2016-06-30
The teenage boys sitting in the back row in the Lititz Community Center, in Lititz, Penn., kept snorting dismissively at the spiritual battle unfolding before our eyes. In a ring set up in the middle of a couple hundred folding chairs, Omega, a 215 pounder who wrestles in the name of the Lord, propped himself up on the ropes and landed both feet in the face of Big Tim Storm, knocking him to the mat. Omega pounced, and pummeled Big Tim with blows to the chest and throat. The teenagers looked like they'd rather be behind the 7-Eleven smoking cigarettes.

Big Tim
Big Tim
But Big Tim, a human wrecking machine at six-foot-three and 260 pounds, has his own yen for Jesus, and, grabbing his "rag doll pansy" of an opponent, flung him out of the ring. By the time he foot-stomped Omega's head a dozen times, the 10-year-olds a few rows up were counting each blow aloud. As Big Tim, exulting in his win, strutted and bellowed "shut up" to the kids' boos and at the blue-haired lady hissing and giving him a thumbs-down, his real accomplishment was whipping up the listless Lititz crowd.

His ring victory, a wrestler named Apocalypse later pointed out, did not really belong to Big Tim, but to the big man upstairs: "We come out here and beat each other up every night for one reason and one reason only," Apocalypse told the crowd. "To spread the good news of Jesus Christ!"

Far from the World Wrestling Federation's packed arenas and vulgarian displays is the Christian Wrestling Federation, the nation's first and only full-time wrestling ministry. For the past year and a half, the Texas-based group has performed at scores of church-sponsored events across the country. (In Lititz, the wrestlers were invited by a local United Methodist church, which fed and housed them.) The CWF is "a non-profit organization," its website explains, "that hopes to express the love of God in a new and dynamic way."

Each show consists of four or five no-holds-barred matches, rife with taunts, hair pulls, and smackdowns, but decorously free of the coarse language and bikini-clad women prevalent in that other professional wrestling organization, the stuff you see on big time cable stations. CWF founder Rob Vaughn got the inspiration for Christian wrestling two years ago. A 31-year-old former arena football coach and an ordained Baptist minister, Vaughn--whose ring name is Jesus Freak--had briefly wrestled on an independent circuit in Texas.

He witnessed things he did not like. "It was a bad scene," says Vaughn. "Guys drinking and smoking pot in the locker room, and everybody out for himself. Nobody wants to get beat or upstaged. There's lots of swearing and extreme violence, people throwing tables and chairs, blood everywhere. Plus, there are half-dressed women parading around. And I thought, does the five-year-old in the front row really need to see all this? It wasn't anything that I, as a Christian, wanted to be a part of anymore."

But just as Vaughn was about to hang up his boots, a minister friend in San Antonio had an idea. "He said, 'Why don't you create a wrestling ministry?'" Vaughn recalled. "After a month of intense prayer, I decided to pursue it."

Vaughn registered the CWF name, and spent eight months getting funding, locating a training ring and opening an office in Rockwall, a suburb east of Dallas. To find wrestlers, Vaughn sent 3,000 fliers to area churches, though he discovered a few born-again bashers in unlikely places. "I went to see an independent show held in a bar," Vaughn said. "In the first match there was a guy named The Saint, and he was introduced with a Christian rock song. His wrestling was good, clean action, so afterward I went up to him and learned he's a pastor at a church in Fort Worth!" The Saint joined the CWF the next week.

The ministering is plentifully mixed in with the wrestling. At intermission in Lititz, a wrestler named Jonah spoke about temptation. "What is temptation?" he asked. "You walk into a store and see something you want, but you don't have any money. You take it anyway. That is temptation for material objects! You're at a bar, throwing back some brewskis and people are startin' to like ya because you're mister funny man, dancin' around. That is temptation for social acceptance!"

At the end of the evening, Apocalypse made a distinction between accepting Jesus with your heart and accepting Him with your head. For years, Apocalypse went to church every Sunday and every Wednesday night; he led his youth group. He memorized scripture. "I knew all the right answers, but I didn't know all the right answers," he said. "Like many of you here, I was wearing a mask. And if you're wearing a mask, you have to seriously question whether you're going to heaven or hell if you were to die tonight."

Praying the "sinner's prayer"--"all you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart and he will"--Apocalypse then gave the altar call--or "ring call," if you will. Audience members who accepted Jesus were invited down front to speak privately and pray with a wrestler about their life-altering decision. Three bewildered-looking teenage girls stepped forward. "Man, that's awesome," Apocalypse said. "Everybody give 'em a hand!"

The matches themselves aren't very different from the WWF. While anarchic violence reigns at some point in each match, all pro wrestling is a morality play. The crowd is there to watch the good guys punish the bad guys, and most often they go home happy. In Christian wrestling, the bad guys are just as liable to end the night testifying as the good guys. It's a close copy of the real thing, but the moral takes precedence over the characters.

"Basically, every show tells a story," says Vaughn. "We present a gospel message through wrestling and scripture. For example, a wrestler may lose the battle in the ring one night. That's the way it is in real life--we lose battles. But with Jesus Christ as our lord and savior, we can come back and win the war! Wrestling is so popular with kids these days," he added, "it's a great way to draw them to Jesus."

The New York Nightmare
The New York
Nightmare
Of the federation's 15 wrestlers, five are ordained ministers and several teach Sunday school. Many of their names are inspired by the Bible--Jonah, Angel, Martyr. "Each guy picks his own name," said Vaughn. "Some aren't biblical at all, like Big Tim Storm or The New York Nightmare, but suit the wrestler's personality. I chose Jesus Freak because I reckoned there's a lot of freaks out there, and if I'm going to be a freak for anything, I'm going to be a freak for Jesus."

When they're not on the road, the wrestlers train three nights a week at a warehouse in the Fort Worth area and attend a mandatory weekly Bible study. The punishing nature of the ministry takes a toll; the troupe took July off to heal. "We were so banged up," Vaughn said. "We had neck problems, back problems, shoulder problems. Broken noses and broken ribs. In Arizona, Jonah broke his wrist. Fortunately, we have a chiropractor in Dallas who treats us for free. That's his ministry to us."

"The Bible talks about what is a reasonable sacrifice," Big Tim Storm, a.k.a. Tim Scoggins, explained as he sipped bottled water after the show. "We believe the physical sacrifices we make are reasonable. I've had torn ACLs, no cartilage in my knee. I've had concussions. You name it. But that's what this is all about. We accept the risks, just as you accept the risk every time you cross the street."

Scoggins estimates that he flies through the air and lands flat on his back roughly 30 times a night. "When we step into the ring, we have to give it 100 percent," he said, "because our commitment, our sacrifice, has to be pure. And if just one person accepts Jesus, then it's all worth it."

The visit to Lititz drew roughly 60 to 100 attendees, mostly church kids and their friends. The next stop was the 15th annual Kingdom Bound Christian Festival, at Six Flags in Darien Center, New York, which draws some 60,000 faithful. It was easily the CWF's biggest event so far.

Vaughn says the CWF has been on a roll since last November, when the group was featured on CBS News Sunday Morning. The next day, Vaughn received a flood of calls and emails, including one from a realtor in Florida. "He said, `I'm a Christian, and I hate wrestling,'" Vaughn recalled, "`but, man, what you guys are doing is unique. I saw that you're pulling a U-Haul, and I feel the Lord is leading me to help you guys out. Go pick out a trailer, and I'll buy it for you.' So we picked out the perfect trailer, and he sent us a check."

As Vaughn sees it, the future is in God's hands. "Basically, we are surviving on no budget," he said. "We don't have an athletic shoe company sponsoring us. But somehow we manage to pay our bills every month. God continues to bless us, sending us people willing to help."

"Of course, all this could end tomorrow," he said. "And if so, it's been a great run. We've seen hundreds of people get saved. But as long as the Lord continues to support us, and we're willing and able, we'll go wherever He leads us.

"We kind of think of ourselves in terms of Jesus' disciples--just ordinary men who did extraordinary things."



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