Calvary Chapel in Watts

Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel
Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel

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Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel, CA: Shedding Light in a Dark Place

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Tom Price

On Sunday mornings, José Hernandez pulls out of his driveway in a box truck and drives 26 miles to the back door of a Los Angeles, CA, Police Department (LAPD) substation. It’s time to prepare for the weekly service of Hope Central Watts Calvary Chapel. Pastor José explained, “The truck is full of everything we need for services, canopies and tables for the children’s ministry, a full sound system and media system, and chairs and tables for the sanctuary”—the basketball court behind the police station.

At 8:30 a.m., a core group of 10 members join José for an hour of prayer before setting up. By 10:30, they welcome people in for worship, the teaching of God’s Word, and fellowship. Then it’s time to tear everything down again. José acknowledged gratefully, “It might seem that we’re unstable, but we’re still here. We’re still pushing through.”

A Homeless Church

“Basically, our church is homeless,” José confirmed. Last year, the church lost its permit for its meeting place, a city gymnasium in a park, then its lease on “Hope House,” a large home on 109th Street—Hope Central Watts’ headquarters. “It was my office, a tutoring center, a laundromat for the kids who don’t have those things, a soup kitchen, a backup location for holding services, so many things. This was a place where people could come to hear the Word of God and experience it in a practical way.” Everyone from gang members to police officers looking for supplies for families in need knew they were welcome at Hope House in South Central LA.

Group prayer

Pastor José Hernandez of Hope Central Watts, a Calvary Chapel affiliate, gathers the weekly volunteers for prayer on Sunday morning after arriving at the Watts police station in South Central Los Angeles, CA, where they are allowed to hold Sunday services outside, under a tent. Razor wire looms on the fence in the background.

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

Yet, 2020’s COVID-19 lockdowns and the loss of their facilities didn’t stop Hope Central Watts from ministry. “It’s a lot more challenging now,” José admitted. “Ministry is fragmented now. Hope House was a central place where people could find us any day of the week.” José sits on several boards with the LAPD and the LA Unified School District, which has given the church leeway in ministry even in hard times. “They see that we are active in the community, helping, and not asking for anything. So we get a lot of grace and favor—we’ve never once stopped ministering in or meeting the needs of the community.”

People cleaning away leaves

José and volunteer Gloria Martinez-Pinilla clean the leaves and debris from the area where children’s church will be held.

Throughout the pandemic, Hope Central Watts passed out food and supplies every Friday in Watts’ government housing projects: eggs, rice, beans, cooking oil, and the hard-to-find toilet paper. This effort, called Acts of Love, changed recently as conditions improved—the church meets those with food insecurities directly. "If people need physical food, we now go to their houses, but we also bring spiritual food, the Gospel," José said. Currently, the women’s and youth ministries are meeting in the homes of members, and the men meet at Starbucks. This summer, Hope Central Watts has continued its monthly summer outreach, Love Walks Fest, featuring music, food, and arts and crafts.

City officials have been supportive, José added. “Our Thanksgiving outreach in 2020 was different, but we had police officers there and a deputy from the mayor’s office. In fact, we've had police officers helping us unload the van with food we take to the community.”

Woman next to Watts graffiti

Sunday school teacher Rebekah Shin cleans off the area where a mural has been painted.

Ministry in a Difficult Place

South Central LA, including the Watts area, is well known throughout the U.S. for “bad things,” José reflected: race riots, the crack epidemic of the early 1980s, and the birth of notorious gangs the Cripps and the Bloods. Hope Central Watts offers the exact opposite. “It’s a place where people can find hope and rest; as people learn of Jesus, those heavy loads they carry are given to Him. The idea is to give people a place of refuge.”

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I [Jesus] will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Kids sitting together listening

Children also attend Hope Central Watts church services.

One Sunday a month, Hope Central Watts sets up its mobile church in The Nickerson Gardens in Watts, predominantly Hispanic and one of the most notorious government housing projects in the country. “It’s the biggest housing project west of the Mississippi, but it’s like one of those ugly places,” José observed. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good people there, but there’s a gang element there that isn’t, that rule the area with an iron fist. It’s very disturbing because the cops are being criticized for trying to do their jobs and keep the 90% safe, when 5-10% cause all the problems.” A lot of the children who attend the church live in The Nickerson Gardens.

José noted that a few months ago there was an incredible increase in gang violence and murder in Nickerson. “I felt like God put in my heart, ‘You’ve got to disrupt the enemy’s [Satan’s] plans.’ That’s why we started doing church there on the last Sunday of the month.” His fellowship has also started regular prayer walks in the beleaguered community. He continued, amazed, “Ever since then, according to a police commander, the murders ceased.” Other crimes persist, including drug dealing, assaults, human trafficking, and prostitution.

“The idea is that we’ll continue once a month to invade this place with prayer—just to pray and pray and pray and ask God to do a miracle,” José proclaimed.

Woman with mask singing

Kim (with mask) and Dan and Erma worship on the basketball court behind the Watts police station.

Celebrating 10 Years of Watts Ministry

On the last Sunday of both August and September, Hope Central Watts will hold neighborhood outreaches in The Nickerson Gardens. On September 26, the 10-year anniversary of ministry here, the church will celebrate with music, God’s Word, food, and carnival games. Thi’sl, a well-known Christian rapper from St. Louis, MO, will present a concert; a mission team from Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, CA, will set up VBS-style ministry. Information about the event will be available at the church website, listed below.

“We want the Word of God to literally go through the walls of this place. There are a lot of people who sit on the outskirts; they don’t really come into the space where we are, but they’ll listen,” José enthused. Many don’t feel safe in the community, he continued. “Most people go into their houses and lock the door, and they don’t come out. If you’re able to give them an afternoon just to be kids and neighbors, it means a lot. They’re able to come out and play.”

Man pointing over other man

José directs Dan before the service begins. Dan translates the José's teaching simultaneously in Spanish. People use headphones to hear the sermon in Spanish.

How to Help & Pray

José is praying for believers to help in the ministry. “We’re praying to the Lord of the Harvest for laborers in a difficult place. We definitely need help. I don’t want to sugarcoat it—this is a difficult place to do ministry,” he challenged. “Still, there are some people whom God has called to these places.”

Quoting Calvary Chapel evangelist Greg Laurie, José expounded, “We need people’s time, people’s talents, and people’s treasure. Are you a web designer, an attorney, an accountant, a professor, a worship leader? Whatever it is, we can use your talents.” The people who attend the fellowship don’t have many resources to give, he emphasized. “We could really use people to help us financially on a monthly basis to help us continue to minister in a place like Watts.” Anyone interested can contact José directly at jose_hopecentral@yahoo.com.

José asked for prayers for the finances to lease or build a home for the ministry; for the outreach to The Nickerson Gardens for the rest of the year—that there would be no more murders; and for safety and perseverance.

To give financially, go to the website, hopecentralwatts.com. Giving can also be done through the bank app Zelle by inputting the number, 323-895-5128. Send checks to Hope Central Watts, P.O. Box 72215, Los Angeles, CA, 90002.

Man walking between seated people

When the worship concludes, José walks up to welcome everyone, give announcements, and teach God's Word.

 

Man teaching at podium

Pastor José teaches from the second chapter of Daniel.

 

People sitting at table

Maria Reyes (wearing a hat) and Peter Rodriguez lead the teens in their own Bible study in the Watts police station parking lot under a tent.

 

Kids learning from book

Rebekah Shin teaches the younger children a Bible story.

 

Woman holding up book for kids.

One of the students is anxious to share his thoughts on the Bible study that Rebekah Shin is sharing.

 

Woman crying

Gloria Martinez-Pinilla is touched and encouraged by the message and the worship service.

 

People talking

Kim, Erma, and Dan share with one another after the Bible study.

 

People putting away chairs

The congregations helps break down the set up and put away the chairs at the conclusion of the service.

 

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

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. 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.

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