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Preaching abundant living

The Rev. Della Reese Lett teaches lessons of material success and personal empowerment in her own church.

December 02, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Della Reese, who played a down-to-earth heavenly being on "Touched by an Angel" isn't acting as she stands in front of a congregation on Sundays in West Hollywood. She's preaching -- in her own church.

And her message has no mention of sin, no mention of good and evil and no endorsement of sacrifice if it means doing without. She talks about abundant living, not in the hereafter but in the here and now.

"There ain't nothin' up there. If you would read that Bible you would know. There is no Beulah land," she tells an amen-saying, hand-clapping congregation. "Jesus Christ said the only time is now. So whatever it is you want, need or desire or just like to have, you better try to get it now, 'cause this is the only time there is. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may be for us and it may not."

This is the Understanding Principles of Better Living Church, where the Rev. Della Reese Lett (the actress uses her married name in the church) preaches prosperity, and the "divinity of man" is celebrated. She calls the church Christian, but Jesus is described not as the Savior, but as the Way-Shower, pointing to unabashedly abundant living and material success.

Hers is a faith of entitlement and personal empowerment. Change your way of thinking, her churchgoers are told, and you'll change your life. She calls it "practical Christianity" and it stems, she says, from positive thinking.

"If you're not getting the things you want, need or desire it's because you have not accepted that you can have them," she tells her congregants. "Once you accept that ... this is your inheritance, and you act like that, you become acceptable to the Lord and he starts sending your stuff through." Her watchwords are "as within, so without."

Reese Lett's church belongs to a denomination started by the Rev. Johnnie Colemon of Chicago in 1974, the Universal Foundation for Better Living. Colemon's mega church on Chicago's Southside fits loosely into a broadly defined New Thought movement, which includes the Rev. Frederick Eikerenkoetter, the flamboyant New York "success and prosperity" preacher.

"His whole thing is racism dies out in the face of money. Money kills a lot of adversity," says James Stovall, director of the church's Ministry of Arts and Culture, about the 69-year-old Rev. Ike, who also believes there is no sin in enjoying life.

That's not to say church members don't believe in sacrifice and helping others. But, says Stovall, "If you don't pursue some level of success there's nothing to give. There's nothing to share if your pocket's empty."

Both Rev. Ike and Colemon teach that abundance comes with being in unity with all-abundant God, says J. Gordon Melton, head of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara. "There's a great emphasis on prosperity," he says.

For Reese Lett, who says she talks to God all day, being one with the Almighty is why she believes she is where she is. It's a far cry from her childhood in a Detroit slum and the Baptist faith of her mother.

As a 13-year-old, she sang with the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and then went on to become a gospel, blues and jazz artist in her own right. She went on to break the color barrier as a guest on "The Merv Griffin Show" and became the first woman to host a talk show with "Della." She's performed in Las Vegas and in films, and, as millions of viewers know, completed nine seasons as co-star of CBS' "Touched by an Angel."

During an interview in the luxury Bel-Air home she shares with her third husband, producer Franklin Lett, she recalls her childhood as Deloresse Patricia Early.

"Everything was a bill in our house," she says. "There was a grocery bill. Rent was a bill and the cleaning was a bill." Her father would take what money was left and gamble. "Sometimes he'd win and it'd be good times, and if he didn't win it wouldn't be such a good time."

She remembers her mother, Nellie, a Cherokee, sitting in "the ugliest green chair you've ever seen" talking to God. One time, Reese says, her mother was telling God she had everything she needed to make sandwiches but bread. Pretty soon, a neighbor knocked on the door and said she and her husband had each bought a loaf of bread and had more than they could use. She asked Nellie if she would please accept one.

"I thought really for a long time that she was a witch," Reese says, laughing. She came to learn differently. "My mother was a personal friend of God's. They had ongoing conversations," Reese, 72, says.

Three days later, at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, Reese Lett's church meets in the same rented banquet room it has used for the last three years. The congregation, which totals about 600, is in the midst of a fund-raising campaign to either build or buy their own building. So far, they've raised about $200,000. The church leases an office in Culver City and has two assistant ministers.

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