John Alessi came to Florida in 1953 on the Silver Meteor train, to find his younger brother Paul, who had run away from their Brooklyn home when he was 14.
He later accepted the Lord and stayed here to find and rescue other lost souls. His parents later followed, and the family decided to make the Miami area their home.
Ten years later, he and his wife Pastor Ann, would found Grace Church of Kendall, a groundbreaking church in the sprawling Dadeland area.
John Alessi, now 78, says the time has come to turn over the lead pastorship of the pioneer church to his son, Steve. John Alessi, with his wife Ann, 75, as co-pastor, led the church for more than 50 years.
He said he’s not worried about Pastor Steve carrying on the Gospel and the work of the church. Pastor Steve has a good track record. He is the successful pastor of Metro Life Church in Doral, which he founded more than a decade ago.
Although John Alessi and his brothers Paul and Dan — who are also preachers — grew up attending Assembly of God churches in Brooklyn, John says he was 21 when he actually accepted the Lord and went into the ministry. At the time, he was a member of Evangel Temple Assemblies of God Church. It was there that he met Ann, who sang in the church choir.
“Later, I felt the call of God to work with Full Gospel Tabernacle, where I stayed for a year. And in 1957, Ann and I got married, and entered Southeastern University in Lakeland.”
After graduation, Alessi pastored for a year in Tampa. “Then,” he said, “God called me back to Miami.” In 1963, he founded Grace Church. The first service was held at the South Miami Chamber of Commerce.
“I always knew I would have a ministry in Miami,” John Alessi said. “God had placed it on my heart. We started with 35 members. It grew to 2,500, with three services on Sunday.”
At one time, Grace Church was one of the largest in South Florida. But the times changed. People’s idea of having to physically attend church changed – largely because of television evangelists. And Grace Church’s congregation started to dwindle. Today, there are fewer than 500 members on the church rolls.
Recently the Alessis sat in his study at Grace Church and talked about the early days of the church when people came “from all over” to attend the worship services and other Christian events sponsored by the church. It pains them to see how much the attendance has fallen away in the past two decades. “In the early days people were entrenched in the church. Now there are so many distractions.”
Still, he said, while some are moving further and further away from the church, there is another generation of people who have brought their children up in the church and encourage their regular attendance. “Some people just don’t seem to want to commit. … Some people are absent from the church completely.”
As he speaks, a smile comes to his face. John Alessi is remembering the days when the church would be packed with people attending concerts performed by contemporary Christian artists like “Truth” and by preachers like Benny Hinn, Bob Shumbach and Paul and Jan Crouch (founders of TBN, the Christian television network).
“This is a historical church,” he said proudly. “We once had a television ministry and Christian artists like Carmen [the pianist] came through our doors. This church has reached out to everyone, regardless of race. Color never mattered to us. We always tried to bridge the gap. We were like the United Nations, and was one of the first churches in the area to embrace all people regardless of their color. We were multi-ethnic before we knew it.”
Grace Church is a pioneer in another way, too. It is one of the first churches in Miami where husband and wife shared the pastoral duties of the church as co-pastors. “I always called myself his helping hand,” Pastor Ann Alessi said. “Today, they call us co-pastors.”
Indeed, Ann Alessi was her husband’s “helping hand.” In the early days while being mother to their four children, she used her musical talent to serve as church organist and soloist, while also teaching an adult Sunday school class. “The talents God gave John and the love of people He gave me really meshed,” she said.
“They were a real good combination,” said their son, Steve. “And the congregation was really a nice mix. Grace was the right name for the church. And right now, we are seeing a generational mix as well. We have gone full circle. People are seeing their children and grandchildren pick up the torch.”
So how does a pastor retire? It’s rather easy for John Alessi. He is just stepping down from being a pastor, not from preaching.
“I’m simply stepping back from the role of pastor,” he said. “At the Oct. 13 service, our last Sunday as pastors of Grace, we called the worship service ‘Passing on the Dream.’ We knew that it was time to let someone else carry on the dream.
Pastor Steve Alessi will be the lead pastor of Grace Church and Metro Life. This means he will lead a 9 a.m. service at Metro Life in Doral and “jump in the car and drive to Grace in Dadeland for a 10 a.m. service; then back at Metro Life for the 11 a.m. service.”
Like his father, Pastor Steve believes the work of the Lord is a family affair. His son Christopher, 21, serves as the Youth Pastor at Metro Life. His nephew Daniel Rivera also is on the ministerial team at Metro Life.
“Steve is a wonderful coordinator. … He has staff meetings and trained leaders. He will make it work,” said his dad.
“But I don’t know if I will make it to 50 years,” Pastor Steve said with a laugh.