The Rev. Dr. Sheila Houston has been interviewed on national television and on the stages of megachurches. Her expertise and courage have attracted the attention of politicians, journalists and scholars.
But Houston’s early life occurred far from the spotlight. She grew up in a family of 14.
“I barely knew my father as a child before he disappeared,” Houston said during a LIGHT + LIFE interview in which she recalled her father giving her a yellow pleather coat. “After that, I don’t remember my father being there as a child. However, throughout my adult life, I encountered him three times briefly before he died. I longed for my dad all throughout my childhood and teen years. ”
In a Superman-jumping contest with her siblings, she jumped the farthest, crashed through glass doors, and was taken to the hospital.
“I ended up messing up my eyesight, and wearing glasses, and not only did I end up wearing glasses, I had to wear thick glasses.” She was mocked and called “four eyes” until she eventually stopped wearing her glasses even though she couldn’t see well.
As a teenager, while walking home from school with friends, she felt something hit her head, and blood ran down her face. She later learned a shot from a BB gun was lodged in her head, and the doctor said the location of the shot nearly killed her.
“Throughout my life, I almost got killed 13 times, but God…” said Houston, who credited God with protecting her.
Her mother went to a Baptist church most Sundays, and she occasionally went along, but the visits were not helpful.
“Every time my siblings and I showed up, it seemed like the pastor never had a message,” she recalled. “When we came, he just talked about us, and so that was definitely not encouraging.”
Her mother would tell her as a teen not to get pregnant, and she would reply that if she got pregnant, she would marry the baby’s father.
She began dating an older teen, and he bought her a gray leather coat.
“After he bought the coat, then he wanted more,” she recalled. “I thought he was a nice guy. He wanted to be together, and so we ended up being together, and after that, we ended up getting married.”
She was only 16 years old as a pregnant bride in the courthouse, and she and the groom had an unusual wedding night.
“He went to his mother’s house, and I went back home to mine,” she said. “We did not move in with each other until one of my older sisters got us an apartment.”
Her husband, who was a couple of years older, eventually decided he wanted to quit his job, and he became violent.
“He began to talk about how we needed money, so that’s when he wanted me to start working the streets,” she said. “We didn’t call it human trafficking then, but that’s what it was.”
She began to work in the area of Seattle where men drove around to purchase sex.
“I never liked it, and I can remember that something on the inside of me just did not agree with this lifestyle,” said Houston, who added that like many other human trafficking victims, she told herself that she loved her husband who was selling her and that she was creating a better life for her family. “That’s what most victims of sex trafficking say.”
One night, a man picked her up, took her to his apartment, and raped her with a gun to her head. When she left the man’s home and told her husband, he gave her a butter knife and told her to go back to the streets.
“I walked the streets all night crying. I didn’t try to meet anyone,” she said. “I always called out to God.”
She wasn’t yet a Christian, but she appealed to God for help.
Her husband decided they would move to Phoenix with their son, and he promised a new life for them.
“We go to Phoenix. As soon as I get there, he puts me out of the car and says, ‘Go to work,’” she recalled.
A man picked her up, held a knife to her throat, and tried to rape her. Something more powerful than herself rose up on the inside, and she began to fight for her life through her words. The man let her go. He drove her back where he picked her up.
She eventually convinced her husband to let her and their son return to Seattle to avoid the Arizona heat.
“I went back to my mother’s house, and I never lived with him again,” she said. “But did my life get any easier? No, I went from one bad relationship to another.”
At age 25, her sisters convinced her to date a man whom they said was a good guy with money. He became “the most horrific man in my life story.” The Vietnam veteran tried to push her out of a moving vehicle and throw her out of a high-rise hotel room.
She moved into a domestic violence shelter but eventually “went back into that violent relationship, because I had nowhere else to go.” She tried to commit suicide by taking pills, but a voice — whom she now believes to be the Holy Spirit — immediately told her to drink coffee. She then told her abuser what she’d done, and he took her to the hospital up the street where the staff didn’t believe she’d taken the pills. He continued his abusive behavior.
She tried another shelter and then she — and the three children she now had — moved to Oklahoma with a woman she met at the shelter, but her abuser tracked her down and forced her and the children to return to Seattle. On the way back, however, he decided to leave her in the desert to die. After he left her, she cried out to God. She didn’t know God, but she cried out, and the man returned and picked her up.
In Seattle, she and her children escaped the man. A lawyer helped her obtain a restraining order to protect her from the man, who never bothered her again.
Finding Jesus and George
Friends and family members all around her began becoming Christians. While walking one Sunday, she saw the sun shining out of heaven on a church building that was down the street past another church building.
“It was seriously like Paul talked about,” she said. “I knew on the inside that I had to go to church. I ran home and I changed my clothes, and I told my kids, ‘I’ll be back.’”
She went into the church the sunlight had hit, and she realized, “All that time I have been calling out to God, it was Jesus that I needed, and I had no idea that in order for me to get to God, I needed Jesus. That day, I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and my life was changed. Since that day, I have never been the same.”
A few weeks after attending services at the small church, she was asked to help with the children’s ministry.
“It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. God began to teach me how to teach the children. That’s how I learned to study the Word of God,” she said. “I would just feast on His Word and take it back to the children’s ministry.”
Through a dream, she later sensed God leading her to another church, but she hadn’t heard of the new church’s name apart from the dream.
“I went to the phone book, and I began to look,” said Houston, who found the church and began attending. “That church that He sent me to was such a loving church. That’s where I found love.”
She also embraced teaching opportunities in the new church. In addition, she felt a call from God to begin cleaning the church building that was also home to a Christian school where her children started attending and she began working.
“One day, there was going to be a wedding, and God said, ‘Clean it,’ and I cleaned it for this wedding,’” she said. “I didn’t know when I was cleaning that church and that school, that was sowing a seed for my future.”
One day, she saw a young woman on a street near her home in Seattle’s High Point neighborhood.
“I went over and talked to the girl. I could tell she was being trafficked. I said, ‘If you ever need somebody, I live right over here,’” she said. “In less than a week, she knocked on my door probably at about 1 or 2 in the morning. I opened my door, and the Lord said, ‘Feed her and let her sleep.’ She woke up late that afternoon, and the Lord said, ‘Feed her and tell her about Me.’ I used my flannel board and shared how Jesus loved her and died for her. I led her to salvation, and then she showered and left.”
She eventually felt God leading her to a third church where she met George Houston, who is now her husband. Her previous church ultimately closed, and her then-church purchased and moved into her previous church’s building. George and Sheila asked permission to hold their wedding and reception there. She said they were the newly relocated church’s “first marriage in the church that God made me clean for a couple of years, so God is faithful.”
After her mother went home to be with the Lord, she decided to return to school and get her GED diploma because she had never finished high school. She didn’t plan on higher education, but she then heard a church testimony from one of George’s cousins who was the student body president at a local community college. After the cousin sat down, the pastor asked, “Who has fear of education?” Sheila stood up. The pastor prayed to break the stronghold off her, and she heard God telling her to go to college.
She attended the community college and earned an associate’s degree. Then she went to Seattle Pacific University and earned her bachelor’s degree in organizational behavior with a minor in communication. She then enrolled in Seattle University where she earned a master’s degree in executive nonprofit leadership, a pastoral leadership certificate and later a post-master’s certificate in transforming spirituality and a doctorate of ministry.
Houston was offered a job as a director of the Late Night Outreach program of New Horizons Ministries that works with victims of sex trafficking and young people experiencing homelessness. At a women’s retreat before coming to New Horizons, she had a dream of snatching women out of trafficking and helping them return home.
“Now before my second interview with New Horizons, I had another dream. I could see myself helping young women come off the streets from trafficking,” she said.
She accepted the job with New Horizons to help women escape sexual exploitation and human trafficking. She and her teams would stand on street corners every Friday and every other Saturday night and reach out to women.
God didn’t just place a burden on her heart for the women. She also thought about the men she encountered on the same streets.
“Would you think that God would not care about these young, broken men? Why are they out there doing this?” she asked. “The Lord put on my heart to start a ministry working with young men involved in pimping.”
As the mother of three sons, she said, she knew the men “didn’t need another woman hollering at them. They needed men.” Free Methodist Pastor Deryl Davis-Bell became the leader of a group of male volunteers reaching out to men who facilitated human trafficking on the streets.
George and Sheila started a church in Renton, Washington, and affiliated with the Free Methodist Church.
“We didn’t want to be a church out there by ourselves. We wanted to be a church that had accountability,” she said. “We wanted to be a church where we could go and get strengthened as we do the work. That’s why we became a part of the Free Methodist.”
Their church plant ultimately closed, and they became part of Living Hope Christian Fellowship (now the Renton campus of Timberlake Church, the nation’s largest Free Methodist congregation). Two and a half years ago, they moved to the Detroit area for George to become the lead pastor of Stone Haven Free Methodist Church in Troy, Michigan, and for Sheila to serve as associate pastor.
She became the interim pastor of the Detroit Free Methodist Church in November 2018 following the death of longtime Pastor William Mulwee, and she officially became the lead pastor in June 2019.
“One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that God has a plan and purpose for every person. It doesn’t matter your status in life, your income level or how educated you are. All that matters is your willingness to accept His call,” she said. “One of the biggest things I’ve been trying to instill in the people of the church in Detroit is that God has need of them and their importance to the body of Christ. Their gifts and talents are needed to bring deliverance, healing and love to the Detroit community and our world.”
Even though she’s now a Michigan resident, she returned to Washington state in January to receive an Anti-Trafficking Trailblazer Award from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. Durkan honored Houston as part of the Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and the city government credited her with “being directly involved with over 2,500 victims” and making “a difference in the sex trafficking world by leading outreach and victim support teams to work with survivors of trafficking.”
When she received the call asking her to receive the award, she decided to accept the award at Seattle City Hall as a testimony of a Christian living out her faith and also as the only African-American recipient. Visit fmchr.ch/shouston to learn more about the award.
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined LIGHT + LIFE in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media.4