PUBLISHED Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

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A Sliver Of Faith 0

      Willy Perez stands at the ready. His feet nimbly shift from left to right. The frame of his body twists from front to back. And his knees lean down or spring up systematically. All the while, his eyes linger over the huge metal contraption before him.
      An oven's front doors shwoomp open and unveil five pizzas browning inside. A burst of heat floods Willy's face. His eyes slightly squint as he quietly mouths, “Not quite done.” He, then, slides to his right and opens another set of oven doors and sees the perfect tint of brown upon the spread of mozzarella, mushrooms, and fresh goat cheese.
      “The goat cheese is French,” he clarifies as he pulls out the scalding pan. Armed with two thick oven gloves and a metal pizza paddle, he slides the whole pie onto a cutting board.
      Five milliseconds after he places the pizza down, a guy hustles to wheel a pizza cutter from one side of the golden crust to the other. Willy has already shifted back to his baking vessels. He has five gas burning ovens to work with, and each can bake five pizzas at a time. Anywhere from two to 30 pizzas are on his watch. He eyes the oven doors carefully and takes mental notes of the stages that each pizza sits at. Then, he flicks his head back to the front door of the restaurant.
      “So as the line goes out, I start feeding [the oven] more. It's just a guessing game,” he laughs. “We don’t know if everyone in line is going to get a slice, or a whole pizza. So I am just going to take a chance, and by faith, hopefully they sell.”
      And that is where time stops.
      When Willy mentions “faith”, everything in the room pauses. Even as the volume in the pizza joint booms from wall to wall, and the line to order gets longer, there is no panic to beat a clock or a desperate surge to catch up.

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longer, there is no panic to beat a clock or a desperate surge to catch up. When he says the word “faith”, a moment of being in the zone descends into the kitchen.
      Because, for Willy, faith doesn't only describe how he loads pizzas for his customers. It tells the story of how this restaurant was birthed.

***
      Willy's given name is Guillermo. He was born and raised in Berkeley, California and lived the life of a troublemaker common for that section of town. Berkeley sits across the bay from San Francisco and borders Oakland. As a sophomore at Berkeley High, Willy got into some trouble, but nothing the other kids didn’t do. His parents, however, disagreed.
      “I told my mom, ‘Hey I got a girlfriend,’ and she seemed real excited that I was dating,” Willy remembers. “And then I told my mom the name, and she said, ‘Over my dead body. It’s not happening.’ And as a rebellious son, when she said, ‘No,’ I said, ‘Yes.’ The more they kept saying, ‘No,’ the more I tried harder to be with [my girlfriend].”
      Since Willy refused to obey his parents, his mom hatched a plan to remove him from his surroundings. One day after school, she somberly intercepted Willy as he walked through the doors of the house. She explained that his grandmother had fallen ill, and a ticket to see her had already been purchased. Willy understood, and they left for Chavinda Michoacan, Mexico shortly thereafter.
      Willy and his parents landed but as they walked from the landing strip to the road, Willy's grandmother opened her arms to greet him. She stood up.

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The color of her face was rich in tone, and her smile shined brightly, too. In fact, no pain seemed to afflict her. When she went in for the hug, Willy's eyes opened in shock at this sight. He had just spent the last four hours flying down to see a sick grandmother, only to find her completely healthy. Willy looked at his parents as anger glazed over his eyes.
      “We got to town,” Willy remembers, “and my dad sat me down and said, ‘Look, we are really afraid of you getting this girl pregnant, and we are really afraid of you dating this girl. This is where you are going to do your life. This is where you are going to grow up.’”
      Despite the surprising circumstances, Willy had no choice but to just live. He found himself running around with the neighborhood teenagers, and they befriended Willy quickly. He did what they did. If they had to pick crops, Willy picked crops. If they wanted to ride bikes, Willy rode bikes.
      One friend—a kid named Julio*—constantly cruised around with Willy. Julio even took Willy down to the city plaza and taught him how to shine shoes. They frequently elbow-greased their way to a few bucks, and Willy liked the hustle of making quick money.
      Still, the little town moved along at a drastically different pace than the lively streets of Berkeley. His thoughts lingered back to the city that his girlfriend lived in.
      “My heart was always on how was I going to get back to the bay.”

***
      Two years later, at the age of 18, Willy moved back to California. The transition back came pretty easily. Even though he and his parents took almost two years to fully resolve the tension caused by the surprise move to Mexico, they eventually got back on good terms. He quickly reconnected with his high school girlfriend and married her the next year. He also signed up to work at a locally famous pizza place called “The Cheese Board Collective.”
      Willy simply lived to live. Not much purpose. Not much direction. And certainly no admitted faith in anything. He put his time and money toward his new wife, low-riders, and hanging out with friends. Lounging around in garages and working on cars defined much of his free time. People with faith in something more substantial were few and far between. The only person Willy could look to as an example of faith was his mom.
      But he never witnessed what faith looked like until one night in 1996, when Willy and a few of his friends drove to an Oakland taco stand on the corner of East 14th Street and 23rd Avenue.
      A tiny taqueria flooded the night air with the smell of fresh street tacos. After ordering the palm-sized tacos, the group casually meandered back to their cars to eat and hang out. As Willy leaned on the hood of his remodeled 1984 Monte Carlo, jokes flung back and forth amongst the group. Everything seemed good. Everything seemed calm. And then...
      Pop...pop, pop. Gunshots snapped from just ten feet away.
      Willy covered his head and hunched down next to the back tire of his car. The gun shots continued. Pop. Pop. Pop.
      Willy tried to figure out where the shots came from but only saw commotion. As people scurried wildly away from the scene, Willy saw three people on the ground, blood surrounding them. Just as he shifted to make a beeline for the driver’s side door, the warm metal gun tip dug into the back of his head. Willy raised his hands and slowly turned to see who had the gun.

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      “Jul...Julio...” Willy sputtered out.
      “Willy!” the gunman said back.
      The kid that showed Willy how to shine shoes in Mexico five years prior was now the guy with a gun to his head. Julio looked relieved, and the two exchanged a quick set of handshakes and greetings. Willy explained that he and his friends were just about to leave and didn't want any trouble. Julio told him to get his boys out of there because he still had “work” to do.
      “When I got home, I was still really scared because I realized I could have actually died,” Willy says. “When I ran into the house, it was like three in the morning. I found my mom in the window, and she was praying. I saw her looking out of the window, praying. And I thought, ‘Man, it has really been my mom’s prayers holding us down.’”
      Willy had yet to practice any faith of his own, but he saw his mom's faith. Something inside of her provoked midnight prayers for her son. He realized as he watched his mom pray through the window that she was the rock keeping the whole family together, and she did it through her faith. This moment, this realization, set Willy on his own epic path of slow but dramatic faith.

***
      The crisp January night in Berkeley sprouts fresh faces throughout the city. Droves of pedestrians pace along sidewalks en route to the night's food or festivities. Strolling is a common scene in Berkeley.
      The students from the University of California, Berkeley, or better known as Cal, look oddly happy. The new semester has just started, and no projects or papers are in sight.

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or papers are in sight.
      Young professionals saunter along the sidewalks in awe of how good life is. The re-emergence of a tech boom in the greater San Francisco area had been steadily looming over the past seven or so years and has now fully bloomed. New money floods the bank accounts of intuitive thinkers that know their way around a website and astutely survey social media to help pump their profiles. Some of these thinkers reside in Berkeley and dine at the latest spots in East Bay cuisine.
      Yet, the sidewalks also guide families that have lived here forever. New parents swing toddlers to-and-fro. Moms battle it out with their teenagers and the epidemic of dinner table texting. Older couples walk hand-in-hand and admire the gusto of youngsters opening new restaurants in their old little city.
      Berkeley houses all of these people. The über rich and curb-begging poor coexist in a pool littered with every walk of life.
      But there is one thing that every single person in Berkeley has in common: the need to eat good and eat local. This town loves a delicious bite.
      As Willy looks out from the oven staging area to a restaurant filled with Berkeley locals, all he can do is be grateful. The place is called Sliver Pizzeria, and the locals love eating here for the perfectly balanced flavor profile that comes from a commitment to using only fresh ingredients. And the tender sourdough crust lends itself to a perfect chomp of pizza.
      But more than anything, they love the community. And Willy does, too.
      “I don’t have a talent for cooking,” he admits. “I have a talent for people.”
      He constantly reminds people that pizza is actually just a platform. The pies bridge a gap for him to influence those in this community to be a vessel for change. Willy recently spoke at Cal’s Haas School of Business, and the talk did not cover how to make pizza.

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talk did not cover how to make pizza. Rather, he discussed his unique business plan.
      Sliver’s website lists the toppings of the day’s pizza, and the next column, titled “Abolitionism,” lists anti-human trafficking websites. Countless regional publications reviewed Sliver at its grand opening in January 2013, and they all mentioned the same thing: Sliver's part in the fight against human trafficking. Within a one mile radius of Sliver, 13 other pizza places are crafting good pizza. But this desire to financially support organizations in the fight to end modern day slavery defines Sliver.
      How did Willy connect pizza to human trafficking? From his faith, of course.

***
      In 2009, after working at The Cheese Board Collective for over 15 years, Willy couldn't shake the weight that had latched onto his conscience. Something constantly nagged at him, causing him to ponder life. As a 32-year-old, he looked back at his twenties with apathy. He certainly enjoyed his time with friends. And two beautiful daughters were born during that time. Working at a historically popular pizza place gave him an education in pizza-making few people can claim. Not to mention, the steady paycheck supported his family and kept his lifestyle afloat.
      But his twenties also experienced a complex and drawn out divorce from his wife. As much as they tried to work it out, Willy's relationship with the girl he married as a 19-year-old disintegrated over the years. Immaturity simply hindered the relationship beyond repair. They eventually divorced when Willy was 26 years old.
      A short time after the split, Willy started dating Alicia. Although he didn't know where the relationship would go, he quickly realized that she was a woman who encouraged him to grow, despite his flaws. They got married when Willy was 28 years old. He found that he could be honest and open with her, and with himself. This allowed Willy to explore that nagging feeling that he couldn’t shake off.
      And one day, he figured it out. He lacked faith.
      “I just told Alicia, ‘I am tired. I am tired of running. I am tired of being on the street with these guys...I’m just tired,’” Willy says. “‘I just feel like I just want to be able to go to a church, give myself to the Lord, and start from scratch.’”
      He knew what faith looked like because of his mom. But he needed his own. It was the only way to leave the old and start fresh.
      Cue Jesus.
      One Sunday morning, he and Alicia got into the car and drove to a nondenominational church 20 minutes south of his home. The entire time on the road, Willy knew he was ready to give everything over to God. Once inside the sanctuary, Willy got impatient. All he wanted the pastor to do was call people up to the front to accept Jesus. He wanted, and needed, it so badly that when the pastor actually asked people to go up, he stood up before the pastor even ended the sentence.
      This changed everything for Willy. Opening his heart to Jesus opened different compartments of his mind, shifting his perspective on the world. He started dreaming beyond the day-to-day routine. A vision for running his own companies replaced the glare of barely getting past monthly bills. Willy opened up to the idea of seeing the world through Jesus' lens.

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opened up to the idea of seeing the world through Jesus' lens.
      A few months after Willy and Alicia went up for the altar call, they had heard about a church in Emeryville, California, called Living Hope Christian Center (LHCC). The church was much closer to their home, so they decided to attend a Sunday service. One Sunday turned into two, which turned into several, which turned into LHCC becoming their family.
      “Ever since then, we have been a part of Living Hope,” Willy says. “And I have allowed Pastor Sunhee and Pastor Benjamin to speak into our lives and our family’s lives. And it has been the best thing that has ever happened to us.”
      At a church conference in 2012, Pastor Benjamin Robinson looked out into the group and challenged them to ask God about the hopes and dreams He had for their lives. Willy closed his eyes and gave God a moment to answer. God didn't need more than two seconds. Willy started to see himself owning and operating a new pizza spot. God gave Willy the business model and told him to give 10% of everything to fight human trafficking. That would be the foundation his company would be built on. The idea came quickly, as if it downloaded into him. All in one clean swoop, Willy knew his calling in life.
      “When he sat down and looked at his gifts, [Willy] said, ‘There’s only one thing there: I can make pizza,’” Pastor Benjamin says about Willy. “So, he asked himself, ‘How can I use this gift of pizza and do something about human trafficking?’ And all of a sudden, he gets this idea about starting a pizza restaurant and giving a percentage to fight human trafficking.”
      Willy never foresaw any of this happening. He didn't finish high school. He had a troubled past. And he had zero savings. Of course, concern flooded his everyday thoughts. The premise looked distantly farfetched to a few people, and Willy almost always heard fear and precaution over encouragement.

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people, and Willy almost always heard fear and precaution over encouragement.
      But then, he had coffee with Artemio and Dwight, two co-workers from Willy's 18 years at The Cheese Board Collective. They sat and listened to him spew out sentence after sentence of doubt. He wanted to bring them into the fold but was scared to have them join something that could possibly tank. They looked at him and said that they would be offended if he didn't ask them. They believed in the idea, and they believed in him. Strong Christians themselves, Artemio and Dwight reassured Willy that the money would be there. And with that, they joined as equal partners.
      An experienced team of pizza-makers gave Willy his first boost of confidence. Willy spent the next several months plotting and planning. He drove to restaurant auctions to gauge equipment prices, and he scoured every block of Berkeley for potential locations. He constantly sat at his kitchen table, penning ideas. From the logo to the projected yearly earnings, page after page of yellow notepads started filling up.
      But like all good ideas, Willy had to answer the soon-to-follow question: how can this good idea generate cash? And that is what Willy needed. Cash. This dilemma plagued Willy whenever he looked at his bank account. Stories of failed restaurants diluted his dream of opening up a pizza joint.
      Eventually, intense faith kicked in. Willy saw no other option available but to take these fears to God. Prayers ensued. He looked at where the Bible mentioned God's provision, and he listened to sermons about how God always follows through on His promises.
      “Most of my good prayers were in the car, alone, crying,” Willy admits. “It was more of, ‘I don’t know how You're going to do it, but I trust You to do it.’

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I got tired of my own ideas about how to get money running through my head. Sometimes, when you get tired of yourself, that is when God kicks in.”
      Willy literally lifted every qualm and query up to the Lord. Out of faith, he gave up on worrying. Out of faith, he let go of control. Out of faith, Willy sat back and watched God orchestrate the whole thing.
      The first step happened in May of 2012. A well known commercial real estate developer invited Willy to a meeting. With Artemio and Dwight alongside, Willy shared the vision for Sliver. In response, the developer shared his desire to see that vision become reality. He offered a $150,000 loan and told them to come into his office every Monday for the next six months as a way to help them through the process.
      Those next six months provided the steep learning curve that Willy and his partners needed to open up a restaurant. None of them had finished high school, and none of them had another business to their name. Yet, there they were, designing the decor, plotting the management scheme, establishing vendors, and hashing out tons of details. When all was said and done, they had only used a third of the loan that was offered. From the day that Sliver opened, it was packed. Within three months of opening, they had paid the loan off completely. And within another three months, the partners were actually able to take home a small paycheck. Something most restauranteurs would say takes three to five years.
      God opened a door for Willy and his partners, and they walked through that door, faith pushing them every step of the way. Despite the quick success of Sliver, Willy never pointed to his skill. Or his craft. Or his business acumen. He pointed to God as the reason for any success this restaurant has ever had.

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      “When you are called by God to do something, you just do it,” Willy says. “You don’t ask, you just do it.”

***
      A sign in front of Sliver boasts that between two and four in the afternoon, Cal students get a “sliver” of pizza and a salad for five bucks. “We always look out for the kids,” Willy laughs. The window on the other side has the mission statement about fighting against human trafficking. “We know how to make pizza, so that's what we can contribute to the abolishment of slavery,” Willy says. A chalkboard on one of Sliver’s walls shows a passage from the Bible. “Jesus has always been there for me, and I love Him for that,” Willy confesses.
      Willy acts as selflessly as anyone you will ever meet. Not because he tries hard to, or because he hopes to portray some “better person” persona. God made him a man that loves community. And Jesus refined his character to actually love that community the way He does. And when those two things are married, blessings tend to follow in abundance.
      And it helps that the pizza is really, really good.
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*The name of Willy's friend has been changed for this article.

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