Prior to a few years back, it was a little-used, old-fashioned term with roots in 17th century England, describing royal officials responsible for keeping public highways in good repair.
But today “waymaker” is part of the contemporary church’s everyday language—it’s a widely recognized celebration of God’s love and ability to turn lives around, titling the anthemic popular worship song that declares him to be a “miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness.”
And it is also the heartbeat of media executive Louis Carr’s effort to help people aspire to and achieve more in their lives through a mix of self-reflection, self-discipline and self-sacrifice that quietly draws on biblical truths and values.
His multifaceted WayMaker initiative is the latest part of a lifelong effort to pay back some of what he owes to those people he acknowledges played a vital role in his becoming one of the best-known and most widely respected African Americans in the cable television industry.
From a podcast, online and (post-coronavirus) live events and books to a new quarterly magazine, Carr wants to encourage and equip others to stretch themselves so they can achieve more than they may imagine and impact others, just as he has.
Until recently—being named to a list of Top 100 Successful African Americans in the U.S. and the first profile of a 10-part ABC 7 Chicago series, Black & Powerful—he had largely flown beneath the radar. But while his name may not have been in lights, he had built an enviable behind-the-scenes reputation in his 30-plus years at BET Networks.
As President of Media Sales there, he has generated billions of dollars in ad revenues from businesses wanting to reach African American consumers—income that has helped make BET a major cultural force. And now he is taking on a more public role because he wants to better leverage what he has achieved to help others.
Carr’s executive office in Chicago is both a long way and not far from his childhood on the city’s tough West Side, where he was raised by a single mom who instilled in him respect for God and personal resolve. One of her reminders to her son: “The world doesn’t owe you anything, and whatever you get out of it, be grateful. Be appreciative, because life is going to do what life is going to do, and that’s why God sent Jesus.”
Mom’s preaching and a prod from a high school track coach who called Carr out for not striving to reach his full potential made an impact. He knuckled down and became the anchorman on the Lane Tech College Prep High School relay team that broke a high school national record for the indoor mile.
That triumph was followed by an injury that threatened to end his athletics career, but he bounced back and secured a scholarship to Drake University, which sent him on an unexpected media career path.
Only later did he learn that he had been given the free ride because of the unsolicited intervention of someone who had seen something in the young Carr and wanted to help. The man was just one of what Carr now calculates to be 19 “waymakers” who went out of their way to invest in him significantly along his journey.
Conscious of how he was blessed by others, Carr has worked to pay some of that indebtedness off for many years by offering a helping hand. He has supported charities, served as a mentor, spoken at schools and conferences, and created an internship scholarship to help African American students get too-frequently-limited media industry experience.
The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and racial turmoil of 2020 made him feel he needed to step things up. Without minimizing the considerable negatives of those times, he also saw something positive in all the difficulties. “It woke us up about everything,” he says. “It woke us up about our health. It woke us up about safety. It woke us up about our finances.”
Carr found the name for his heightened, more public initiative when tuning into online church one Sunday. The speaker was Tara Jenkins, the wife of a good friend, gospel musician and former pastor of Chicago’s famous Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, Charles Jenkins.
Asking a question Jeopardy-style, she pointed to Jesus as being a waymaker. “And it struck me as clear as day that that’s what it needed to be called,” Carr says of his effort. “When I thought about all the things I was doing… they all added up to that one thing, trying to be a waymaker for others.”
Carr’s initiative isn’t as overtly spiritual as the contemporary worship song, “Waymaker,” but belief is woven into its fabric. It peppers his social media posts, like the tweet, “Have faith in God’s plan for you—even amidst uncertainty.”
The first issue of WayMaker Journal featured a profile of Carr’s friend Jenkins, in which the singer talked about people’s need for a relationship with God. Another article was about Sam Collier, the first African American to be appointed senior pastor of a Hillsong church in the United States—in Atlanta—and his faith-based mission of racial reconciliation.
Carr’s faith is very boots-on-the-ground, not pie-in-the-sky. He believes that while God has given us skills and abilities and brings along opportunities to develop and exercise them, we have to do our part by showing up and making an effort.
“You have to realize you have a role to play, but there’s something else happening,” he says. “There’s wants, needs, desires, success tracks that clearly you want to happen, but for me it's to understand that’s your part. There is another part that is out of your control, or as I would say that is in your faith bucket that you have to be able to dip into.”
Steeped in the world of mainstream media, Carr is intentional about what you might call “dechurchifying” some of his life lessons, so that anyone can understand them. Hence the slightly edgy title of his 2016 book, Dirty Little Secrets, accompanied by Little Black Book: Daily Wisdom for Business & Personal Growth. Written in everyday language, they yet brim with biblical principles: strength of character, sacrifice, service, hope.
Faith is part of the air Carr has breathed as long as he can remember, taken to church by his grandmother as a small boy. Like many kids, he says, he didn’t really get much out of it at the time, but as he grew and matured he began to see something of “a journey and a pattern” to life.
Even when he left home for Drake, he continued to attend church, dragging along reluctant friends. Even on bad weather days: “It was almost like a sort of badge of honor, the more difficult you found it to get there.” Back home on visits, his mother’s house rules still applied. “That meant even if I came in at five in the morning, I still had to be up, going to church. There was no discussion. I may be there nodding because I’d had no sleep, but I would be there.”
Consciously or not, those experiences soaked in deep. As a result, he has been able to navigate a successful career in the often rough-and-tumble media world while quietly holding to his faith without making a big deal about it. How?
“I’ve heard this my whole life and continue to hear it,” he says, referencing the Bible. “If you won’t be ashamed of him in front of other people, he won’t be ashamed of you in front of his father.” For example, he says, simply saying grace before a meal in front of a group of people.
“You’ve just got to dive in,” he says. “You’ve got to make that statement, and over a period of time it just becomes who you are. It’s just what you do. As the kids say, you’ve got to speak your truth.”
In addition to sharing his little black book for his WayMaker effort, Carr has also opened up his contacts list, drawing on what amounts to a Who’s Who of Black Culture to support his cause. From educators and entertainers to business people and basketball greats, his friends and peers have been asked to share some of their experience and wisdom.
That is because the task is so great, he says. “It’s so much bigger than any one person,” he goes on. “We all have a responsibility, an obligation. None of us got where we are today all on our own. We all had people who played a part, who were waymakers of some kind, and we need to do and be the same for others.”
A strong sense of duty was instilled in Carr as a young boy. “I grew up in this family where, whatever we had, we had to share it with other people,” he recalls. His grandmother would bake cakes and tell him to take some down the street to a friend, though he wondered why they just couldn't keep them all for themselves. “It wasn’t a conversation; it was just what you did.”
That example continued as he got older. When he went off to college, his mother would send care packages with a note inside instructing him to be sure to share what was there with his friends. “And there would be a little note telling me she was going to check and make sure I did,” he remembers with a chuckle.
Not surprisingly, the example of his mother and grandmother instilled in Carr a deep sense of appreciation for women’s strength and sensitivity. “If I go into a restaurant and I see a whole bunch of business guys sitting together and there are no women in the group, it makes me wonder.”
Although Carr is especially keen to see more waymakers for young Black people and people of color, aware of the disparities and inequalities they face, WayMaker’s message of “grow your life and change the world” is aimed at everyone, regardless of their skin tone.
Part of Carr’s advice to would-be entrepreneurs is attention to detail, but not just in their product or service. Personal appearance is important too, he says—communicating respect for others and hinting that if you can take care of yourself, you can probably take care of business as well.
His “bring your best self” mantra can be traced back to his grandmother, a hairdresser who always made sure she was turned out and dressed well. And “she was treated with respect wherever she went,” Carr remembers.
So style is an essential element of the WayMaker “curriculum.” Past men’s conferences have included The Carr Lounge, where attendees could get haircuts and manicures, have their shoes shined, and get headshot photos taken and custom business cards made.
It’s not about presenting a false image so much as making a strong impression, he says—a distinction he’s keenly aware of from his many years in the media, and understanding how messages can be manipulated or misinterpreted.
For example, he cautions against buying into the idea that success is instant; all you need is some talent and a bit of luck. “I think people who have been successful will tell you it wasn’t instant,” he says. “It may appear that way, but if you listen to their back-story, they’ve been trying for a long time.”
He cites the example of a young contestant on a singing show, only 18, who wowed the judges. When they asked her how long she had been singing, she told them since she was four. “That’s 14 years,” Carr points out. “Singing in church, singing in city competitions, singing in the high school choir...
“It may appear that someone has been a success overnight, and on rare occasions I do believe that happens, but in most cases I think it’s actually over a long period of time. Some people just start early.”
Being a Carr-style waymaker means going out and looking for others to invest in, not sitting back and waiting for someone to come and ask for help: after all, they may presume you’re too busy. Carr has some advice for those willing to join his ranks: “Look for people who are coachable and who will continue the process—who’ll do it for somebody else.
“They’ve got to have that sort of spirit to make it bigger than just themselves, that creates this sort of pipeline. It’s about having the ability to make an impact beyond yourself and your family. Learn your lessons and share your lessons.”
But what distinguishes a waymaker from someone else who helps others—a mentor or a coach? “A waymaker makes a conscious, intentional decision,” Carr says. “A decision to inject knowledge, experience and resources into an individual’s life for positive change and direction.”
Carr has been encouraged by the positive reception to his efforts. “When you ask someone to go back and say who inserted themselves in your life in a way that created dramatic, positive change, you can see the emotion swell up in people—whether they’re talking about the sacrifices their parents made, or teachers or neighbors or employers... you can hear it in their voices.”
This article was extracted from Issue 2 of Inspire Magazine (Summer 2021). Learn how to get your copy of Inspire Magazine.