It started with a bunch of ministers.
And the combination --like peanut butter and chocolate-- has proved deliciously sweet.
The story of Connections Band is as remarkable as what the band has achieve in its short history. The band started from a chance meeting at a yearly clergy retreat for United Methodist ministers one October.
"I had this incredible room that I'd been given at the retreat," says Eric Folkerth. "I invited people over to hang out one night. This guy with red hair who I'd never met showed up, and we played Dan Fogelberg songs until one in the morning."
The red haired stranger was Rusty King, Minister of Music at a Dallas United Methodist Church. The two were joined by Paul Escamilla and John Fleming, also United Methodist clergy, whom both had known separately for years.
In the years that followed, Rusty, Paul, Eric, and John would recreate their late-night "jam sessions" at that same October retreat. They were soon joined by other clergy friends, Frank Rahm and Ann Willet, and the six are known today as the "founding members" of Connections Band.
After one of their late-night sessions, King came up with a crazy idea.
"He just said, 'Hey, why don't we do a Dan Fogelberg Tribute Show,'" Folkerth remembers. "And I thought to myself, 'sounds fantastic to me, but who would come?!'"
Turns out, more than 200 people came to the group's first show in March of 2004, and the "magical night" raised almost $2,000 for missions.
"I think we believed that after that we had something special here and we ought to see where it would take us," said King.
It has taken the band to almost 40 concerts, seven different "cover shows" of artists like Fogelberg, James Taylor, Carole King, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, and Elton John. It has seen the band play before tens of thousands of people, and raise almost $200,000 for mission work.
"Nobody in the band ever imagined we'd have the success we have had," says Fleming. And I think we are all just incredibly grateful to God and to all the people who keep turning out for the shows and supporting our causes so generously.
On the heels of the "magical night" of Fogelberg songs, the band pushed itself to the limits with an ambitious "Tribute to Chicago and the Eagles."
"That show, " says King, "is probably our most challenging in that the band can be as large as 19 people. We have almost 40 people who we consider 'members' of Connections Band. Who plays at a show depends on the show we're playing and who we need to get the best sound."
Frank Rahm says the band has struck a chord with its fans.
"We now have fans who come to all our shows --sometimes as many as a hundred of them-- who like what we do and keep coming back for more. People are hungry for a quality evening of entertainment, where it's not some smokey, smelly room , but instead a place where you could bring your whole family."
The focus, though, is not only on the music, but also on the mission. At each show, a "love offering" is taken for one of two causes: "Imagine No Malaria," and "United Methodist Committee on Relief." ("Imagine No Malaria is the succesor to "Nothing But Nets," which was an orginal cause supported by the band. They are both malaria prevention program supported by the UMC...)
None of the almost forty musicians in Connections ever gets paid for a gig. They volunteer countless hours of their time in rehearsal so that money can be raised for this great missional causes.
As the band has continued to find success, and as the amount of money raised for mission increased, Ann Willet notes that the band's work seems to have taken on a different feel.
"I've come to consider all of us as a partners in a different kind of mission trip," she says. "Instead of going to Juarez, we are doing other work for the kingdom....sometimes tiring and frustrating, sometimes fun and uplifting, but always worthwhile."
After the highly successful Chicago/Eagles Show, the band came back with a third show, the "James Taylor/Carole King Tribute."
"That show is a more stripped down show," says Folkerth. "The band is smaller, and the music more intimate. But audiences react just as positively. You know, this music we do reminds so many people of some of the best times of their lives. We find folks sing along all night, and just enjoy the ride."
People constantly tell the band how surprised they are at how good the sound its.
"I think we benefit from low expecations," Folkerth muses. "People think, 'a bunch of ministers...how could that be good?' Then they hear us, and are often blown away. We'd like to think that inspires them to give even more."
In 2008, Connections debuted it's fourth tribute show, "Tribute to the Doobie Brothers and Elton John." 2009 brought it's fifth show, "SuperHits of the 70s. Last year's show was a tribute to Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. Plans are already set for a second "superhits" show in coming years.
2012 will see the return of "Superhits of the 70s" with a "Part II" show. 2011 continued the incredible success of the band. Shows are growing larger and larger, with crowds of 300 to 400 becoming common. January's show to benefit Haitian earthquake relief (via UMCOR) raised more than $15,000. The band's show in Allen saw a crowd of around 1,000 persons on hand.
"Our band has really hit on a winning combination of music and mission," Escamilla says. "And our name, 'Connections,' pretty much sums up our goal. We connect music and mission. We connect an audience and helping others.
'The Connection' has always been an important phrase for United Methodists, because we're tied together across the world in so many beautiful and fruitful ways. Here's one more."