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Saturday, October 19, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Della Reese Is No Angel, But She's Real Reverend -- In Dual Roles Of Minister And Actress, She Has A Big Following

Religion News Service

On television each Sunday night, she's Tess, the senior seraph on the CBS series "Touched By an Angel" who advises apprentice-angel Monica on how to best deliver God's guidance to needy and unsuspecting people.

But on Sunday mornings, the singer-actress known in real life as the Rev. Della Reese Lett preaches to her own congregation about the practical challenge of letting God into their lives.

How does Lett - who's been married to producer Franklin Thomas Lett for more than 17 years - manage the challenging dual roles of actress and preacher?

"God," she declared before a recent service. "They're both ministries."

To the rousing greeting of "Good morning, Reverend Della" from about 175 people, she enters the hall of the Los Angeles area-Masonic temple that serves as the sanctuary for her growing congregation, Understanding Principles for Better Living. The church, part of a religious movement known as "New Thought," draws its teachings from Christianity, positive thinking, metaphysics and other influences.

A bit of show-biz glitter is inevitable in a congregation that meets just south of Hollywood - not only because of its celebrity pastor, but because of the people in the pews.

Choir with a disco beat

On this Sunday, the service opened with silent meditation, then burst into song - the 1979 disco classic "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" sung by a five-member choir, three of whom tour regularly as back-up singers for Smokey Robinson. The 65-year-old Lett, with a frosting of gray hair atop her long black locks, rocked in her seat to the music.

When Lett mentioned that Linda Gray, the actress who played Sue Ellen Ewing (J.R.'s wife) on "Dallas," recently celebrated her birthday, the congregation broke into Stevie Wonder's soulful version of "Happy Birthday," accompanied by the church's four-piece band.

Then Lett began to preach about finding God even in life's most difficult moments.

"We all have concerns about the people we care about, but for some reason, we find it hard to believe that there is a piece of God in everybody," she said.

Sometimes standing in front of the lectern, other times walking back and forth across the platform, Lett made her points.

People sometimes need to simply mind their own business so God can deal with the person they're worried about, she told the congregation.

"You have to stay out of the way and let the Christ inside the person you're concerned about work at his own speed," she said. "You don't have to be worried or anxious about somebody else's soul. Jesus saves."

Lett preached for nearly an hour, quoting liberally from the Bible and from her own experience. She recalled a 1979 aneurysm that changed her life and increased her faith in God.

"My brain exploding was one of the best things that happened to me," she declared. "That's why I'm doing this today. You get such an understanding because you experience it for yourself. It gives you courage and courage gives you strength and strength gives you greater belief in your belief in God."

Touched by angels

Although angels are discussed more on Lett's show than at her church, some of the people attending the service acknowledged that one way or another, they had been touched by an angel themselves.

Synthia Hardy, who has been a member of the congregation for the past five years, is convinced that an angel led her to Lett's church. Hardy described meeting a woman during a temporary job who told her about the church. The unknown woman was present at the first service she attended, Hardy said, but was never seen again.

Howard Ibach, a congregant who described himself as one of Lett's "gay following," wore an angel's pin on his lapel.

"The thing that Reverend Della in particular, but the church in general, offers is a real positive sense of a relationship between you and God," said Ibach, an advertising copywriter. "The whole thing about New Thought Christianity . . . is erasing all negativity in your life by taking a positive look at your life."

In an interview before the service, Lett said she, too, has been influenced by angels. She said her progression from the slums of her hometown of Detroit to show business and the ministry came only "by the grace of God."

"I have along the way not known what to do when frantic, stressed and duressed, and somebody that I did not necessarily know came into my life, stayed 15 minutes, straightened out the situation and split," she said.

Metaphysical Christianity

Lett's church espouses New Thought, a philosophy that dates to the 1800s and emphasizes the teachings of Jesus, practical principles of a liberal form of Christianity and an openness to metaphysics and other philosophical thought.

Lett said she learned much of her New Thought philosophy from the Rev. Johnnie Colemon, who established the Christ Universal Temple in Chicago in 1956.

"She was the first person that I had heard speak aloud what I believed inside," recalled Lett, a former Baptist who began singing in church at age 6.

Lett was ordained in the 1980s and held classes in her home for several years before establishing her own congregation in 1989.

"I love God," explained Lett. "I love Jesus. I love the truth. I love peace, joy and happiness, and my ministry gives me all that."

The Rev. Helen Carry, director of the Johnnie Colemon Institute in Chicago, a regular watcher of "Touched By an Angel," likes the message Lett sends from the altar and via the airwaves.

"She's getting across to people that a church may not be able to reach, a message about God and about God loving everybody," Carry said of the TV show.

Lett is pleased to work on a show with a spiritual theme, which people tell her is inspiring. She predicts it will continue for seven more years.

"We've tried everything," she said. "We've tried technology. We've tried drugs. We've tried medications. We've tried greed. We've tried guns. We've tried everything and it didn't work. And finally we are all as a human race coming to the understanding that there has to be something deeper than that," she said.

"That's what I think people come to the show and the ministry for."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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