Willie Watt: Passing From Death to Servant of God, At-Risk Youth

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Escape Ministries 235Willie Watt, Jr., standing ringside at Escape Ministries: “I’ve always stated for me to ever believe in a God, He’d have to show Himself to me.”Growing up in the West Side of Chicago, Willie Watt, Jr. personally witnessed humanity's savage side.

But, adds the 49-year-old, he's also seen how the Holy Spirit can supernaturally bridge the chasm between the yearning to die and a craving to live for the Lord, from knowing only heartache to embracing love, from a steady diet of mistrust to an unshakeable faith in God Whose peace and love knows no boundaries.

"God has had my back so many times," said a tearful Watt, founder and executive director of Escape Ministries, a nonprofit at 202 East 32nd St., in Holland, that diligently works to give at-risk, marginalized young people alternatives to joining gangs. Details about Escape Ministries will be covered in an upcoming story.

Hardscrabble life

Watt can't remember a time when he didn't live a hardscrabble existence in the West Side of Chicago in a community called K Town, a nickname for an area in North Lawndale between Pulaski Road and Cicero Avenue where the names of many north-south avenues begin with the letter K.

"I've seen death very early," said Watt. "I've seen abuse very early. I still remember when I was three years old, my dad beating my mom constantly. He was an alcoholic and he was very controlling. If any man looked at my mom she would get the beating for it.

"It was very hard being in a home like that."

According to Watt, his father, Willie Watt, Sr., help found the Black Disciples, a street gang of mostly African Americans based in Chicago that engage in drug trafficking, theft, robbery, gun trafficking, murder, embezzlement, money laundering, and racketeering, in addition to other criminal activity.

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Watt eventually joined the Black Disciples at age 11 without his parents' knowledge, largely to protect his sisters from sexual assault.

Part of gang life is killing people. Watt said he dodged that bullet.

"The only thing that kept me from killing someone is my mom did take me to a Baptist church even though I didn't believe in God," said Watt.

"I remember hearing our pastor say if you kill someone, you can go to hell, so I didn't want to go to hell. So when I was asked (by his gang) to kill somebody, I would shoot them but I wouldn't kill them."

Shot, molested, pistol-whipped

Through the course of Watt's young life, he was shot three times, molested by his sister's friend, witnessed a friend get pushed and killed by an oncoming train by rival gang members, was pistol-whipped and somehow endured the heartache of his sisters dying in a traffic fatality.

"I had to live with an attitude of what my father instilled in me, which is never love, love can get you killed, never to trust, trust can get you hurt," said Watt.

Eventually Watt's mother remarried and together the family moved to Dowagiac in 1978 where his stepfather worked as a deputy sheriff. Watt was 13 years old.

In 1982, Watt's two older sisters were driving to Dowagiac to pick him up to spend time together. But they never arrived. They were killed while trying to pass a semi-trailer truck and collided head-on with a vehicle in the opposite lane.

Watt was devastated. He blamed himself for their deaths because they were coming to get him.

'I'm sorry'

"I'm on the front porch crying," recalled Watt. "All the pastors in the area started coming over. To do a double funeral in a small town is a big thing. They came to console my mother and my stepfather was the only one person who actually said anything to me. One lady said 'I'm sorry.'"

Watt was 17 or 18 when his mother and stepfather said he had to move out of the house since he wasn't doing anything with his life.


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He drove to Holland in 1985 with $500 in his pocket and landed a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Fast forward to 2007. By then Watt is married but he started cheating on his wife.

"I told her if you leave me I'm going to kill her," said Watt. "She was in the basement for 12 hours. She said she was done (with their marriage) and I knew she was done."

Despondent, Watt decided to commit suicide by driving head on with a semi at the corner of U.S. 131 and James Street.

But instead of smacking into the vehicle, something unexpected happened.

God reveals Himself

"Here's where this story gets unbelievable for some people," Watt said. "I've always stated for me to ever believe in a God, He'd have to show Himself to me.

"I stepped on the gas to hit this semi and there was no way this semi could have missed me. When I opened my eyes, the semi was on the other side of the road screeching to a halt and I'm in the middle of the road and the car is not moving at all. So I got there but somehow stopped."

Overwhelmed, Watt drove to receive help from a Christian co-worker, who in turn referred him to a counselor. The counselor urged Watt to admit himself to Holland Hospital.

Instead, Watt was arrested for threatening his wife's life.

"So I'm in jail now and looking at 25 years for felonious assault," he said. "No one comes to help me."

The woman he was seeing on the side eventually bailed Watt out. Released from jail, Watt noticed two people were waiting for him: his girlfriend and the Christian worker who had been witnessing to him.

'People were praying for me'

He chose to go with his co-worker.

"He took me to my car and I didn't have no place to go so I parked my car in the back of the church that was next to the field where I once coached football," Watt said. "Little did I know it was Christ Memorial Church where my friend was a member and people there were praying for me."

Homeless, Watt lived in his Jeep Cherokee at the church parking lot for a time and eventually attended a worship service there.

"I'm sitting in the back of the church and the pastor is preaching and he came right up to me he hugged me and said, 'you don't remember me? You coached my son five years ago in rocket football,'" said Watt. "I was his son's favorite coach.

"What he didn't realize is I never received a hug from a man in my entire life and it shattered my heart," added Watt. "My soul is cracked enough to hear if somebody needs prayer to come down in the front."

Watt responded to that invitation to come to the front.

"I remember hitting the floor and crying and there were hands over me, praying for me. Three and a half hours later, those people stayed in that service to pray for me.

"God showed himself. I was on the ground crying and heard some one say 'Buckie.'

Buckie is Watt's nickname.

"I thought somebody was talking to me. 'I'm here with you. Give me your life.' I could feel the vibration in my heart."

God revealed to Watt how He guided him in the tough, horrible times of his life.

"I've saved you over and over again," Watt recalled God telling him. "I felt everything I had ever done in my whole life. There's so much shame and pain and some people can't deal with that because they can't take feeling anymore. But I had people tell me that I was God's child, that I was somebody.

"I wanted to be a servant."

These days, Watt works an average of 60 to 70 hours a week at Escape Ministries to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth.

This, despite the fact he received a cancer diagnosis that said he would be dead within a year. That was five years ago.

"I can submit to an illness and submit to what doctors say because of prostate, brain and now lung cancer," Watt said. "I'm working 60-70 hours a week, sometimes in incredible pain, but God keeps me working until He calls me home.

"I made a commitment the first day I heard His voice and I've kept that commitment. My whole purpose in life is to do His work."

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Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
About:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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