For American Idol contestants striving to succeed in the bright glare of Hollywood's spotlight, a California pastor is offering respite in the form of spiritual and financial aid.
Many contestants and their families who travel to Los Angeles to participate in the singing competition are approached by local pastor Leesa Bellesi, who, with her husband Denny, runs a ministry called Kingdom Assignments, which organizes volunteer efforts to help others in Orange County, Calif.
Bellesi, though not officially sanctioned by the show or affiliated with it, has extended the couple's devotion to volunteerism by offering temporary lodging, financial support, and church services to the contestants' families while they are in LA.
Bellesi, 57, calls her interaction with the contestants a "God story," and attributes the moments of coincidence and inspiration along her journey to a calling by God to help the budding singing stars while in the City of Angels.
"I was having one of those days, feeling very miserable, like my life was over a little bit, and I threw my hands up in the air, stood up in my living room, and said, 'Here I am Lord, send me,' Bellesi said, recalling the day in 2006 when she decided to minister to Idol contestants. "I had this little thought, and the backstage of American Idol ran through my mind."
The couple, who founded a Christian community church where Denny Bellesi served as pastor beginning in the 1980s, recently left their official roles within the church to work on their own ministry.
In 2006, during Idol's fifth season, Bellesi decided to begin praying for a contestant named Katharine McPhee, but she had no idea why.
A few weeks later, Bellesi was approached by a family after her husband had preached a Sunday sermon, and asked to pray for their daughter who was a contestant on the show. The girl turned out to be McPhee.
"I turned around and Katharine McPhee was standing right in front of me," Bellesi said. "I didn't recognize her. I said, 'I've been praying for you and I Googled you.'"
Bellesi grew closer with McPhee's friends and family, and awoke one morning with an idea. "I had a silver bangle that said Jeremiah 29:11 that friends had given me for my birthday and I woke up this one morning and heard the Lord say, 'This isn't yours, you need to give this to Katherine today,'" Bellesi said.
Bellesi managed to win two tickets to the taping of the show that same night, and she was invited backstage by McPhee's boyfriend and managed to get the bracelet to her. Later in the season, McPhee referenced the Bible verses from Bellesi's bracelet when she ended up in the bottom two of the vote and host Ryan Seacrest asked her for her final thoughts. She said, "I know God has a plan for my life," Bellesi recalled her saying.
Since then, Bellesi has reached out to dozens of contestants throughout each season of Idol, offering them white rubber bracelets with the Jeremiah verses on them. She also offers help to their families.
Charity Vance, who competed on the show in 2010, said she met Bellesi through friends of friends.
"My family needed a place to stay during Hollywood week, so I got her number through people and talked to her on the phone, and when I got out there she came out and supported me and we became very close," said Vance, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and is pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter. "We're still very close. Every time I go out to California I stay with her."
Vance said that the Bellesi's hospitality and warmth was a godsend during her stay in California. Bellesi took the young contestant around to show off her favorite spots in Los Angeles, and allowed Vance's family to stay at their home throughout the competition.
"It was vital for me," Vance said. "I was 16 years old and I was very in shock and trying not to get too immersed in the drama and everything. She helps you center in and remember what you need to be focusing on, and loving people, which she's so great at, and taking in the moments."
Bellesi and the Vances have remained close, with Bellesi helping set up shows for Vance to perform while traveling on the West Coast. Bellesi has even flown to Nashville to see Vance perform, Vance said.
For Bellesi, the opportunity to provide emotional and financial support to the contestants has become her life's work through her personal ministry.
The Bellesis invite contestants' families to stay at their home, and they take families out for meals and help with gas money and airfare.
Bellesi said she and her husband spend their own money on the groceries, meals, and gas; and occasionally, friends volunteer to help specific contestants that they've been inspired by, Bellesi said.
Such financial support can mean the difference between family members viewing their loved one's performances live or on TV from a thousand miles away.
"When you have so many family members in a family, and if you make it into top 24, it's a year-long thing," Bellesi said, of the American Idol contestant experience. "So a lot of those kids fly back and forth to their original audition place three or four times, to get before the judges, and it's expensive."
To show their gratitude for her help, many contestants have stopped by church services to sing.
"It's not like these kids had to be of any faith at all, it's just kind of the way it's fallen," she said. "I told the lord, I don't need to do this but if you want this, if this thing is going to bear fruit I will."
This season, the Bellesis have thrown their support behind Colton Dixon, a contestant who they came to know through his previous attempts to get on the show. Dixon is outspoken about his Christian beliefs and has written and sung worship songs for nearby churches, Bellesi said.
"He loves God. The very first thing out of his mouth was 'I'm a Jesus freak,' she said. "He is authentic, and my husband says authenticity will always have an audience. Colton is the Tim Tebow of American Idol, the kid that doesn't back down from his faith."
Bellesi said that for each season since 2005, she has had a conversation with God before the contestants arrive in Los Angeles, asking him whether he wants her to once again minister to the Idol contestants.
For 15 straight seasons, she's found the answer to be a resounding "yes."
THE KINGDOM ASSIGNMENT: What Will You Do with the Talents God Has Given You?
Denny Bellesi, Author, Leesa Bellesi, Joint Author . Zondervan $12.99 (112p) ISBN 978-0-310-24323-6
Late last year, Rev. Denny Bellesi preached an ordinary stewardship sermon to his congregation at the Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, Calif. But he followed the sermon with an extraordinary call to action: he handed 100 members of the congregation $100 each. Bellesi told these volunteers that the money was not theirs, but God's, and that they needed to "invest" it in some way that would build God's kingdom. In February, the volunteers reported back to a standing-room-only church (and, via a Dateline NBC segment, to millions of viewers), describing how the money had been spent to transform lives, build churches, feed the hungry and comfort the sick. More than anything, this book hammers home the message that the volunteers saw their $100 bills being multiplied into thousands as total strangers offered more money to help them undertake their charity projects. As in the film Pay It Forward (which is what gave Bellesi the idea in the first place), one good turn generated another and another. The book, a collaboration with his wife, Leesa, is not elegantly written, but then it doesn't need to be; the story itself is front and center here. These invigorating real-life stories offer excellent examples of Christian faith in action, as church members were forced to leave their comfort zones and search for ways to bless others in the community. Readers will be inspired to go and do likewise. (Nov.)
Forecast:During the summer, the Bellesis' inspirational story was featured in People, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, so the prepublication buzz for this CBA title is already significant. Dateline NBC has committed to following the story further.
Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 11/01/2001