IN 1979, weight lifter and Oral Roberts University graduate John Jacobs launched a spirited new approach to Protestant evangelization: the Power Team. He and other weight-lifter preachers would perform circus-style feats of strength, pausing between stunts to preach a simple message of salvation through Christ. Cheering crowds saw Power Team members bend steel bars, tear telephone books in half, break baseball bats and blocks of ice, squeeze soft drink cans until they exploded, or burst free from handcuffs.
Jacobs and the Power Team have been regular guests on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a glitzy evangelical Protestant cable show out of Tustin, Calif. Some Power Team members left Jacobs' group and founded their own versions of the Power Team, including Strike Force and Team Destiny.
The teams perform at Protestant churches, juvenile halls, prisons, and even public high schools. Unable to discuss religion in a public school auditorium, the teams' message would be a “teaser” focusing on the dangers of alcohol and drugs, with an invitation to attend an evening meeting off-campus where the hulksters would deliver testimonies about the importance of Christ in their lives.
Mike Rodarte, 30, of Dinuba, Calif., a 6-foot, 275 lb. Catholic with 20-inch biceps, belonged to Team Destiny for three years. The idea of sharing the message of the Gospel, incorporating showmanship and weightlifting, appealed to him and Rodarte traveled with Team Destiny through small towns and big cities, exhorting hundreds of congregations with “a simple, inspirational message to lead people back to Christ.”
The program targeted teenagers, although adults always seemed to enjoy the fun. Among its many stops Team Destiny visited juvenile halls to perform for the incarcerated teens. In one encounter, a young inmate who was a self-declared Satanist heckled the team when they began their presentation. Later, however, he wanted to become a Christian and asked the team to pray over him.
Team members enjoyed a certain celebrity status. Rodarte was driven around in chauffeured cars, served great food, and became well known in certain circles. “It goes to your head,” he says, but adds that the performances were physically demanding. Breaking a block of ice, Rodarte once broke an arm, and has torn muscles and suffered other minor injuries.
But over time, Rodarte began to feel that, as a Protestant outfit, Team Destiny was missing something. “I couldn't talk about the Holy Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Mother, the Sacrament of Penance, and many other Catholic beliefs and practices.
“It bothered me that someone I helped bring back to Christ might go and attend a church led by an anti-Catholic Protestant minister,” he says. Rodarte himself maintained his Catholic identity, bringing his rosary and a Catholic prayer book with him on the road. But living and working around-the-clock with Protestants, he found his perspective on Christianity becoming increasingly Protestant and he often missed Sunday Mass. One Pentecostal service he attended, however, made him long for the Catholic liturgy. The pastor exhorted his congregation to jump up and down to conjure up “happy feelings” to invite the presence of God. Rodarte remembers thinking, “Why would I do this? At any Catholic Mass I attend I know God is present in the Eucharist, no matter what I do or feel.”
Desiring to reconnect with his Catholic roots, he began an intensive study of his Catholic faith. Taped lectures of University of Steubenville professor and biblical scholar Scott Hahn and the conversion stories in Patrick Madrid's Surprised by Truthwere especially crucial to reigniting his faith.Thenin 1996, Rodarte attended the SCRC Catholic Renewal Convention in Los Angeles and found himself surrounded by Catholics excited about their faith. He realized he had grown weary of Protestant theology. “I had had enough of this ‘once saved, always saved’ doctrine, which is unbiblical,” he says.
Rodarte stresses that his objection is not to Protestants but to anti-Catholicism, biblical interpretations contrary to Catholic belief, and other practices which divide the Body of Christ. However, he maintains many close friendships with his former Team Destiny members. He is grateful for all they taught him about evangelizing non-believers. While some were not always true to the Gospel they preached, many others were sincere Christians “who loved the Lord.”
When Rodarte separated from Team Destiny, he hoped to launch a version of the Power Team that was “100 percent Catholic, (with people) who loved the Eucharist, loved the Holy Father, and would inspire others to do the same.”
He teamed up with two Orange County, Calif. apologists he'd met at the SCRC Convention: former Baptist youth minister Tim Staples, 33, and professional magician Matthew Arnold, 37, both of St. Joseph Radio, an all-volunteer Catholic educational apostolate in Orange County, Calif.
As a teen and into his early 20s, Staples was an ardent anti-Catholic who had attended Jimmy Swaggart Bible College (the Catholic Church has long been a favorite target of Swaggart), but converted to Catholicism after intensive study. Today, he teaches classes in the basics of the Catholic faith at parishes throughout Southern California.
Arnold is a professional magician who works in Hollywood and has tutored celebrities on how to perform magic tricks. Formerly involved in the New Age movement, he converted to Catholicism after a lengthy study and resolved to devote his talents to spreading the Catholic faith.
The trio became the Covenant Warriors, offering “Muscle (Rodarte), Magic (Arnold), and Message (Staples).” They present up to an hour-long, high intensity show, mixing visual effects with an inspirational message about the Catholic faith. Their target audience is Catholic teens, though adults, too, are welcome. Rodarte explains the group's name: “The covenant is the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. We'll guard it, defend it, and fight for it. We want teens to love the Eucharist, go to confession, and get excited about their faith.”
In a typical show, Arnold might magically produce a dove from fire, both symbols from Scripture representing the Holy Spirit. The trick will launch him into a talk about the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Or, after a sleight of hand trick, an act of deception, he might talk about deceptive messages in the world.
“The tricks are attention-getters,” explains Arnold. “We learn through parables and symbols.” Central to Arnold's message is the belief that “it's not sufficient to be Catholic only on Sunday. It's good for teens to see devoted Catholics in different spheres of life.”
Staples acts as Master of Ceremonies, and speaks to the audience on such topics as the person of Jesus Christ, the history and doctrines of the Catholic Church, and the differences between Catholicism and other religions.
Rodarte, after breaking a block of ice or blowing up a hot water bottle until it bursts, tells teens about the dangers of drugs, drunkenness, and promiscuous lifestyles, noting, “People are lying to you guys. We're here to tell you about one thing that's the truth, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
The Covenant Warriors are available for parish picnics, youth groups and other Catholic gatherings. Additionally, Mike is seeking more weight-lifter Catholics interested in joining the Warriors. For more information about the Covenant Warriors or St. Joseph Radio, telephone (714) 744-0336.
Jim Graves is based in Orange, Calif.