A breath of (real) life

Tom Iannucci is the former Marine, New York kid, Italian tough guy,  karate instructor, straight shooter, biblical scholar and quite a bit of a joker.

D’Lissa Iannucci is the former model, Kauai native from a local ranching family, TV personality in Japan, equestrian, musician and someone who gives out dazzling smiles and big hugs.

Together, the Eleele couple — married 26 years with three children — guide  Breath of Life church Christian Ministries, in Lihue. Breath of Life is a Calvary Chapel of Kauai. Tom is the senior pastor and D’Lissa is the worship leader director.

On any given Sunday morning, there might be 100 or so people in the seats of the Bible-based church. There’s 20-30 minutes of singing worship music, a few minutes to say hello, announcements, and then, the sermon. Tom tends to speak for 45 minutes or so, a message related to Scripture. And finally, a praise song to wrap things up.

All told, the 9 a.m. service will run just under two hours.

Nothing pretentious here. Nothing fancy. This is a former warehouse, after all. The area for the children’s ministry is pretty much a converted garage storage area.

The pastor’s office is tucked in the back.

Perfect.

“We’re just real people serving a real God. That’s been our message,” Tom said. “It’s not about being good or bad, it’s just about coming to experience God. We’re just a fellowship of believers, just regular people trying to represent God as best as we can.”

D’Lissa nods in agreement as they sit in Tom’s small, book-filled office that includes tributes to his passions in life: Jesus, family, the Yankees and pizza, in that order, he says, laughing. Tom is a pizza aficionado who one day may just open his own pizzeria.

“Outside of Jesus, I love to make pizza,” he says.

“You can be yourself and love Jesus. It doesn’t mean you can’t play softball or you can’t grapple. You can do these things and still love Him,” he adds.

Breath of Life is a church where you come as you are. Tank tops, shorts and sandals are the norm, but aloha shirts and dresses are not out of place. It’s relaxing, welcoming. The music is loud, alive and inspiring.

Church should be an exciting place, a safe place, where people can go, where they want to go, where they feel the love inside, D’Lissa says. Don’t worry about whether you’re good enough to come through the doors of the sanctuary. Everyone is. Everyone is welcome.

“You don’t have to go get cleaned up first,” she adds. “Church is a place you come and let God do the work.”

“They should feel the love of God embrace them when they walk in,” she says.

 Starting out

 After being involved with churches Calvary Chapel on Kauai and Honolulu and leading home Bible studies, Tom and D’Lissa started Breath of Life in May 1996 as a Calvary Chapel. It has been at its current location since 2000.

Both laugh as they recount their first services at the Kauai Veterans Center, where they rented a small room for $25.

There was Tom and D’Lissa waiting for someone, anyone. Tom was not exactly a seasoned preacher at the time and D’Lissa was still learning to play the guitar.

Eventually, because she had trouble playing popular Christian songs, she began writing her own.

“I started trying to learn any worship song I could, use three chords in,” she said, laughing.

Tom stacked chairs together to make a podium. Eight people visiting on vacation, following the signs outside, walked in expecting a large service. Instead, they found the pastor and his wife and a few chairs in a small room. But they couldn’t just turn around and walk out.

“They were stuck,” Tom said, smiling.

It was, D’Lissa said, not easy to return week after week, wondering if they  would be the only ones.

“I used to dread it,” she laughed. “I’d think, ‘They’re never coming back.”

“But he had faith,” she said of Tom. “From Day One, he preached like there was a room full of people, even though there was like three when we first started. That was amazing to me.”

Their two children then didn’t like it, either.

“Dad, we don’t like this church, we like the old church,” they said. “There’s no kids here. This isn’t fun.”

Well, mom and dad said, we’ll pray to Jesus, and maybe Jesus will bring some kids.

“And we prayed,” D’Lissa said.

That Sunday, two women walked in with four kids.

“That was the beginning of our children’s ministry,” she said.

New home

 After a growing and short stay at the Kauai Fruit & Flower shop, they found a possible location at 4303 Rice Street. It was a few thousand square feet of empty warehouse. Concrete floors, no water, no bathrooms.  Hanging, bare light bulbs. Rough is a good word to describe it.

“We came in with about 20 people, held hands, we prayed,” Tom said.

Contractors said they were looking at $250,000 to turn it into a useable church space. Ouch. Money wasn’t exactly flowing.

“We had about $2,000 in the bank, if that,” Tom said.

More prayers. More answers.

The next Sunday a woman came in.

“She said, ‘I believe in what you’re doing.’ She gave us $20,000,” Tom said.

Then someone visiting Kauai on vacation donated $10,000.

Breath of Life took a chance and spent $1,400 to send Tom to a grant writing class on Oahu. It paid off. He wrote his first grant and received $45,000.

It proved to be the seed money that allowed work to begin. Tom and others did much of the renovation.

“I wrote six grants, I got five of them,” he said. Some of the money was used to build a karate dojo and gym upstairs.

Breath of Life has never passed the plate. There’s a donation box, and on some Sundays, Tom reminds folks about tithing. The church goal is to obtain a piece of land where they can build a church.

“If God is in this, he’s going to provide,” Tom said. “We get down to nickels and dimes at times, but God said, years ago, every bill in this building church is already paid for. Just teach the Word.”

“We really believed if God is in it, he will provide. He’s done miraculous things. God has used us in a lot of ways in many different areas.”

Breath of Life has ministries for men, women, youth and children. It also has community outreach programs.

There’s a choir and Bible studies. They hold annual Easter and Christmas Eve services for the public. This year, once again, there will be a 7 p.m. Christmas Eve candlelight service in the Grand Ballroom at Kauai Marriott Resort in Lihue.

“We have activities that invite the world into it,” D’Lissa said.

“We’ve always been community minded and community focused,” Tom said. “We’re a church that believes we need to be out, get out around the people.”

For good reason.

“It’s about building relationships outside of the church, all in the hopes of seeing someone saved,” he said.

Worship is an important part of the service. Often, when people arrive, they’re worried about finances, about jobs, about personal battles.

It’s difficult to receive God’s word when your mind is focused elsewhere, when stress is king. It’s why, at Breath of Life, they sing, long and loud. D’Lissa pours her heart and soul into the songs, many of which she wrote.

Sing along. Feel God’s glory, she says.

“You really need that time to put God back where he belongs on the throne,” D’Lissa said.

The preacher

 The 51-year-old Tom is a solid 5-10, 200 pounds. He can be scowling one moment, smiling the next. When he preaches, he is animated. He interjects a few jokes, pauses for thunder or rain. Laughs aside, he’s serious about delivering God’s words clearly.

The average person, he said, should have no problem understanding God’s word.

“I have a passion for God’s word. I don’t make excuses for God’s word,” he said.

“We don’t water it down. We don’t sidestep it. We preach what it says. We believe what it says. And we present it in a reality-base style.

“It’s exciting to me, God’s word, and I try to make it exciting to them.”

Church must be real, he says. He puts it this way: If someone walks through the church doors, he wants to present the word of God in such a way that he or she can use it in life.

“How can I teach them so they know God’s word, receive it and apply it,” he said.

“As Christians, we need to know the word and live the word. Church is really just a gym, it’s where we go to get strong, real church starts when we leave the building.”

Tom was raised Catholic. He grew up partying, drinking and fighting and more than held his own.

“My friends weren’t the best guys in the world,” he said.

But some did give their lives to Christ, and Tom saw that.

He didn’t forget.

“Every now and then, I would see one of these bad ass guys get saved. They’d get in my face. ‘Hey man, you need to have Jesus. You need to stop screwing around, bro,’” Tom said.

He did and he’s still running the course God set before him.

“My job is to bring the word in such a way that the average person can walk away, that they can receive something, that they too can know the word of God,” he said.

Husband and wife

 Tom and D’Lissa have spoken at most schools on the island.

“We don’t go to push faith,” Tom said. “We go to shine the light of our faith.”

D’Lissa started a program called “True Beauty.”

“True beauty comes from a quiet and gentle spirit,” she said. “That’s the unfading beauty of the Lord.”

They were involved with an anti-drug and family forums and worked with the county  to combat underage drinking and the crystal meth problem.

That’s why Tom started a karate school in the church for a time, to give free lessons to the neighborhood kids in a safe and drug free environment. He has been a police commissioner for seven years and is currently a police chaplain for KPD.

D’Lissa said she, at first, never saw herself as a pastor’s wife.

“He always told me, ‘Just be yourself. Be who you are.’”

“He always gave me the freedom to be who I am. He’s always given our kids freedom to be who they are, because there’s so much pressure.”

They are, both say, best friends with different interests.

She loves training and riding horses. Music is her passion.

He’s a surfer, a writer and avid gamer who loves to travel.

Both love the Lord.

“We get to do what we feel like our purpose is,” D’Lissa said.

OK, Tom. Your turn. The best about working with D’Lissa?

He considers his answer, looking to get the words just right. He doesn’t though, and a few days later, he emails another answer. This is one to use in the story, he says.

“We started this journey out together, young and in love and we have continued to walk it out together older, wiser and still in love; and that’s a blessing. We are getting to see all that the Lord showed us, so many years  ago, come to pass in our children and our ministry. Once again, we are best friends and we get to spend time together doing the Lord’s work and when you start out young, in love with each other and with the Lord, you hope and pray that this is what you will be doing all those years later together, and we are! As a pastor, for me, in the positions I have been in, in the church and the community, I could do none of it without the support of my wife and my three great kids!”

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