One year later, pastor's lesson on doing good deeds has spread to thousands

Thursday, November 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALISO VIEJO, Calif. (AP) _ A pastor who handed out money to parishioners and urged them to ``go forth and do good in the name of God'' has seen his idea inspire thousands of acts of kindness across the country.

It began a year ago when Pastor Denny Bellesi gave $100 to each of 100 members of his Coast Hills Community Church in Orange County. The original $10,000 has since turned into at least $500,000 in gifts, volunteer work and donations.

The good deeds have come in many forms. One church member helped an immigrant family pay for the funerals of two daughters; another raised thousands of dollars to fund the construction of a women's shelter.

``I don't think we've begun to see the beginning of it,'' Bellesi said.

Dubbed ``The Kingdom Assignment,'' Bellesi chose people at random for the program during a sermon about the parable of the talents.

The parable is about recognizing that everyone has individual gifts, such as intelligence and compassion, and each has to be accountable for that gift before God.

Bellesi and his wife, Leesa, had talked about the idea for years. But they knew the time was right when they saw ``Pay It Forward,'' a movie about a child's efforts to change the world with good deeds.

One of the parishioners, Terry Zwick, was introduced by a friend to a struggling single mother named Lisa Panzica. Impressed with Panzica's dedication in raising three children, working and going to college, Zwick enlisted friends and businesses to match the pastor's $100. She collected $1,800 for the family.

A year later, their friendship has blossomed.

``Terry has become family, the family I've never had,'' Panzica said.

Teaming up with the women's ministry at the church, Zwick later helped raise more than $200,000 to open Hope's House, a shelter for women and children.

``God allowed this opportunity with Lisa Panzica to energize me to work on helping others,'' Zwick said.

Another parishioner, Michael Rodriguez, heard about a family too poor to pay for the funerals of two daughters who died nearly a year apart from a rare blood disease.

Moved by their story, he asked his employer to set up a contribution program and solicited money from friends. In the end, he parlayed his $100 into $10,000 for the family.

Bellesi's idea also caught the attention of Wendell Phillips, owner of Lockhart Phillips USA, a sport-bike accessories distributor in San Clemente, Calif. Phillips went to the church the day Bellesi called in parishioners to report how they had spent the money.

``I left thinking, 'Could I involve employees in a program like this?''' Phillips said.

The result was ``Pay Back Time,'' a corporate charity program aimed at helping the community. As part of the program, Phillips gave his 77 employees $100 each.

One employee used money to buy supplies to paint murals at shelters. Another helped a struggling family get on their feet.

The pastor's lesson has inspired similar programs at other churches, including one in nearby Yorba Linda and others in Alabama and Florida.

Earlier this month, Bellesi asked 1,000 of the more than 7,000 parishioners at his church to sell something worth at least $100 to raise $100,000 for the poor by Thanksgiving Day. Although it was unclear how much would be raised, Bellesi said at least one person intended to sell his guest house.

Since the original assignment last year, Bellesi has noticed subtle changes in himself and his congregation.

``People were always willing to give of themselves,'' he said. ``This just reminded them why.''