By Stephanie Butzer
In The Lamb’s Chapel in Haw River, a large countdown timer ticked down the minutes until Faith Force, a group of world-class athletes who use feats of strength to build and share faith, ran onto the stage.
When the countdown reached zero, intense music blasted around the auditorium and crewmembers set bricks on fire. The flames were large enough that the front row leaned backwards, away from the heat. From behind the tall flames, Russ Clear, a six-time world champion in bench press, ran up to every set of enflamed bricks and smashed them with his fists. A thick chain around his neck glinted against the fire.
As crewmembers extinguished the fire, two male and one female member of the team walked onto a raised platform, held a hot water bottle, and started to blow in it. It slowly started to expand. When the material had stretched into the size of an extra-large balloon, where the pressure was about the same as a truck tire, they popped.
The feats of strength continued when Mark Kerr, a world champion strongman, attempted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by curling three frying pans and then breaking a baseball bat behind his back.
Just a few minutes later, Clear bent an inch-thick pole of steal in half. The heavy music and aggressive performance drifted off and the members wiped their foreheads. Kerr started talking to the audience about why Faith Force was at the chapel.
There was a bigger message behind the athletes’ physical strength. Between the high-energy crusades, they talked about personal stories involving their faith and testimonies of God’s truthfulness. Kerr encouraged members of the audience to talk to somebody who had not yet “opened their heart to Jesus.”
“All of us know somebody who needs Jesus Christ,” Kerr said. “All of us.”
Kerr introduced the upcoming acts and the team went back to breaking the physical barriers. Jeff Terrell, the founding member and a competitive bodybuilder, twisted a horseshoe into a heart, which he later gave to a child in the audience. Another member ripped through multiple phone books.
As the crew cleaned up behind him, Clear stepped up to talk to the audience. He thanked the church for helping send Faith Force to hundreds of schools in North Carolina. The athletes are currently getting ready to go to 100 to 150 schools in the region and Clear said they were looking for a miracle to get them to all those schools. He emphasized that the group was not “begging for bread,” but urged any kind of contribution.
“Your kids are priceless,” Clear said. “I know mine are – I got nine of them. I can’t keep track of all of them, I think it’s nine now.”
As donation buckets were passed around, Clear introduced Terrell’s next routine: lifting a 300-pound log over his head.
Toward the end of the night, Ron Waterman, an Ultimate Fighting Championship athlete, stepped up and started telling the story of his life before he embraced Jesus Christ. He described his childhood-self: a kid that was as wide as he was tall, and who struggled in school, especially mathematics. But Waterman forged a relationship with his Physical Education teacher, who encouraged him to join the wrestling team at the school. Years later, Waterman fought in UFC 20, 21, 22 and UFC Japan before he was offered a contract with the World Wrestling Entertainment.
Waterman said as he grew in popularity, he gained a lot of materialistic things: a fancy car, a big house. But he said he still felt empty.
“I was aiming to achieve a lot of things,” Waterman said. “A lot of people would say, ‘man, this guy has everything. He’s got a lot of worldly success.’ But, I was missing something. I found out it’s impossible to say ‘no’ to the things in this world unless you first say ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ.”
Burlington resident Wendy Wilkie said her sons always look forward to seeing the members of Faith Force at the church. They have gone to the performance for the past three years.
“These guys work in an amazing way with kids and adults, so to watch hearts changed is amazing,” she said. “I have a 9-year-old. It’s important to show him the way.”
While the members of Faith Force twisted metal, tore through phone books and distorted frying pans, a giant backlit cross on the wall glowed behind them.
“(Faith Force is) awesome,” Wilkie said. “Best way to say it: awesome.”