Reverend Luther McCurtis, 74, doesn’t fit the standard image of a preacher. He looks more like an old bluesman, with the frame of B.B. King and the gravelly voice of Howlin’ Wolf. He doesn’t speak like a typical preacher, either. He doesn’t fill conversation with scripture and parables. He looks at social problems from a real-world perspective and offers solutions that are sensible, not theoretical. For him, faith alone is not a viable answer. “I boast of being a preacher and a humanitarian,” he says.
These days, the concept of a man of the cloth also being a man of the people is not particularly strange. In fact, a reverend is expected play both roles. In the 1950s, however, when McCurtis first entered the field, he was an anomaly. At that time, a minister’s only responsibility was to spread God’s word and not get involved with such earthly concerns as paying gas bills and feeding a family. McCurtis established the Pentecostal Total Life Christian Center on Ventura Avenue in the mid-’60s. Behind the church is the Employment Aptitude Placement Association, also run by McCurtis, which specializes in finding jobs for the desperately impoverished.
“Many times ministers are content to just deliver the word of God in a house of worship to those who are members of their congregation. Luther is not content with that,” says Ventura City Councilmember Neal Andrews, who met McCurtis only last year but heard about him for many years prior. “He extends himself into the community, and I have to say, he does so taking the word of God with him. You don’t get to deal with Luther without dealing with God. But his sense of God is very practical.”
Hearing the call
Truth be told, growing up, McCurtis probably never imagined he would become a preacher or a humanitarian. Born in the small cotton town of Stonewall, Miss., where from the age of 5 he was raised by friends after his mother passed away, the thought of religion as a career choice didn’t cross his mind until he was in his early 20s and living in Peoria, Ill. On a whim, he and a friend attended an all-night prayer session, then went to a church service the following morning. “When the service was over,” McCurtis says, “the pastor and I were walking down the aisle, and he said to me, ‘Young man, I perceive that God is calling you to be a minister.’ I said, ‘Calling me? I go and be in a religious service one night, and now he’s telling me that I’m a minister? This is too much.’ ”
Stunned by the very notion of becoming a preacher, McCurtis joined the United States Air Force at the height of the Korean War, just to escape the idea. Overseas, he acted in a deliberately unholy manner, trying to put more distance between himself and the church. “Then all of a sudden I said to myself, ‘God, are you trying to tell me something?’ ”
One evening, while stationed in Roswell, N.M., McCurtis decided to hit the clubs. He hitched a ride into town with a pair of twins in a brown Cadillac. As he got out of the car, they invited him to attend a Bible study. Although it went against everything he had tried to avoid since his conversation with that preacher in Illinois, he felt compelled to go with them. That night, McCurtis finally relented, and surrendered to his divine calling. But he told the Lord know right away that it was going to be “a different ballgame” with him.
“We don’t want to see religion as just a place where people meet on Sunday and somebody gives a sermon,” he says. “The whole concept of religion is we come in to worship God, but when we go out of the church, we go out into the community, and among our neighbors and the downtrodden or whatever it might be, we go out there to serve.”
Faith on the Avenue
McCurtis was ordained in 1955, the same year he left the Air Force and married his wife, a pastor’s daughter. They moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., where, while honing his sermonizing at a local church, McCurtis also collaborated with the mayor and city council on efforts to improve the living conditions of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
In 1962, McCurtis and his growing family came to Ventura. He had been warned the city was “a graveyard, a no-man’sland for black Pentecostal preachers,” but McCurtis saw it as an opportunity. He searched for a facility to serve not only as a ministry but as his home and office as well. “My concept was, if I was going to be able to help the poor and not just be talking from the mouth, I would have to live and work and preach in the same building.” Eventually, he found a dilapidated two-story building on Ventura Avenue that he could afford to renovate. He built a church downstairs and a place upstairs for his wife and five children, and in 1967, the Total Life Christian Center began its outreach efforts.
Not long after finishing construction, McCurtis began reading newspaper articles about a wave of malnutrition sweeping through the south. That’s when a voice started nagging him. “The voice said to me, ‘I want you to go to Mississippi and feed the children,’ ” McCurtis says. “I said, ‘Not again. I just got through scuffling putting this place together.’ I used to be a pretty arrogant, controversial person. I said, ‘All these rich churches around here got money and got people, and you’re bothering me again?’ ”
The response he said he got from God was, “ ‘This is not about you necessarily. It’s about you feeding the people. Martin Luther King, I made a choice of him doing what he’s doing, and I made a choice of you to do this.’ So I didn’t say anymore.” McCurtis wrote up a press release and brought it to the Star-Free Press. Within two days, donations of clothes and food had piled up inside his church. He filled the bed of his friend’s pickup and left for the Delta. There, McCurtis quickly learned that the demand far exceeded his supply.
“When I gave out the last rag, there was a little black lady looking through the door, saying, ‘Sir, is there any more clothes or food for me?’ I said, ‘No, we’ve given out the last rag.’ She looked and said, ‘This is always done to me.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about because I had never seen her before, but it left an impression on me. So I said, ‘This can’t be one trip. I’ve got to go back and load up again.’ ”
McCurtis spent the next year traveling between California and Mississippi. During those long hours on the road, he began to wonder if there wasn’t a better, more lasting way to help the underprivileged. “The whole year I was doing that, I was praying and meditating and wanting to know from God, ‘God, food and clothes are just a Band-Aid. What is the real cure for poverty?’ And it came back to me, the voice that I got, saying, ‘The real cure for poverty is a job and a paycheck.’ ”
Returning to Ventura, McCurtis created the Employment Aptitude Placement Association. He wanted to assist the neediest members of society — without using any government money. “I began to travel throughout the county, telling people that I wanted to help people get jobs, and that I wanted to do it for free. They said, ‘You can’t run a business for free.’ I said, ‘If America really wants to see the poor get out the door and into the workroom, they will be willing to make donations to what I’m doing.’ ”
McCurtis found a major company in Westlake that promised to contribute to EAPA if he could find them workers with “dexterity in their fingers.” More businesses followed. From there, McCurtis gained a reputation not only as one of the county’s most successful social servants, but as a remarkably tenacious fundraiser. His aggressiveness has paid off: In 1984, EAPA earned an award of recognition from President Reagan and, after an article about the organization ran in Reader’s Digest, McCurtis received calls from people in Japan and Russia hoping to set up their own employment placement centers based on the EAPA model.
Give the people jobs
At a young age, Walter “Jojo” Brunson was blindsided by life. He is 26 years old, a widowed father of two, unemployed and homeless. He is deeply in debt and has a misdemeanor on his criminal record. It wasn’t always like this. Three years ago, Brunson was married, living in Bakersfield and working for FedEx. Then his wife was killed by a stray bullet while visiting her family in Los Angeles. Everything spiraled downward from there. He had his driver’s license suspended for failing to pay an insurance ticket. Without transportation to get him to the other side of town for work, he lost his job. His Medi-Cal has been cut off, and his son, Tre’veon, 5, is now two months behind in school because his father can’t afford to get his immunization shots. Brunson receives social security payments for his wife’s death, but those are on the verge of running out.
As much as he has struggled, though, Brunson knows it could be worse. “A lot worse,” he says.
Brunson is just one of the hundreds of people McCurtis has helped during his 40 years of work. McCurtis wears several hats: reverend, employment specialist, orthopedic pillow manufacturer. But the one he sports in his relationship with Brunson is that of “coach.” In 2006, when Brunson returned to Ventura (where he grew up), he immediately went to the Total Life Christian Center where Brunson attended services as a child. McCurtis took Brunson in and is slowly clearing each bureaucratic hurdle he must pass in order to get him back to some measure of stability. Because of his spotty financial history, Brunson has proven to be an especially difficult case. But McCurtis has always enjoyed a good challenge.
“Everybody who put their hand on Jojo, they said, ‘There’s no hope,’” McCurtis says. “They just wrote Jojo off, just like that. I sat on that pulpit and I preached to Jojo. I said, ‘Y’all go ahead writing him off, I’m not gonna write him off.’”
The future of a legend
As he gets older, the pressure to keep EAPA afloat on a shoestring budget has grown more difficult to bear. So last October, McCurtis began formally grooming his second oldest son, Michael, to succeed him. Tall and lean, without the southern twang that dots his father’s speech, he doesn’t resemble the reverend much physically, but he did inherit several of his traits, including the ability to balance the spiritual with the civic. His goal for 2007 is to modernize EAPA by instituting a multimedia promotional campaign and to produce new revenue streams by founding smaller side-businesses that will not only generate income but provide more local job opportunities (Luther’s upstart pillow company, Me & My Pillow, is part of this strategy.) Michael knows he is stepping into a role that has been planted in the community for four decades — but, just like his father, he’s up to the challenge of filling them.
“The shadow of a legend looms large over anyone related to them, especially those in a lineage for succession,” he says. “It’s a blessing and a burden. Imagine being a Bush or a Kennedy or a King. On a smaller scale, that’s what it means to be a McCurtis. My father has a strong presence, and you’re judged accordingly.”
Make no mistake, though: Luther McCurtis is not retired. How can he? After all, Jojo still needs a job.
“When my children get upset with me, they say, ‘Your big problem is you’re always for the underdog,’ ” he says. “I think somebody has to be for the underdog, because whenever I tell my testimony, I say if it weren’t for the grace of God, I could be sleeping under a bridge. I had no mother or father since I was 5 years old, but I remember, somehow or another, someone always gave me a hand. I don’t know whether I feel like every hand I’ve given is a payback or not. I don’t know. But I’m a fella who believes in the story of the Good Samaritan.”