August 2015, Cover Story

Sylvia Weatherspoon: Behind the Scenes

by Beth Townsend

Attachment-1“You have to be your best you. Be the person God created you to be,” words spoken by Sylvia Weatherspoon, a woman who spent her life chasing after God’s heart.

What you see is not always what you get when it comes to television personalities. Most are intricately trained to win audiences and influence others. They develop a persona and sometimes off-the-air you meet someone that, based on the persona, isn’t what you expected. But Weatherspoon, an award-winning journalist and popular local television anchor, is someone with such natural talent that what you see is in-fact what you get.

While her education and journalistic credentials are solid, and her experiences vast, it’s the warm smile and notable authenticity that makes her a favorite year after year. As a news anchor for WBRZ Channel 2, tens of thousands in the Baton Rouge area depend on her to keep them informed and decipher world happenings. Her insightfulness and discernment helps determine the stories that become our headlines.

“I started WTKL radio as a disc jockey but wanted to be a news person. I used to listen to Don Grady on WJBO and thought, ‘Oh my goodness that is what I want to do!’ So I would rewrite some of his news stories and post them around and practice reading the news!” she laughed.

DSC_0154Sylvia makes a very difficult job look easy through her gift for communication, and draws viewers in daily with a style that has developed a loyal audience. She is a determined woman who has overcome hardship and worked diligently to refine her skills with the goal of setting herself apart as a professional, as well as a woman of God.

Born in Clarksdale, Miss., she was adopted at birth by her great aunt Alene Sparks. Sylvia moved with her family to Baton Rouge when she was a young girl. “I knew my father but didn’t know my biological mom,” she said. Her aunt had previously birthed a stillborn baby and wanted a child badly. “My father nor mother could take care of me, so I came to live with my great aunt. She was the only mom I knew, until later.”

Over the years Sylvia had noticed the word “guardian” on school records and birth certificates near the name Alene Sparks, but when she would ask about it, the response was consistent, “It must be some mistake.” It was passed off as no big deal.

IMG_0822It wasn’t until the day she graduated high school she was told the rest of the story. “It was a conversation I overheard. My grandmother had come for my graduation from McKinley High. I heard her saying to Lene (Alene), ‘When are you going to tell her?’ “Her response was that she was not going to tell me because ‘she may hate me.’”

Finally, Sylvia asked, “‘What are you talking about?’ I’d sensed it, you know how kids can be, my mom was always the oldest. They would ask, ‘Why is your mom so old?’” she said laughing. “I had all the reasons; she works hard, she had me late.”

A graduation day is emotional for obvious reasons. But for Sylvia, the emotion was compounded by the reality of the conversation when she discovered that her biological mom had given her up to be raised by her aunt.

“I don’t know where she is, but I have a sister,” she explained that Lene wanted the sister as well, but someone else adopted her. “I also have a biological brother. My biological mom kept him. I’ve had an opportunity to speak with him, but we haven’t met yet but hope to at some point.”

Thinking back, she said definitively, “My mom raised me and that is the only mom I’ve ever known. She was divorced and she raised me as a single mom. I grew up on Maryland Street in South Baton Rouge,” she said. “This little village was full women, mostly widowed or single. Those little ladies…if your momma didn’t spank you one of them would!” She recalled the powerful way those women went about caring for their homes and families.

IMG_0823“Most did domestic work. They used their talents and gifts. There was a hairdresser across the street. One lady sold pecan candy and baked goods. There was a seamstress. My mother would bake, be a housekeeper by day and she also babysat. Each one made the extra money they needed to stay home. That was huge! I know inside of me somewhere there is an entrepreneur waiting to be born,” she laughed as she recalled the fond memories of childhood.

Growing up near LSU, Sylvia would walk to campus to work on high school projects. “We just walked back and forth to the library. We also liked hanging with all the big kids,” she said grinning.

As a graduate of the LSU School of Journalism, Sylvia worked her way through college, determined to pave the way for a career by gaining a solid education close to home.

Her faith has always been important to her, instilled in her heart since she was a child.

“I feel like I’ve always been a Christian. My mother was…you couldn’t be in that house and not love the Lord. Later, I came to where I understood who God was; that took a while for me to learn to trust who He was in my life. She was ambitious from a young age, perhaps inspired in that little village in South Baton Rouge.

IMG_0827“I had my little cassette player and I’d go cover things. If I heard Don Grady say something was going on, or I read something in the paper, I’d go cover it and get interviews with people. While still a DJ they covered Sheridan Broadcasting Network. Somehow I convinced them to drop that and let me do a little local news cast, and they did!”

She recalled pivotal moments when God used others to help shape her life that led towards His purpose. “On Sundays I’d babysit the morning programs. Many pastors would bring in their sermons. I’d tell them, ‘I’m going to be in news one day.’ They would pray over me! That was the first seed planted. I’d share my vision with those pastors never really knowing that would happen,” her gratitude was apparent.

She had looked up to Don Grady as a mentor and one day received a call from him. “‘Hey, come work with me!’ Before we hung up I said, ‘I’m in!’” Sylvia’s excitement about that event years ago is still visible. “I came up with this full proposal, wrote it down on big pages and posted it up with Scotch tape. I said, ‘Here are some ideas I have for doing the news.’ They said, ‘OK’ and that is how it started.”

After working in radio with Grady, she eventually got into television. “I always knew that I loved Christ, but didn’t go to work thinking, ‘Today I’m going to share my faith.’ I just try to live my life. Yet God did this thing since working at Channel 2. I received a call asking me to consider doing the news on WQCK The Bridge. I didn’t think WBRZ would allow that, so I kept putting them off, afraid to ask.”

Darren Ryder was the GM of The Bridge at the time. He called me to ask if I’d talked with my supervisors at WBRZ to see if they would allow me to do the news for The Bridge. When I said no, he said, ‘Let me pray with you now!’ After we prayed he said, ‘Go talk to them right now and call me back in 20 minutes.’ My legs froze; I was so afraid. Somehow I got up out of my chair and went up front and talked to management.”

1385026_504843936287644_3666567405895673101_n-2Sylvia gestured with her hands expressively as she described that day. She continued, “He said ‘you want to do what?’ I was also told to talk to another person in upper management. I thought, ‘what?’ That is like calling the president and saying, ‘can I have a minute with you?’ I talked to one of them, but I didn’t dare mention any other names. However, both who were the decision-makers came into the room! As we discussed this option, they asked me ‘Are you going to be praying on this station?’ I said, ‘well, I don’t know! Maybe? If someone asked?’”

She continued, beaming. “The first one said yes, then the other said yes. After that, I didn’t hear anything else!” That defining moment would prove to be a stepping-stone further paving the way for the future God had planned for her.

“I walked back to my desk in total disbelief like ‘what is happening?’ The policy was clear, that was not typically allowed. I called Darren back and he said, ‘When do you want to start?’ I responded, ‘I haven’t even talked to you! Did you talk to them already?’ To this day I don’t know if he did or not. But that was a God thing. He must have known how scared I was to ask. I needed that push.”

Now reading the news for WBRZ, as well as The Bridge, she was enjoying the environment and experience, but it is was physically taxing.

“I had to be at work at 5 in the AM to write my news but loved it. Then an amazing thing happened. People started calling and asking for prayer! On air! The thing about praying is that I prayed short prayers, I hadn’t really prayed out loud much and I had some insecurity about it. I think God did that as a set up to get me past those fears, of praying for people.”

Then my thought was, “They (WBRZ) are so going to fire me!” she laughingly recalled. “But, they didn’t. I think God opened that door to show me who he was. He didn’t give me talents to just keep me in one little box. He did that to show me how He can use even those skills to glorify Him. That experience was amazing and grew me up quickly in Him. It was also great exposure for WBRZ because they would introduce me as WBRZ’s Sylvia Weatherspoon. It was a win for all of us. Yet the greater lesson is what God taught me about Him.”

Because of her talent and professional ease, it is apparent Sylvia is living the life God intended for her. She seeks His will for her daily to ensure that she stays on track. “He is bigger than us. We don’t have to force things. In my life when I get off track, things just don’t feel right. I’ve gotten off the path many times, then to be corrected by him. Others see that as success, I see it being on the right track.”

Recognizing when we get off track can be difficult, but Sylvia has learned a simple skill from pastor Larry Stockstill of Bethany Church. “He was recently talking about the Holy Spirit. You get that feeling when something isn’t quite right. Listen to it. Plus I have people in my life who really pray for me. They may say, “Are you sure?” If it feels weird and becomes a struggle, for me that is a sign.”

Sylvia delights in discussing her marriage and family. She met her husband Donald in high school and sang in choir with his sister Carolyn.

“I had a boyfriend at the time but Carolyn said, ‘I want you to meet my cousin.’ I went over to her house, the cousin wasn’t there, but Donald was home on break from Mississippi Valley College. He was nice, athletic…a baseball player,” she continued. “I said, ‘hi, got a boyfriend, not interested!’”

Later Donald got hurt, came home and was working at McDonald’s,” she said. “Often I went in and ordered the same thing, a small fry and orange soda. Donald saw me, and he would bring the order and ask if I remembered him. I said, ‘Hi, oh yes, got a boyfriend not interested.’ Same thing. Later my boyfriend was killed. Donald was so sweet. From there our relationship began to flow. Now if he were sitting here, he would say, “She loved me from the start! She just played hard to get!”

Donald and Sylvia married in 1986 and had a son two years later, Donald II. “He was a surprise, but I guess there are no surprises with God! Donald comes from a large family and wanted a lot of children but I didn’t. He had to convince me, as marriage and children were not on my list of things to do. My girlfriend and I had it all planned out; she was going to be a successful attorney, I was going to be a successful doctor, we were going to own property and travel. It was going to be amazing! Who needs a husband? Then Donald came along,” she beamed. A few years later she and Donald had a daughter they named Taylor.

Donald II, a LSU graduate, celebrates his 27th birthday this month. He is trusting God to get into dental school and is currently working at a dental office. Taylor turned 22 on Father’s Day and graduates from LSU on August 7th and plans to pursue medical school.

Being parents has been a joy for the couple. Now as young adults, the struggle is accepting that their children are growing up. She laughed as she talked about their next steps. “They are adults and don’t need us anymore and both want to go away to school!” Yet she believes in them and knows they are grounded. “They are prepared to go on their own, it’s just scary to me.”

IMG_0825Sylvia continually uses her platform to bring glory to God, “When I speak publicly, I just share my testimony. I thought I was going to be a pediatrician, but God had other plans. He didn’t give me my skills just for the sake of being a news anchor, though it’s something I love doing. I’ve been able to do what I love and glorify Him at the same time.”

She gives sound advice and encourages others to be certain they are following God’s plan for their life, “I just tell them to pray about it. Everyday I ask, ‘God is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”’

One thing that she has heard consistently over the years is the perception that the news is always bad. “Many say they don’t even watch. I went to school at a time where we were taught in journalism class, ‘if it bleeds it leads.’ And, yes, I’d get excited about that big story that was breaking. My response was always, ‘send me there live.’”

Sylvia was in a car accident about a year after 9/11. Though she suffered no major injuries, she was home for about a week and a half. “As I watched the one year anniversary I was considering how I would cover that story if it were me. I remember asking God, ‘where is the glory for what I do?’” she continued. “I am telling you just as I’m talking to you the Holy Spirit ministered to me and took me right back to journalism school. ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ God said to me in my heart, ‘He is to be the lead story of my life.’ That my purpose and my responsibility; to tell His story, not only that, that very thing about if ‘it bleeds it leads.’ He bled on the Cross for my sins! It was a wow moment and I got it.”

“Others may not understand that, but to me it made perfect sense. I’ve not questioned since then my purpose,” Sylvia explained. “It’s amazing to see the result and knowing that my steps are ordered by Him, that I’m walking on purpose in what I do. It is more than just showing up everyday and reading the news. His will for my life and his purpose is bigger than that.”

One of Sylvia’s hidden treasures is her creativity and willingness to step out of the box and be different. Full of ideas, she’s been able to set herself apart by stepping up to the plate and making innovative suggestions.

FullSizeRender-2“2 Make a Difference came about when I got promoted to the 6 and 10 anchor. Before I was the medical reporter for 5:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. news. My question was ‘what happens to health?’ My general manager said, ‘we would work that in.’ I said, ‘Well I have this idea!’” Starting with the name 2 Make a Difference, it would be all good-news stories. “We started in 2008. We are supposed to serve people; that is what love looks like to me. Last year, 2 Make a Difference won second place in the state of Louisiana Associated Press for story of the year. That was the Trevor Sims story.” Tears welled in her eyes.

“That little boy, oh my word. I think about Trevor almost everyday, I don’t know why, I just do. He impacted my life. I’ve never met a kid so wise, grown beyond his years to have the understanding that he was not to be here long. Then to have the community rally around him, he was amazing, optimistic. I went to see him in hospice before he died. He woke up, looked around and saw me sitting there. He waved, I waved back, and he looked so different. I said ‘how you doing buddy?’ He said, ‘I just want to thank you for telling my story.’ He went home that night to be with the Lord. Such a special relationship that God set up; we sang Jesus Loves Me together, it was so sweet.”

Circling back to the new segment, she continued. “I love 2 Make a Difference because we can share good news; my goal is that it encourages people,” she said. “Trevor said it best. ‘You can do anything; one little thing you do can make a difference. I’m dying, and I’m trying to raise food for others.’ One day I hope to do a project that is centered on serving others from a needs perspective. 2 Make a Difference is preparing me to do that. First it lets me see the need within the community. Plus, there are a lot of people that want to serve others.”

As she discussed how to bring our community together as a united body of believers, working together to have impact on our city, Sylvia’s response was refreshing.

IMG_0828“Part of the solution is our voices as Christians have to be louder, and I mean that in all respect. We sit on the sidelines too much. I don’t think you have to wear a banner saying, ‘I’m a Christian.’ But I do think you have to live your life out loud. Start speaking out more as Christians, not just complaining about how this happened or that happened. Show who Christ is in our lives, people need to see that. For some that is all they are going to see. They are not going to go to church and they may not open the Bible. We have to take every opportunity we can to show who Christ is to people who don’t know Him.”

“I believe God brings people in our lives who he wants us to share with. Pastor Larry used to call it ‘being a pastor of one.’ So if it’s just that one person that you get to minister to, we could see a difference.

Recently Sylvia has started using social media as part of her platform. “In Bible Study Fellowship we learned that we should use any opportunity to minister. I’d post news stories, then I started posting Scripture every day, The Good News Report. What has blown me away is that others message me with testimonies! A few weeks ago I received a message. ‘I see your Scripture today. The one you posted spoke to my heart. My wife and I are in the ER at Women’s Hospital and our baby is not due for 3 weeks. It’s coming now and we are scared.’ He asked me to pray for him. My husband came home for lunch and found me sobbing and I told him what had happened. We prayed right then for this man and his wife. They messaged back the baby was born and all was good. I get testimonies and prayer requests and I’m like, ‘what?’ That Scripture ministered to him!”

She admits it can be risky to invite God to use your life as He see’s fit. “I had a lady prophesy over me at an Encounter Retreat at church. I go to Bethany, but I also visit a church in Darrow called Word of Life,” she recalled. There a lady laid hands on Sylvia and told her that she would evangelize. In her mind, that meant preach. When she told the lady she didn’t understand, she responded. “Let God explain.” She continued. “I’m not called to preach. Yet that can mean social media, speaking to ladies’ groups. It means living my life. When I go off script and don’t know what to say, the Holy Spirit takes over. Once I was asked to speak at Chapel on the Campus and share my testimony. I was freaked out! It went great but when I was walking off stage, our leader asked me to do an altar call! OMG what? An altar call? I had never done that! But, I channeled pastor Larry,” she laughed aloud. “I’ll never forget that. It was amazing!”

She went on. “God has a sense of humor. If you ask God to use your life, he will take you out of your comfort zone to grow you up in him. You don’t know what he is capable of until you depend on him.

The beauty of who Christ is, the real church, is out there,” she said, pointing outside. “We fellowship at church to encourage each other. The real way to make a difference is to share your story. It’s not preaching, it’s sharing who you are, who God is through you. Those things we go through in life, God will bring someone into your life that is going through that same thing. You can share with them that God brought you through and He will bring them through too. People are looking for something good to believe in. It’s my belief that that is why so many are depressed, people try all that other junk and it’s all junk!”

“I can’t be anybody else because that person is taken. The best you, is who God has created you to be. I’m doing me, and to be the best me I have to stay on point of what God has for me.”

“Let the Holy Spirit guide you, that voice telling you to get back on track, you are okay if you listen.”