Bridges of Empowerment:
Developing and Unleashing the Potential of Your Community by Carol Houston, Pastor of Bethel Unspeakable Joy Church, and a Westmont College Trustee
This story is based on her talk at Westmont’s 2017 Lead Where You Stand Conference.
I want to identify the bridges I use today to fulfill my purpose in the awesome community of Watts. Many of you may have heard about this fabulous community in the city of Los Angeles.
Back in the 1930s, my grandparents decided to leave the South and come to California. They had heard about its sunshine and promise, but most of all, they wanted
to escape from Jim Crow. In the South, a lot of laws kept African Americans sup-
pressed, so they migrated to the Los Angeles area. At that time, the most welcoming place was Boyle Heights in east Los Angeles. They settled there and brought their talents; not only my grandparents but aunts and uncles as well. Most of the women found employment as helpers and housekeepers for people in Hollywood, including movie stars. The men in the family worked as butlers, and some served with companies collecting rubbish. But they were excited about the improvement in their lives, and they had visions of moving south of Los Angeles, to a more spacious area where they
could purchase homes. So they moved to the Watts community, populated mostly with white Americans at the time. They also settled in Willowbrook in the Compton area.
I was born in the Compton-Watts area; that was the foundation of my roots. My parents were centered in Christ when I was born, and I was so blessed to be raised loving God through Jesus Christ. It was such an exciting experience. But one thing began to happen in the Watts community as Blacks moved there from Boyle Heights: Whites started moving out. They had a sense of invasion and didn’t want Blacks there, so they relocated to west Los Angeles. As time progressed, those African Americans who moved from the South looking for a better life began to realize that Jim Crow followed them. It was dressed differently, but Jim Crow followed them to Los Angeles. The oppression and the box those laws put African Americans in became stressful over time. Some laws were bait for people of color to be incarcerated—and once incarcerated, made it difficult to get out of the system. Native Americans and Mexican Americans also lived in the area. As I began to grow and mature, I left for a season. My coming back to it was ordained of God.
At this Lead Where You Stand conference, I want to identify where I stand and whom I’m leading. I affirm that I stand in the call of the power of Jesus Christ to represent Him in a beautiful community, to bring life and hope to those who are there. Today, the Watts community includes so many people who are in despair, whose dreams and hopes have been dashed because they wanted life to be better. My grandparents have since died. My parents have since died. And I am there with the objective of responding to the needs of that community. It’s a passion in my heart to encourage them to move from despair to hope. I want to share three bridges from despair to hope established through the ministry of Jesus Christ in Los Angeles. Bridge number one is the word of God. Bridge number two is love. Bridge number three is a helping hand.
I use the first bridge, the word of God, as a foundation because of how it has helped me. I have had to take time to really hear the hearts of those who are crying out in our community to see what is causing their despair. To identify the pain and the mindset of many of the residents, I go back historically to three major events in Watts as African Americans and Latinos moved in.
The 1943 Zoot Suit riot targeting Mexican American young men poured into downtown Los Angeles. There was pride that we as people of color were beating all the odds and getting to be self-sufficient, and we wanted to celebrate that in the early 1940s. Mexican Americans were excited they could work and receive payment. The men loved to wear specially designed wool Zoot Suits with a distinctive hat and a chain on their wallet on the side of their long coats. They looked distinguished and sharp. The Zoot Suit riots started with servicemen who came to the port of Los Angeles for rest and recreation. They saw these men dressed in suits and having a good time, and they said it was a time for patriotism when the country was in despair and not for celebration. The servicemen literally stripped the suits off of these Mexican American men, beat them, and left them nude in some places.
I can remember the next event as a young girl: the first Watts riot in 1965. The disrespect shown to people in our community caused an explosion of emotion where we as a people even began to harm ourselves. Many of you can remember the Rodney King riots in 1992. Again, we were screaming out because of a sense of injustice, and yet doing a lot of harm to ourselves. Some of those incidents created the foundation for the despair in the community today.
We focus on introducing bridges to people in our community so they can begin to see hope and aspire to go forward, where they can feel themselves inspired to do things that will enhance their lives, the lives of their extended family, the lives of the community, the lives of the city, the lives of our nation. We do this to give them hope. We’ve tried a lot of different things, and yet I find, as a bridge-builder today, the answer is in Jesus. I personally share experiences I’ve had so I can understand where they are.
I specifically remember an incident several years ago driving across country from Los Angeles to Nashville. I had the privilege of mentoring a young lady 20 years my junior. I led her to Jesus Christ and a strong walk in Christ, and she flew to Los Angles to assist me in driving back to Nashville. She was in her early 30s and a practicing physician two
years out of medical school. As we were driving across the state of Oklahoma, as we approached the state of Arkansas, I warned her we were moving into a territory where she had to be careful. I told her if you go past the speed limit, state troopers will stop you. How many of you know young people who don’t always take warnings seriously?
We crossed the state line headed for Fort Smith, Arkansas. She’s going about five miles over the speed limit. A state trooper came up behind us and pulled us over. I’m in the passenger seat, and I thought, “I told you so.” I’ve had experiences she didn’t have. She didn’t know. She grew up in Washington, D.C. The first thing that shocked me was that the trooper, instead of asking for her ID, demands that she gets out of the car. When she gets out, I keep sitting, making sure my hands can be seen. He takes her to his car. That is different. And she stays there so long, that I look through the side-view mirror and the vanity mirror to see what is going on. After a while, I see another state trooper pull up behind the first one. I get nervous. What is this? I have experience, and my hands are sweating. I am seriously praying, “Jesus!”
The state trooper comes to my door. “Roll down the window,” he says.
I know what to do: Roll down the window.
“Could you step out of the car?” When I step out, the officer says, “May I look in your trunk?” I know I have some rights, but guess what? I’m not going to execute the rights there outside of Fort Smith. I have the right to say no, but I dare not say no. I open my trunk. Right there on top of our luggage was my briefcase. He says, “Can I look in it?” I have the right to say no.
But I say, “Yes, sir.” As soon as he pops it open, he sees the Holy Bible on the top. He closed the trunk, lets me go back to the car, and releases my friend with a simple warning. It could have been totally different, but it’s frightening to use law in such an intimidating way. Thank God I was not an African American male. It would have been altogether different.
These are the kinds of things I know about, so I can understand the cries of despair in the community. My response is—and continues to be—“Allow me to introduce Jesus to you and the word of God to you.” “Well, Carol, how can that help me?” It helps to settle you in truth. You meet a man who is Jesus Christ, and as you follow his teachings and apply what He gives you, he can change your life.
Number two is the bridge of love. Why love? Because God is love. Regardless of how people treat you, you can love them. That does not mean you cannot speak truth to power. That does not mean you can just roll over and allow people to take advantage of you. But you’re on an important journey to move from despair to hope.
The third bridge is a helping hand. Not only do I share Jesus with them and encourage them to love and forgive, to forgive and love, to love and forgive, to forgive and love, but to keep doing that no matter how people treat them. But you must at least protest the things that are wrong and speak truth to power—and mix it with the principles of Jesus Christ and love. I can extend a helping hand, I can provide affordable housing, I can offer the opportunity to feed their families through our Los Angeles food bank. Not only do we preach to them, but we offer all these things and model what I believe is true from God’s word. Then I can give them a touch and a hug. As they’re crossing these bridges, they’re encouraged to dream—to dream. So many of them have lost their vision of life. So we encourage them to dream.
I’m so glad I can identify where I’m standing today, and how I’m leading today, not out of just Carol, but out of a call and anointing of God to fulfill His purpose in my life. The people crossing these bridges are not only dreaming, they’re dreaming again, they’re learning how to trust—even if they just trust me. I’m sharing with them that they can trust as they go forward, as they allow their voices to be heard, as they leave despair behind, they can trust again. Then they can learn how to believe in God and believe in themselves.
In the last six months, downtown Los Angeles has seen a lot of construction, which has pushed the homeless people south of the city. We’ve seen many homeless people around our church, around our ministry. Three individuals have camped out near our dumpster near the rear end of our church: DeRay, Rose and Blackie. DeRay is a male, and Blackie and Rose are ladies. We’ve engaged them, given them a helping hand in terms of a smile and talking to them and trying to understand where they are: All three of them are on drugs. Yet I pause and look in their eyes and let them know, “I’m Pastor Carol. What is your name?” They’re shocked because someone has stopped to look them in their eyes. It was the beginning for me to offer them the bridges we have available.
Rose, in my eyes, was the worst of the three. She always seemed high and more out of it than the other two. Her personal hygiene was such that most would want to walk past her and hold their nose and not even speak to her. One day I looked at Rose, and I said, “Are you happy about where you are?” I put my things down and came back to have a conversation with her. She said, “No.” I said to Rose, “Whenever you get tired of being where you are, I’m going to give you three words.” Rose looked at me and said, “OK.” I said, “The words are, ‘Jesus, help me. Jesus, help me.’” I gave Rose those words. A few days later, she was hospitalized by a hit-and-run driver and spent three days in a coma. When she woke up, her daughter was sitting there. She said, “Jesus helped me.” Rose left that hospital. Rose let me know, before that accident, what her real name was.
“These are the kinds of things I know about, so I can understand the cries of despair in the community. My response is—and continues to be—‘Allow me to introduce Jesus to you and the word of God to you.’”
Because DeRay is a street name. Blackie is a street name. Rose was her street name. But Rose gave me her name: Roselyn. Because she gave me her name, I helped law enforcement identify who she was. On the news, she was simply an “unidentified person.” We went to see her there, and we offered these bridges to Rose. She has been empowered, she knows her potential—and she’s one of many.
I stand firm today that these bridges of empowerment change lives—and it’s because of Jesus.
Carol Houston, a Westmont trustee since 1997, serves the Watts community as senior pastor of Bethel Unspeakable Joy Church, a congregation she joined in 1993. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she graduated from the University of Denver and pursued post-graduate study in health education, recreation, gerontology, educational administration and speech communication. She also attended Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena to study missiology. She has been involved in business administration and has managed the business affairs of several Christian physicians and singing artists. She is a trustee of Helping Hands for Better Living and has served in various areas of ministry and taught in secondary schools. She is extensively involved with the Westmont community and speaks frequently in chapel.