The Team knows how to tantalize a twelve-year-old.
"Don't be trying any of this at home, kids. What you are about to see is very, very dangerous. We don't even do what Trey Tally does--breaking concrete and ice with his head! So don't you try it!"
Trey Tally's nickname is "No Fear." He struts out from the wings, resplendent in his black, red and blue warm-up suit, huge arms and shoulders flexed, emanating understanding for people who don't, or can't, break ice with their heads. Then he introduces Keenan Smith, onetime Texas power-lifting champion, who immediately says something even more alluring: "I know most of you would rather be in English class or studying math right now."
Screams of protest! No, no, no!
In that case, says Smith, "what I have here is a baseball bat. Trey is gonna snap it in half with his knee! It's dangerous--you could rip a muscle! I also have a can of Diet Sprite! Smiley Elmore here is gonna crush it with his bare hand!"
There's also a Denver phone book, which Smith will rip into shreds, and stacks of concrete blocks piled nine high, which will be destroyed by karate kicks and armpit whacks. But first, the three Power Team members who have come to Lake Middle School need volunteers. Two young ladies, specifically.
Once on stage, the girls are told to cling to either end of a steel bar, which former American Gladiator Elmore then military-presses into the air, girls dangling. See? It's no flimsy steel bar! But it does not intimidate Elmore. Dismissing the girls, he bends the bar into an intricate pretzel, using only his arms and teeth.
Let's move on! Middle-school assemblies last only forty minutes or so, and the three huge guys on stage still have to demolish the concrete, the bricks, the bats, the Sprite and the phone book, with time left over for testifying.
Which is where things really get tricky.
The Power Team, a Texas troupe of power-lifting evangelists, has been staging athletically inspired revival/spectacles for eighteen years now. This particular week, they've organized a crusade at the Heritage Christian Center in southeast Denver, where they'll pack the place five nights running. During the day the team breaks into smaller groups that appear at school assemblies. But since you can't promote Jesus at public schools, the message must be "motivational and inspiring"--as opposed to blatantly religious.
I've seen the Power Team in action before. I don't think they can do it.
The idea of former football players, bodybuilders and all-around tough guys devoting their lives to Christ--and maintaining their extreme buffness as part of the deal--has fascinated me for some time. A certain person--the kind of person who surfs cable channels late into the night, and not necessarily a religious person, either--kept telling me about the Power Connection, a show that appears in all its muscle-bound glory on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. I wanted to know more. The problem was, whoever answered the phone at Power Team headquarters in Irving, Texas, clammed up when she discovered that I wasn't a pastor seeking to put on an extravaganza.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but we have to be careful. There have been stalkers."
"Yeah, but it's...my nephew!" I improvised. "He's fourteen! He's in a gang! The Power Team could save his life!"
"Grand Junction," the receptionist said, her voice dropping to a whisper. "July 2. That's all I can say."
Once in Grand Junction with the aforementioned nephew, who is not in a gang but was wearing his baggiest clothes, we easily found the Power Team at the Two Rivers Convention Center. After all, they were the biggest guys in town.
The audience, perhaps one thousand strong, was heavily weighted with families and young children, as well as a sizable contingent of head-injured adults who were already screaming and pumping their fists, even though nothing had happened yet. Unless you count the souvenir concession, which was hopping. We bought and read a Power Team comic book, in which the eight musclemen defeat a South American drug lord. Finally, the lights dimmed so that we could watch an informational video, from which we gleaned these facts:
* John Jacobs founded the Power Team eighteen years ago as a student at Oral Roberts University.
* The Team consists of "world-class athletes who inspire people to follow Christ and to move away from drugs, alcohol and suicide."
* The Team does seventy crusades each year. Last year it led 100,000 people to Christ, including a lot of Russians.
* In some complex way, you can benefit the Team and its work by switching your phone service from AT&T--"the proud sponsor of the Gay Games," Jacobs says--to Lifeline, "where your long-distance dollars do not go to support nudity, profanity, prostitution or any of those other things."
Suddenly, the song "Jesus Is Just Alright" began pouring from giant speakers, and the Power Team members ran to the stage. The ground shook--but then, most of these guys weigh at least 250 pounds each. I took an immediate interest in Siolo Tauaefa, "the Big Samoan, son of a tribal chief and known to eat ten chickens at one sitting," and Brad Tuttle, a former Navy SEAL captain who fights South American drug cartels in his spare time.
"This is going to be the worst week the Devil has ever had in Grand Junction," Jacobs announced. "We are here to wage war on the Devil, people. People, look me in the eye!" We looked, the music swelled, and the team members went through their paces, bringing massive armpits down on blocks of ice, jumping through walls of fire, blowing up hot-water bottles--"Their lungs tingle, people; one hiccup could explode them!"--until they shattered in a rubbery mess. Baseball bats snapped like toothpicks, and the Big Samoan hoisted what looked like a small sequoia tree, then pressed it with the help of the audience members, who were told to yell "Jesus" at the top of their lungs. Two Team dudes lay down on beds of nails--"Can you hear the nails popping through their flesh, people, can you hear it?"--and proceeded to out-bench-press each other. Then, when hyperventilation was about to set in, came the official Moment of Quiet Reflection.
Team members sat down on folding chairs to listen intently while one of their colleagues--Brad Tuttle, in this case--testified. Once, he said, he was a football-playing, godless thug. "I worked security for Mstley Crue and Van Halen," he recalled, striding up and down on stage with his mike, jabbing the air with his forefinger, "and I saw young girls picked out of the crowds. Ten minutes later those same young girls would come out of the door raped and abused. There was nothing I could give those girls. I didn't know Jesus."
And he wouldn't have found him without John Jacobs, who saved him at a regular old altar call, such as we were promised later that night. "Glory unto you, Father, for that," Tuttle shouted. "This is not a Christian event! There are non-Christians here! We can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us."
To prove it, he ripped apart a couple of license plates with his bare hands, which spurred on a shorter flurry of baseball-bat snapping and log-hoisting. Next, Jacobs himself came up and ran down a list of what we might expect if we stayed for the next four nights of the crusade. The Double Flying Praying Mantis Ice Strike! Trey Tally jumping through a wall of ice, headfirst! Criminals converted. Abortions forestalled. "The best way to get a miracle is give one to someone else," Jacobs added. "We will now pray over our checkbooks."
Sure enough, small envelopes appeared at all the seats. We forked over a small "love offering," for which we were amply rewarded when Jacobs broke out of a set of regulation handcuffs. Finally, he reminded us that there were people in the audience who did not know God and that the Team had come for one reason only: "not to brag on our muscles, but to brag on Jesus. Young people, look me in the eye!" Jacobs concluded. "Religion is boring, but there is nothing more exciting than Jesus Christ!"
In short: The Power Team without Jesus? Wouldn't that be sort of like Miss Saigon without the helicopter?
By the time the official Moment of Quiet Reflection begins at Lake Middle School, the kids in the audience are frothing with excitement, even though what they have just seen is a mere shadow of the full crusade production.
"Okay, young people," Trey Tally says, "I wanna tell you how to see the Power Team again. Everyone say Heritage. Her-i-tage! That's where we're gonna be tonight, at the Heritage Christian Center, and it's gonna be like ESPN and the Guinness Book all wrapped up into one two-hour show, and you know what? It's free! So bring your families and bring your neighbors. Where is it?"
"Her-i-tage!" the young people scream.
"Now, listen up. Here comes Keenan Smith to give you words of encouragement."
Jesus, I think.
Instead, Smith provides commonsense exhortations. Don't piss your life away with drugs and alcohol. Don't look for the easy way out. "And don't listen to those beer companies, where the commercial shows a guy opening his beer and he says, Life doesn't get any better than this! Young people, they never show you this guy driving drunk and killing a whole family! They never show you the fat guy drinking in his living room, yelling at his kids, giving his wife a black eye!
"Young people, I grew up with alcoholics and turmoil. I remember when my mama asked that awful question a lot of you have heard: 'Who do you want to live with, me or your dad?'"
Many small heads nod. No one has to tell anyone to look me in the eye.
"I heard where Peter Coors said we should stop preaching at kids not to drink and start teaching them to drink responsibly," Smith continues. "That's like saying, 'Why don't you throw up gracefully?'"
This is mildly amusing, but only because of the vomit angle, and the kids who do not seem to have given beer advertising much of a thought shift in their seats. Girls begin whispering to each other. Ever on the alert, Smith sprints down the aisle, issuing a diatribe aimed at Girls Only. The message: Listen to that boy who tells you you're so hot by the lockers each morning and he will end up telling everyone in the locker room what he "scored" off you.
"The girls in this school deserve better than that, don't they?" he pleads. "Respect comes from one word! No! No! No!"
I lean forward to ask the girl in front of me what she thinks of this. I get just close enough to hear her tell her friend, "Yeah, whatever..." in tones of withering scorn.
The assembly is winding up. "That's the Heritage Christian Center," Smith reiterates. "Remember--it's free! Bring your families! Come see the Big Samoan!"
"The who?" the girl in front of me asks. "The what? Wow. Cool.