Thursday, May 23, 2024 May 23, 2024
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Evangelical Bodybuilders Saved My Son’s Soul

illustration by Ryan Snook

Only after the Strongmen had torn the phone books and smashed the ice slabs did I figure out how Team Impact and their “feats of strength ministry” worked. But by then it was too late. By then my 10-year-old son had already accepted Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior.

Before we continue, I’d like to make it plain that I have no problem with Team Impact, in particular, nor the Southern Baptist Convention, in general, with which Coppell-based Team Impact is affiliated. Also, I love Jesus Christ.

It’s just that I’m Catholic. We are raising our son Catholic. When my wife went out of town that weekend and said to us, “You boys have fun,” I’m pretty sure it never crossed her mind that I might accidentally turn the boy into a Baptist. A few stitches? That’s almost expected. But adopting a belief system that prevents him from dancing?

I take full responsibility. When the boy asked if I’d take him to see Team Impact, I should have paid more attention to the venue, a Baptist church down the street from us. Instead, after he described what Team Impact did, I said, “You swear? They blow into a hot water bottle until it explodes? Awesome! Get your coat!”

We sat in the fifth pew. The small sanctuary was full, maybe a couple hundred souls. Behind the altar (if that’s what the Baptists call it), there stood a tough-looking backdrop of chain-link fence lit with red theatrical lights. Music played of the sort you’d pick if you had to pump up a crowd of Baptists. Then three big guys in tight tank tops ran out and performed feats of strength.

Every Thanksgiving, we do feats of strength at my house. These feats are usually performed for cash and always by inebriated dads. Head-to-head pie eating contests without using your hands, followed by sit-ups. That sort of thing. The Team Impact show involved less alcohol and more breaking of stuff.

They attacked ice slabs with flying karate moves. They chopped stacks of wooden boards. They rent the aforementioned phone books (along a line parallel to the spine, which struck me as inefficient, until I saw that their method produced half a phone book that, each page separated from the spine, could be thrown into the air, producing a dramatic “raining phone book” effect). They blew up a red rubber hot water bottle (a feat they claimed, if performed improperly, could explode your lungs and kill you).

Needless to say, the boy and I were mightily entertained. But then I sensed a thematic shift in the program. One of the Team Impacters took the mic, and, instead of crushing it, he launched into a disquisition on the meaning of life and how Jesus had helped him decide not to buy a boat. Something like that. Honestly, I kinda tuned out at this point—until the Team Impacter asked who in the audience wanted to be saved.

“Raise your hand,” the bodybuilder said. “Don’t be shy. Who wants to be saved tonight, to accept Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior?”

My son’s hand went up. Uh-oh.

Then the Team Impacter summoned to the altar the dozen or so people who’d just been saved (that’s all it takes, apparently, just raising your hand). I figured the boy wouldn’t much care for getting up in front of a bunch of strangers, and he’d ask me whether he had to do it. I’d tell him that he was okay, seated right next to me. But no. Up he jumped, without hesitation.

I had to smile, seeing my son up there receiving applause for having been saved. I thought about Fr. Roch and Fr. Henry, the Cistercian priests who’d baptized my son, and what they’d make of these tank-topped men crusading for the boy’s denominational allegiance—especially Fr. Henry, who is dead and able to haunt me. The woman seated next to me, seeing my smile, asked, “Are you proud of your son?” I told her I was, knowing she’d misinterpret my response.

After the applause died, the boy trotted off with the other newly saved people to another room, again without hesitation, where he was given a Team Impact New Testament. On the way home, as I was considering the best way to begin the conversation about what had just transpired, the boy said, “Dad, I hope I’m not in trouble.”

“No, no,” I told him.

“Because when I went back to that room, I gave them some information,” he said. “They had a sheet, and at first I was just going to put down my name and the date I was saved, but then this grandfather, he said, ‘Why didn’t you put down your address and phone number?’ I didn’t want to make him angry, so I told it to him.”

It was, as they say, a teaching moment—about how Baptists are different from normal people, about how telemarketing works, and, most important, about how Mom doesn’t need to know everything that happens when she’s out of town.

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