A leader and a bridge builder in Laguna Woods

As the homeless crisis kept escalating in Los Angeles last year, Mayor Karen Bass persuaded the City Council to spend $83 million to purchase and restore the decrepit Mayfair Hotel and convert it into temporary housing.

One of the firms hired for the renovation was VTP Flooring, a thriving company located in Compton and owned by Laguna Woods residents Willie Phillips and his wife, Sharon.

“We leveled floors and installed vinyl and tile and carpeting with strict code enforcement in the 97-year-old hotel – a seven-month project,” Willie Phillips said.

In February, Mayor Bass awarded Phillips a certificate of recognition for his “outstanding and invaluable service to the community,” the document reads.

  • Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips holds a photo showing him...

    Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips holds a photo showing him and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass as she gives him a certificate of recognition for his work on a city homeless project.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

  • The certificate of recognition that Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips...

    The certificate of recognition that Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips received from Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

  • Willie Phillips and his wife, Sharon, in their home in...

    Willie Phillips and his wife, Sharon, in their home in Laguna Woods Village.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

  • Flooring in the Mayfair Hotel in Los Angeles, which was...

    Flooring in the Mayfair Hotel in Los Angeles, which was being renovated and converted into housing for homeless, was provided by a company owned by Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

  • Willie Phillips (Courtesy photo)

    Willie Phillips
    (Courtesy photo)

  • Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips is vice president of the...

    Laguna Woods resident Willie Phillips is vice president of the African American Heritage Club and a founder of Community Bridge Builders.
    (Photo by Mark Rabinowitch)

Phillips described the work as challenging, yet also as something that fired him up emotionally, as he continues to work on other homeless projects in the city.

“I have a special place in my heart for the homeless: My youngest brother was killed in 1985 at age 31 on Skid Row where he had been living,” he said in an interview at his home. “Kenneth George Phillips died in L.A., run over by a car.”

Phillips said his other brother, Ray, might possibly still be living on the streets in Washington, D.C.

“We found him in 1985, after my younger brother had died, and tried to talk him into coming home to Louisiana,” Phillips recalled. “He agreed at first, but then changed his mind, saying that some are destined to live in houses with roofs and others not.” (Phillips’ older sister lives in Houston.)

While his heart goes out to the homeless, Phillips also has strong empathy for people of color, a compassion that is rooted in his own experience of growing up Black in the Jim Crow South.

Phillips was born in Louisiana on Feb. 27, 1950, in an era when civil rights were on far distant horizons and lynchings were a reality. The memory of White men getting away with beating an 18-year-old classmate to death and seeing him hanging from a tree haunts him still, Phillips said.

“I was used to violence since age 8 when I was slapped around by an older White shopkeeper for not affixing ‘Mister’ to my request when I asked for a brand of chewing tobacco named for a guy,” he said.

Phillips speaks of growing up as an angry youth intent on rebelling in whatever small ways he could but eventually channeling his rage by joining the NAACP and marching with the Black Panthers.

He describes himself as a staunch atheist until age 42, when he and his wife, Sharon, whom he married in 1988, were drawn by a radio sermon by Bishop G. Grady Benton of the Apostolic Faith Home Assembly Church in Los Angeles.

“We were blown away,” Phillips recalled. “When the bishop finished his radio sermon and invited his audience to hear the rest of it at his church, our response was ‘Wow!’”

When the couple stopped their car to get their bearings, they happened to find themselves in front of the church.

“That was a sign from God. Sharon and I were saved – we were baptized that evening,” he said.

In 2000, they moved to his hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. There, Phillips rose through the ranks of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World to become bishop and state chair.

Phillips shared his gospel with his father.

“It wasn’t until five years later (2005), when I had the joy-filled privilege of baptizing my daddy in Jesus’ name,” he said. His father was 85 at the time.

Phillips’ spiritual transformation also cemented his determination to uplift Black communities wherever he happened to be, he said. “My role models were Bishop Benton, my former pastor Deacon James Markham, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.”

The couple moved to the Laguna Woods a decade ago, drawn by the beach, safety, reasonable home prices, and health care and activities for older adults.

In the beginning, Phillips longed for a more viable and active African American community, he said.

Now, as vice president of the African American Heritage Club, he and club President Annie McCary have given the club a rising profile by celebrating holidays such as Kwanzaa and Juneteenth with the community at large. Last year’s Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, drew a larger and more diverse crowd than ever before.

“I am so honored to work with Willie as he serves as vice president of the African American Heritage Club – his dedication and unwavering commitment are greatly appreciated,” McCary said in an email. “His leadership has inspired the club to expand our programs and fundraising events. It is a testament to his vision and commitment to honoring African American heritage.”

McCary and Phillips are also in leadership positions in the Village’s Community Bridge Builders, founded by resident Rebeca Gilad, Phillips and Rabbi Joe Mendelsohn, among others. Phillips leads the interfaith section of the Bridge Builders.

The club began in the aftermath of the 2022 church shooting and reports of hate incidents in the Village.

“The only solution to such unacceptable behavior was to begin a community-led campaign to halt it,” Mendelsohn said. “Willie Phillips has that rare balance of being passionate yet levelheaded about all of us being treated appropriately. It is always a pleasure to work with him knowing that anything he takes on will be done well. While we often see him ‘in front’ or on stage, his humility is evident.”

Gilad describes Phillips as “the brother she never had.”

In an email, she wrote: “Under that tall strong man, there is a world of love, kindness and wisdom where people of all religions, skin colors, languages and beliefs are welcome. From the very start, Willie has been a central component of the Bridge Builders. … He moves us toward higher goals; his true love for humanity makes each one of us become a better person.”

One might wonder how Phillips evolved from his militant younger self into a leader pledged to peace, kindness and inclusiveness.

“I was full of vengeance, anger and hate, and my progressing change resulted in confusing times and internal warfare,” he said. “I could no longer be what I had said I was. I was overpowered and began to love what I used to hate.”

His intense study of his acquired Apostolic/Pentecostal faith convinced him that human beings are influenced by spirits promulgating hate and fear.

“The more I learned, the more I could understand me,” he said. “It became ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ I looked at people behind the racist divide as victims of evil spirits.

“Now I’m totally comfortable with my evolution.”

Phillips emphasized that joining and helping to set a course for the Bridge Builders made for a natural progression.

“We need more love, less hate. We are not the same, but we are equal. What I want most is to be able to meet with people, to have good and meaningful conversations, to leave with more love and not be fearful.”

Wife Sharon sums up Phillips. “Willie is a very giving and caring person. When he sees to make something better, he gets right in there,” she said. “And he does have a sense of humor.”

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