial tension between the predominantly African-American community and the local police. As the country reacted to the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel affiliate, has made a deliberate effort to turn a negative event into positive change for Christ.

Standing on the steps of a junior high school in Watts on Saturday, June 13, José Hernandez spoke through a bullhorn, preparing approximately 200 men and women to cover the well-known Los Angeles (L.A.) neighborhood with prayer and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The mixed crowd of African Americans, whites, Hispanics, and Asians was peaceful, enthusiastic, and ready. This was the same junior high where José was initiated as a gang member as a 13-year-old student before he received Jesus.

José is the senior pastor of Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel that has lovingly served the neighborhood for nine years. He described Watts as a “typical ghetto” that has experienced deep poverty; it was also the scene of racial riots in 1965 and 1992. The now predominantly Hispanic neighborhood is home to four government housing developments and has birthed infamous gangs that have spread to the rest of the country. “It’s really not known for good things, but God is doing something great in a place like this,” José emphasized. His small, multicultural church—often working in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and other churches—continues to shine the light of Jesus into a dark place.

Pastor José leading march

Pastor José Hernandez leads the prayer march to the local LAPD precinct to show support for the police in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Pastor José appreciates police involvement in the community.

José and his leadership team had prayed about how to respond to the unrest raging around the country following the death of George Floyd. “We wanted to show that we stand with our brothers and sisters who are black. We believe that what happened was wrong and that God wants justice as well,” José stated. But it was important that it be done right. “We couldn’t do it in unrighteousness or in a way that doesn’t honor God. With all the [current] noise and uncertainty, the community’s looking to the church to be the leaders, the ones to stand in the gap,” José asserted. His leaders agreed that they needed to get out there and proclaim Jesus. “We wanted God to be exalted above all the noise, and we wanted to start and end with the Word of God.”

Hope Central Watts promoted the prayer walk on social media and to churches in the area, including nearby Calvary Chapel South L.A. (SOLA), CA, and Calvary Chapel Inglewood, CA. Members of at least six different churches, as well as community organizations, joined the morning walk; some drove an hour and a half from Riverside, CA, to support the event.

José passionately addressed the gathered walkers. “That so many people have died from injustice is wrong. If you hurt, I hurt; if you cry, I cry. Your lives matter to God; we have been made in His image. But when sin entered the Garden of Eden, that image [in us] was marred. So we need to pray, ask God for forgiveness, and ask Him to heal our land. It’s because of the [sinful] things that we’ve allowed and done that this calamity has come upon us.”

People laying hands and praying for police

Members of Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel, CA, lead the community and local police in a prayer march amidst racial tension. The church has formed a strong bond with the LAPD, and many local officers have donated money from their own pockets to help youth initiatives.

He continued, “Turn around and look at someone. Not everyone looks the same, do they? We need to start here. This is our training ground. It’s about God being represented today under the banner of Jesus Christ.” Then the large group walked, often stopping and praying, for nearly four miles. A man from another church carried a cross. “I asked him to be at the front of the march because we wanted the cross to go before us,” José later explained.

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures ... 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

The answer to the unrest, José expressed, is prayer. “Yes, we’ll stand when we need to stand when something’s wrong, but at the same time, we have to pray. And then we have to pray some more. The sinful heart is the issue, and it’s only God who can change it.” Church leaders and other speakers with bullhorns shared the Gospel throughout the walk. José recalled, “We walked through—not around—the projects, then stopped at the end of the projects and prayed again.”

Bill Buffington, pastor of Calvary Chapel Inglewood, prayed at the end that the church would demonstrate to the world that the answer is Jesus. “It’s through Christ that all that’s broken is healed.” At one stop, José stood up on a bench and challenged the walkers: “Maybe we need to call somebody today and forgive them. We might even have to forgive someone who could care less about our forgiveness. Let’s see what God will do. He is amazing.”

Pastor José praying with men

Several men extend their arms and brace Pastor José while praying at the Watts rally.

José urged the walkers to take advantage of opportunities throughout the day—and they did. “I’ve never had anyone refuse prayer. If God gives you opportunities, then pray for them.”

Officers from the L.A. Police Department supported the prayer walk from beginning to end. Four officers mingled with the walkers and two followed slowly in a squad car, stopping traffic for them. As the prayer walkers were ready to disband, the officers stepped forward to ask for prayer. As José called them near, he assured them that they could keep a distance if they didn’t want to be touched during the prayer. One officer quickly responded, “It’s OK if you want to.” The group gathered close to the officers, laying hands on them. “We put ourselves in their shoes. They are only men and women, and tensions are high right now. Their anxiety is up. So we prayed for wisdom, that God would fill them. When you’re already anxious, and you pull a car over, tensions can really dominate a situation,” José related. “We prayed that in the difficulty and challenges, that they would seek God, and that God would respond to their cries. I believe they took away from this that there is hope and that not everyone is against them. They appreciate that the community where they work would stand with them.”

Woman comforting police officer

Martha places her hand on an officer as a show of support for the police.

José reflected, “Growing up, I didn’t have a father in my home, the same problem that a lot of the kids in my community have. I knew who he was, but he was in and out, violent and abusive to my mom and us; I found comfort in the streets with my friends. We were the bad boys, and girls liked the bad boys. We ran the streets, and there was safety in numbers.” It took being locked up and facing jail time to wake him up. “God had mercy on me.” José started a job, and a man he had never met before told him about Calvary Chapel Downey, CA. “I was working, released on probation, and had to do all these anger management classes because of what I had done.” José literally lived across the street from CC Downey. “That’s where God began to do a work. It took about 10 years for me to surrender my life to Jesus.” He completed training in Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s School of Ministry, intending to serve at CC Downey, but José realized the Lord was calling him back to minister in Watts.

 

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