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Pastor credits church, grandmother for love of ministry

Pastor Antoinette "Toni" Alvarado is a dynamo. She co-pastors all three Total Grace Christian Centers with husband Johnathan Alvarado. She has written a book titled, "Run and Not be Weary - the Pursuit of Purpose and Destiny," with plans for an updated edition to be released this fall. And, to top it off, she is the mother of three girls.

Wearing all of these hats could get a little crazy, but Alvarado keeps her focus on her passion: preaching and teaching. As the vivacious pastor summed, there are a lot of similarities between pastoring and parenting. In both cases, it's easier to push people along than to pull them kicking and screaming behind you.

Alvarado's life has come a long way from her modest beginnings in inner-city Chicago. The oldest of four daughters, Alvarado lost her father when she was only 5 years old. Her mother was a then 21-year-old widow, left with four babies to raise. It was Alvarado's grandmother and the Baptist church that she credits with planting the seed for what her life has grown to be.

Q: How long have you been a pastor at Total Grace?

A: I actually am a co-pastor, and have been since 2000. My husband Johnathan is the senior pastor. I've been preaching and teaching for 16 or 17 years. I was ordained as an elder in 1997. Our church really grew between 1998 and 2002, from 500 members to more than 4,000.

Q: How do you and your husband manage on Sundays? With three church locations, how does that work?

A: Well, we're both at our main location in Decatur for the 7:30 service on Sunday mornings. Then, one of us goes to Clayton County and one goes to Gwinnett. Then we both go back to Decatur for the 11:30 a.m. service. We also have six full-time pastors on staff.

Q: Did you ever consider another career?

A: Oh yes. I had a very short nursing career. I spent three years in nursing school, and I was a miserable failure as a nursing student. Growing up, I only had two real pictures of women - my grandmother, who was a homemaker, and my mom, who was a nurse. I really admired both of them. Since my mom was a nurse, I thought, "Well I can do that, too." But it just wasn't for me. It wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. I then went to school at Beulah Heights Bible College and earned my Master of Divinity and am now working on my doctoral thesis. I've been in school since 1994.

Q: What's the biggest challenge for you with regard to pastoring a church?

A: To me, it's wanting more for people than they want for themselves. It's hard to run up against apathy or lack of passion.

It's also a challenge trying to raise the consciousness of African Americans. Sometimes I feel our priorities are misaligned or misplaced. People succumb to the culture so easily. The Internet, TV and other media are very powerful. This is the first generation that doesn't have to go to their parents for information.

Q: What's the biggest reward for you as a pastor?

A: To see lives changed. To see a broken marriage healed. To see someone who dropped out of school go back and get an education. To see someone better their economic situation.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who may be considering entering the ministry?

A: Find a mentor in ministry. Develop that relationship so that person can pour into you. Then I'd say, go to school. The 21st century will be marked by trained ministers. Again, with so many competing realities in our culture, we have to have credibility. To be a doctor, a lawyer, even a police officer, you have to have training. So do ministers.

Q: Who would you most like to meet?

A: Oprah Winfrey. I admire her philanthropic work. She's one of my heroes.

Q: In your opinion, what has changed most in Gwinnett's religious landscape over the years?

A: I can say this - years ago, African Americans went to south DeKalb or Atlanta to worship. There just wasn't a place for them to worship in Gwinnett. With the diversity in the county now, there are churches in Gwinnett where African Americans and other ethnic groups can go and be comfortable. We've found Gwinnett County to be very receptive to our church. We have a long-term plan in Gwinnett that involves buying or constructing a permanent church building here in Gwinnett.

Total Grace Christian Center has three locations in metro Atlanta: 4000 Covington Highway in Decatur (World Headquarters); 6558 Fielder Road in Rex Norcross High School; and 5300 Spalding Drive in Norcross. For more information about the Gwinnett location of Total Grace, e-mail pastor Shaun King at sking@total-grace.org, call 404-289-2229 or visit www.totalgrace.org.

Each week, the Daily Post profiles a different religious leader in Gwinnett. If you have a suggestion on who we should profile next, e-mail features@gwinnettdailypost.com.