Fridge-freezers for Jesus

If a man strikes you, you should turn the other cheek, says the Bible. But if your assailant is one of the athletic evangelists known as the Power Team, it might be better to run away. They're spiritual, but they are also large.

Ann Treneman
Thursday 01 April 1999 23:02

James Henderson is the largest man I have ever met. He is 6ft 5in and weighs 390lb, but those statistics cannot do justice to his extreme ginormousness. He is a fridge-freezer with skin. He is so big, in fact, that I cannot speak. The man has just flown in from Texas. He is jet-lagged. He has bothered to come all the way to Hackney in east London to tell me what it is like to be a Muscleman for God. He has also promised to break a few concrete blocks. I should be talking to him about his life, his work, his story. Instead I am staring at his neck.

It is a tree trunk. James is saying something about God when I interrupt. "So how big is your neck?" I ask. His gold tooth flashes. "Twenty-three inches." I stare at him some more. To fill the silence, James volunteers the fact that he has to have his clothes tailor-made. I look at his black tracksuit and wonder if he always has to wear stretchy material. Then I wonder who sat next to this guy in the plane all the way from Texas. Then I ask whether he has ever met anyone who was so big. "Well I met myself this morning when I woke up," he says rather gently. I do not want to make this man angry. It is time to snap out of it.

This is easier said than done when you are at the Kingsway International Christian Centre. This is one of the fastest-growing churches in Britain and it is located in what used to be a warehouse, next to the dog track, on an industrial estate in Hackney. There is no steeple here, or stained glass, or pews. Instead there are 4,000 orange plastic chairs and a PA system that seems to play the New Testament on a continuous loop. The church's motto is "Raising Champions, Fulfilling Dreams!", and it publishes a magazine called Winning Ways. On the first page there is an article called "Ten Things Single Women Should Not Do". These include "Don't Get Foolishly Passionate" and "Don't Get Into Foolish Submission".

James, plus some 25 other members of the Power Team, are providing the Easter entertainment here this year. It is a Biceps for Christ kind of show, with the men blowing up hot-water bottles, snapping baseball bats, breaking walls of concrete, bending steel bars and ripping up phone books. In between violent outbursts, they talk about the Lord. The whole thing is a bit like evangelical wrestling. On Monday there is a special show with a mass baptism. A pool has been rented and at least 400 are expected to get wet.

There are two kinds of Americans: polite ones and rude ones. James Henderson and his fellow Power Team member, Jeff Neal, are in the first category. In fact, they may be founding members of the first category. They call me "ma'am" quite a few times before we even sit down in the orange chairs for a chat. Behind us, on the dais, some wavy concrete blocks are stacked up, ready for demolition. The Power Team manager wants to know whether James is going to split them with forearm, elbow or hand. It is decided that this one is for the elbow. I am told that one Power Team member has perfected the art of breaking blocks of ice with his head.

James introduces me to Jeff Neal, Man of Steel. He is relatively tiny, at 6ft 2in and 335lb. He was brought up a Christian, but found his own particular divine moment at age 13. Since then he has been "walking with the Lord". Both he and James talk in an evangelical kind of way. When something important has happened in their lives, it has been "divine intervention". They say that the Lord always picks you up when you are down. They say that they are in the Power Team as a way of getting our attention, and then they make a bid to save our souls.

I ask about drugs. It is the obvious question in the circumstances. Jeff used to play professional American football. He is a champion weight-lifter. James is the four-times World Heavyweight Lifetime-Drug-Free Power-Lifting Champion. Just try getting that on a name badge. But, really, what about drugs? "No! And I never have. My strength is enhanced naturally," insists James. Is he sure? "Well, I've drunk a couple of beers in my life," he says. "That was before the Lord," says Jeff. "You don't drink at all now."

They advise me how to blow up a hot-water bottle, and then James stands up and walks stiffly towards the stacked concrete. I ask why he is limping. He says that he has come all the way from Texas and is stiff. I ask him if I am irritating him. He says that he cannot be irritated and taps my arm in a sort of a power josh. (Later, I check for bruises.)

James says crashing through bricks is all about technique, not strength. "You need consistent drive," he says. He stands behind the bricks and says "Pray for me." I think this may have been a joke. Then there is a blur, a thud and a crash. The pulpit area is littered in concrete. The team manager tells me that it is far more impressive when the concrete is on fire. I pause. How does that happen exactly? Divine intervention? Nope, he says - lighter fuel.

The Power Team appears at 6.30pm every night until Monday 5 April, at the Kingsway International Christian Centre, 57 Waterden Road, Hackney. Free bus service from Hackney Town Hall and Stratford. The hotline is on 0181-525 0000

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