‘Caffeinated faith’ is one Mercer Islander’s cup of tea

I have friends who feel less-than-holy until they’ve had their first cup of coffee in the morning. Others I know faithfully commune with their friends at St. Arbucks. Ken Lottis is one such acquaintance. For this 75-year-old Islander, drinking coffee is a spiritual experience.

While Ken is quick to express gratitude to the Creator for a flavorful cup of joe, the spiritual component to his coffee-drinking fixation isn’t limited to a blessing for good beans. It has more to do with the meaningful conversations he has with those who enjoy his habit. Several times during the week, Ken can be found at a Noah’s, Tully’s or Starbucks conversing with friends about how faith intersects with daily life. His circle of cappuccino compadres include Roman Catholics, Jews, Protestants and agnostics. Ken has been chewing on philosophical ideas while sipping an espresso in coffeehouses for a long time. (Would you believe half a century?) He first realized the value of such a venue while working with university students in Brazil.

From the early ’60s to the late ’80s, Ken and his wife, Carol (and their three sons), worked with a para-church organization called The Navigators in Rio, São Paulo and Curitiba. Soon after arriving in South America, Ken discovered that the traditional style of religious dialogue to which he’d been exposed growing up in North America was of no interest to Brazilians. By observing the culture around him, he saw how a cup of coffee and a newspaper promoted the free exchange of ideas far easier than a chalice of communion wine and a sermon.

For Ken, unlearning the vocabulary of American Christianity was almost as difficult as learning Portuguese. But he was willing to barbecue sacred cows in order to win friends with whom he could eventually feast on the big philosophical questions. Such a roasting of religious rituals included abandoning Sunday morning church services for informal gatherings with students of various faith backgrounds in their home.

Seeing coffee through the eyes of faith enabled the young American to focus on more than just caffeinated beverages as an important social function. Ken became a student of Brazilian culture and lifestyle, even becoming a fanatical soccer fan. In little and big ways, Ken attempted to translate the essence of his God-centered worldview into a dialect that Brazilian students would understand. The results were remarkable. In response to the encouragement of colleagues and family members, Ken has chronicled his Brazilian coffeehouse (and pub) conversations in a book.

This first-time author has titled his adventures, “Will This Rock in Rio?”

The title is nearly self-explanatory. It suggests the kind of question that Ken and his colleagues asked as they attempted to structure experiences that would promote deep and meaningful conversations. The subtitle of the volume (available at Island Books) conveys the relevance of Ken’s insights in 21st century Seattle: “Finding God in an Urban Culture.”

As I read “Will This Rock in Rio?,” I could easily see why Ken and his wife, Carol, walked in the 5k event last month in the half marathon Rotary Run rather than choosing to show up at church. His brand of faith is best expressed where people are engaged in living and enjoying life. Traditional religiosity is not this coffee drinker’s cup of tea. What steeps in Ken’s heart is a passion to express his faith in creative and relevant ways. And that includes good food, a satisfying beverage and a community of friends. It’s really no wonder that drinking coffee is a spiritual experience for Ken. More often than not, sipping the “drip of the day” calls to mind meaningful conversations with lifelong friends in two continents. And as he reflects on these relationships, he can’t help but thank God.

Greg Asimakoupoulos is the pastor of the Mercer Island Covenant Church.

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