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Saturday, June 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Church of God-Zillah

Yakima Herald-Republic

ZILLAH, Yakima County - And a B-movie monster shall lead them.

In west Zillah, where city starts to blend into farmland, the 10-foot-tall skeleton of a T-Rex lords over the gravel parking lot of a rambling, ranch-style church.

Below its fierce maw, gripped in one white steel claw-hand, is a cross. In the other hand is a vacant placard.

Godzilla, the mascot of the Church of God in Zillah, is patiently awaiting his marching orders.

"We thought about putting service times on it," says the Rev. Gary Conner, referring to the empty sign in Godzilla's left hand. The congregation hasn't yet decided where to plant the beast that stomped Tokyo - out front by Cheyne Road, or in a playground in back.

Undecided, too, is whether to permanently illuminate Godzilla's beady, red eyes. "We thought about mounting it by the road with a motion sensor," says Conner, "so that every time a car went past, its eyes lit up."

In accordance with the traditions of the Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God's Zillah congregation voted on a more personal name when the church began 13 years ago. It settled on Christian Worship Center, the name still listed in the phone book.

But the other name, the unfortunate, comical, joke name, soon began to demand acknowledgment. And what better way to deal with an awkward appellation than to embrace it, figured Conner.

"When people started introducing me as the Rev. Conner, Church of God-Zillah, people put it together pretty easily," says Conner, sitting in his office before a bookshelf topped by toy dinosaurs he's received as gifts from congregation members.

Godzilla was built and donated several months ago by a mechanic and carpenter who attend the church, and - for the moment - only lies in wait in the church parking lot between parade gigs, when it's drawn on a trailer behind the church's youth drill team. After church members decide where to permanently locate the beast, they'll consider covering the steel frame with reptilian flesh, for authenticity.

Of course, the Godzilla hubbub didn't start with the T-Rex skeleton outside. Before the Godzilla statue, there were the popular T-shirts - picturing a Godzilla (clutching a golden cross) in post-urban stompage. The only building left standing? The church, of course.

It's Godzilla, God-Zillah, squashing evil, says Conner. Figures Conner, when God gives you a serendipitous homonym such as Church of God-Zillah, it's your duty to find a way to capitalize on it. "It's brilliant, really. And it just fell in our laps," he says.

Conner sees Godzilla as something of an evangelist, beckoning in curious passers-by who'll then, hopefully, stay on to hear the word. So far, the monster has done his job, helping spread the church teachings well beyond the Zillah community.

"As you drive past, the kids go, `I want to go to the church where Godzilla goes,' " says Conner, who's 50 and an admitted fan of old monster movies.

He shrugs: "Different people use different lures to catch fish."

Also, he thinks the monster lets people know his church isn't made up of religious martinets who can't take a joke.

"We want people to know that Christians and born-again Christians . . . we're not so stiff we don't have a sense of humor," he says.

What's the Church of God's take on this? So far, Conner hasn't heard any grumblings.

"I'm not really sure the denomination likes being affiliated with the big lizard," said Conner, "but so far they've been pretty cool."

What about Godzilla? He was a bad guy in most of the films.

Says Conner: "I think it would have been a good metamorphosis for him to get connected with the church."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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