Convoy of Hope Watts Outreach Makes Good on its Promises
When Convoy of Hope returned to the South Central Los Angeles community of Watts for an outreach on Saturday, Dec. 2, serving more than 8,400 guests, it was not only historic — as Watts was the location of the first ever Convoy of Hope outreach — it was nothing short of miraculous.
The outreach, which was held at Ted Watkins Memorial Park, had a multitude of challenges. When asked about it, Steve Pulis, the Signature Events director for Convoy of Hope, runs a hand through his hair, shakes his head, and says, “Humanly, it was impossible, but God . . . , that’s all there is to it. It was God who made it possible.”
Pulis explains that for nearly 15 years, major events were not permitted in the park due to the extreme likelihood of gang violence. In fact, the last time a major event was held at the park, gang killings took place at the event.
Watts is home to 13 known gangs including various affiliates of the Bloods, Crips, and Latino gangs, including the highly publicized MS-13 gang, whose motto is “Kill, rape, control.” In order for Convoy of Hope to even have a chance of seeing an outreach happen, a lot of people had to be convinced.
Pulis says that the initial planning for the Watts outreach began two years ago, meeting with local church leaders and ministers. Once they agreed to be a part, the challenge increased exponentially.
“We had to meet with the Watts Gang Task Force (WGTF),” Pulis says. “It’s a group of about 150 people made up of local leaders from the local law enforcement, schools, businesses, community organization, churches, and gangs. If they don’t approve the event, it’s not going to happen.”
Pulis says that local church leaders had to meet with the task force to present the outreach three separate times. What he quickly discovered was even the task force’s leadership was skeptical of the promises Convoy of Hope and church leaders were making. Too often organizations and people had made big promises to the WGTF, but failed to come close to keeping them.
Getting approval from the task force took time. In fact, the original date for the outreach was scheduled for September, but because the task force had not yet given its blessing to the outreach, it was pushed back.
“Without their approval, the police wouldn’t allow it,” Pulis says, “and even if they did, people wouldn’t attend due to the culture of the neighborhood and the fear of gangs.”
Finally the task force granted its approval, with rival gangs agreeing to a “Day of Peace” in order for the event to be held.
But skepticism ran high and across the board. Pulis says even up to a week before the outreach was held, the WGTF was checking with local Convoy team leaders like Jeff Anderson, to see if it was really going to happen.
But when Pulis arrived on Nov. 28 with Convoy of Hope trucks and began setting up 13 large tents on park grounds, doubt turned to amazement.
Twenty-four churches — half of them affiliated with the Assemblies of God — participated in the event. More than 300 volunteers served 8,420 guests of honor who received 10,000 bags of fresh groceries. In the connections tent, 1,200 individuals were prayed with, and nearly 3,174 pairs of new shoes were distributed to children. Community and veterans organizations along with job and career services assisted 5,000 people, while more than 1,200 learned about proper nutrition, 400 had Christmas portraits taken, and more than 700 women were served by the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
“We had 4,000 children enjoy the kids’ zone,” Pulis says. “The people were very warm, very friendly, and very thankful.” And according to both the LA County Parks and LA County Sheriff’s department, it was the largest event they’ve ever seen in the park.
Loren Hicks, pastor of Los Angeles Faith Tabernacle and a district executive presbyter, oversaw the outreach for the Assemblies of God and Southern California (SoCal) Network churches, which also partnered with the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, headed by Bishop Charles Blake.
“We actually do not have an AG church in Watts,” Hicks says. “But our goal going forward is to be able to plant a church in Watts. We saw thousands of people come through, and we were thinking, this is someone’s congregation! We were incredibly blessed to serve them.”
“It was exciting to be there and see over 8,400 guests being served,” states Rich Guerra, the SoCal Network superintendent. “Pastor Loren Hicks and the SoCal Network churches did a great job in preparing for the outreach. And we couldn’t have accomplished all that without the partnership of Convoy of Hope.”
The Watts Gang Task Force (WGTF) couldn’t have been more impressed. Expecting expired foods, empty promises, and half-hearted efforts, Convoy of Hope, churches, local organizations, and caring volunteers left the task force nothing short of amazed.
“I was speaking with the WGTF chairman, Pastor Mike Cummings,” Pulis says, “and he told me that the Watts Gang Task Force has given us an LTO — License to Operate — anytime, anywhere in Watts. That is huge!”
Hicks says there were several “God moments” that stood out to him, beginning with seeing churches working together and volunteers now energized to do even more. Another powerful experience was seeing 1,200 people in the connections tent where they received literature, Bibles, and prayer and more than two dozen choosing to accept Christ as their personal Savior. Then there were the children, some of rival gang members, all playing together and having fun without any cares.
But what Hicks may never forget were the thousands of children receiving new shoes. “While we were putting new shoes on their kids’ feet, grown men, with tears in their eyes, would come over, give you a hug, and say, ‘Thank you.’ It was humbling. Overwhelming.”
What the Watts community first eyed with suspicion, ended up with a Convoy of Hope truck in its Christmas parade and a level of trust and appreciation formed that no one had anticipated. A true God thing.
Pulis and Hicks agree that they would like to see the event return to Watts next year, if at all possible. However, for now, they’re celebrating how God redeemed a park tainted with murders, established relationships on countless levels, and turned legitimate distrust and fear into acceptance and love for His glory.IMAGE - Left to right: Watts Gang Task Force Chairman Pastor Michael Cummings; Steve Pulis, Convoy of Hope Signature Events Director; Pastor Cornell Ward, Executive Director Unityone Foundation Inc.; Joel Sutherland, National Volunteer.