Feature Pop-culture covenant

Connection Covenant Church finds lessons in TV shows from 'Desperate Housewives' to 'Pimp My Ride'

Pastor Ikki Soma speaks to the congregation about the importance of having a connection with God. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

The topic for today's sermon is Donald Trump. Well, not Trump per se, but his ultra-successful NBC reality series, The Apprentice.

Ikki Soma, pastor of Connection Covenant Church, stands in a wallpapered, coffee-and-donuts conference room at the Comfort Inn on La Cantera Parkway, shadowed by a video projection of Trump and the show's most recent crop of wannabes. The 33-year-old Soma, a wiry, shaven-headed, amateur rugby player, is an ordained pastor with an easy command of New Testament scripture. But the Connection is not your parents' church experience, and that's part of Soma's grand design.

For one thing, he recognizes and flaunts generational distinctions in the most fundamental ways. Parishioners over 40 are invited to respond to the sermon with a traditional "amen"; those between 30 and 40 say, "yeah"; the 20-30 crowd shout "for sure," or, if they prefer, "fo' shizzle."

Sunday church services commence at 10:33 a.m. because Soma likes the notion of picking an unconventional time. Communion comes uncommonly early in the service, with parishioners stepping to the back of the room where Soma holds two silver trays. From one tray, they take a piece of a saltine cracker, and from the other a plastic vial of grape juice. In the middle of the service, the congregation gathers in the center of the room to share spirited hugs and high-fives. An unnamed folk-rock quartet - Soma suggested they call themselves "The Con Artists," in an homage to the church's name - anchors the services, and Soma plans on adding a funky DJ, a step team, and MTV-inspired video clips to the Connection's sensory experience.

Most importantly to Soma - a Japanese American married to an African American - the Connection draws a multi-cultural crowd that includes a solid contingent of young Asian Americans as well as a small-but-growing number of Latinos and African Americans.

"I'd always wanted to see a multi-ethnic church," he says. "The school I went to was multi-ethnic. The places I worked were multi-ethnic. All the sports things I played on were multi-ethnic. But every church I've been to has been mono-ethnic.

"For most of us from a certain age group, being in a multi-ethnic environment has been a reality pretty much all our lives. So to still have a mono-ethnic church is a total disconnect. You're thinking, 'Why is everyone else so progressive while the church is still stuck in these old ways?'"

The Mother's Day service at the Connection was centered on the television show The Apprentice. Pastor Ikki Soma made several comparisons relating how what Donald Trump looks for in an employee is similar to what God looks for in a follower.

The Connection is a work-in-progress fulfillment of Soma's dream to create a rainbow coalition church that speaks to young people turned off by old-school religious sanctimony. After months of planning and getting out the word at local colleges, Soma launched the church last January, with monthly services attracting 80-90 people. Since the services went weekly in April, the numbers have hovered in the 40-50 range, but Soma plans to make a major push by the end of the summer, when his natural constituency returns to school and his church moves into another unlikely house of worship: the AMC Huebner Oaks 24 movie theater.

"You often find that people go to church with one face and at home they have a totally different face," Soma says. "At home they're bickering and fighting, then they get to church and try to act all sanctified and holy and all that. We want to focus on being authentic and relevant as well. For people probably born after 1960, whatever generation you call it, I think church has become really irrelevant."

Vicky Tang, 21, came to the Connection at the urging of her Trinity University suite-mate. "I heard it was a lot less formal than other churches," she says. "I had been to a baptism at another church and I wasn't sure if that was for me. But I really like it here."

Soma values devotion, but he doesn't put much stock in formality. Casually dressed in a lime-green button-up shirt and black slacks, the pastor good-naturedly warns newcomers that from time to time he's prone to show up for church decked out in shorts and sneakers, if the mood strikes him. And while other pastors rail against the depravity of popular culture, Soma mines its guilty pleasures for life-lesson material. So far, he's appropriated Desperate Housewives, Alias, C.S.I., Lost, and, for the last six weeks, The Apprentice.

He tells his congregation about the "paradox of being an apprentice." He refers to Mark 8:35, which states, "If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it." He talks about Brent, a failed contestant on The Apprentice, who was happy to be fired because it meant he could return to his family.

"In order to be an apprentice, you have to leave some things behind," Soma says in the calm, conversational tone of a sports-radio host. "We have to leave some of our old ways behind, some of our old friends behind, to be an apprentice of Christ."

We must dethrone ourselves and enthrone Christ, he explains, because the paradox of life ensures that the harder we try to control our own fate, the less successful we are. To make his point, he notes that the Spurs' Tim Duncan missed 14 of 19 shots the night before, and that the harder he tried to conquer his shooting slump, the worse it became.

"You can dis' Christ, but you really can't dis' Christ, because we're the ones who end up getting dissed," he says. "Be an apprentice. We're not the rulers of our life, Christ is the ruler of our life. Let him lead us in the right direction. That's the great adventure of the Christian life."

Somewhere in the crowd a voice blurts out, "Fo' shizzle."

* * * * *

Soma was born in Japan, but moved to Los Angeles at the age of 7 months when his father, a sales rep for the car-radio company Clarion, was transferred. His parents came out of Japan's Buddhist Shinto tradition, but never attended religious services. Growing up, Soma gave little thought to spirituality aside from noticing that the Rastafarianism of his favorite reggae artists was based on the precept that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was God reincarnated.

In high school, Soma joined the rugby team. His coach, a youth pastor, invited Soma to lunch one day and discussed Christianity at length with him, encouraging him to accept Christ as his personal savior. Soma quickly agreed.

As a student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he played rugby, ran track, and got involved in student ministries. He also studied animal science with a concentration in food production. Looking to advance his interest in Christianity, he enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary and became active in a church pastored by Dr. Tony Evans, an African-American minister who founded the Urban Alternative ministry and now spreads his message on more than 500 radio stations in the United States. Evans took notice of Soma's communication skills and asked the young graduate student to be his intern.

Soma praises Evans as a "visionary" and says the popular minister taught him "how to preach relevantly and effectively."

While working with Evans, Soma met Tara Ford, a University of Texas at Arlington track star training for a spot on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team (she did not make the team). Ford had grown up in Austin, and developed a relationship with Christ through the black-church experience. Like Soma, she strongly believed in the need for churches that brought cultures together. They married in 1997 and have two daughters, ages 6 and 4.

In Soma's final year at the seminary, Evans asked him what he wanted to do after graduating. Soma responded that he wanted to go to either a white or black church and make it multi-ethnic. Evans told him that such an opportunity existed in San Antonio, where a group of area churches wanted to combine forces to help launch a new church.

Soma and his family moved to San Antonio in June 2000 and found the going more difficult than they anticipated. "We got here and asked that they help us financially to get this thing going," Soma recalls. "All but two of the churches reneged; they pulled out."

Undeterred, Soma formed All People's Bible Fellowship, a precursor to what he's now doing with the Connection. But between the church, his family responsibilities, and a full-time job as a nutritional counselor and personal trainer at Concord Athletic Club, Soma felt burned out. He talked to some of his Christian mentors and they all told him to focus on one thing: Either work at the gym or pastor, but don't try to do both.

It's easy to miss the Connection Church if you're not looking for it. Until their summer move to the AMC Huebner Oaks 24 theater, the Connection is renting space from a Comfort Inn.

Soma decided to quit his job and become a full-time preacher. He also shut down All People's Fellowship, believing that he needed to start from scratch. He contacted representatives for the Evangelical Covenant Church, a sect formed in the 19th century by Swedish immigrants who settled in the Midwest. "Most of them were poor farmers, so they decided to pool their resources to do more worldwide missions," Soma says. "They're really making a strong push to start more multi-ethnic churches."

One of the first loyal followers he attracted was Trinity Greer, 30, a transplant from Rochester, New York. Greer discovered Soma on the internet before the Connection's debut, and knew he wanted to be a part of it. "I really liked the multi-cultural aspect of it," he says. "So many churches are divided along racial or cultural lines."

Some church leaders might argue that all they can do is preach, that they can't control the ethnic makeup of their congregation anymore than Justin Timberlake can control the nature of his fan base. It's an argument rejected by Brandon Ysteboe, 26, a regular at the Connection and sometime-contributor to the church's band. "I think multi-culturalism has to be intentional," he says. "A lot of churches don't make an effort and just let whatever happens happen."

Soma teaches a class at a national pastor's conference every year on how to develop analogies, metaphors, and illustrations. He prides himself on his ability to "see biblical truth" even in the most kitschy or decadent settings.

"The TV series thing came to me one night when I was up at one or two in the morning," he says. "I was reading my Bible, and Proverb 7 sounded just like Desperate Housewives. It talked about a wife whose husband's gone away on business, so now she has to seduce this young man. And it deals with the consequences of it all. So I'm looking at it and thinking, 'Man, that's pretty cool.'"

In July, Soma and his cohorts plan to shoot some video footage based around the premise of the MTV show Pimp My Ride. "The gist of Pimp My Ride is you bring in your old, torn-up car and they fix it up and make it brand new," Soma says. "Second Corinthians 5:17 says 'anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.' That's what God does with you: He takes the old person and pimps you, basically. He gives you a new you, so you can be a better person, father, co-worker."

Soma sees it as his duty to take 2,000-year-old texts and make them contemporary for a short-attention-span generation raised on hip-hop, video games, and reality television. Moreover, he sees this approach as consistent with Christ's methods.

"Jesus Christ, in the gospels, he spoke mostly to farmers because it was an agrarian society," Soma says. "If you look at the Bible, almost all of the analogies he uses deal with farming, animals, seeds, plants, fruit, stuff like that. He was trying to make it relate. In order to be culturally relevant now, I think we need to use and engage pop culture - television, music, technology, whatever - to communicate biblical truth, just like Christ did."

By Gilbert Garcia

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