Preaching Till It Hurts12/18/2007
Hard As Nails
Reviewed by Becky Garrison
Entering the auditorium of St. Gabriel Catholic School in the same neighborhood of Queens that spawned Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Malcolm X, I couldn’t keep my eyes off this urban punk doing pushups and rapping at the top of his lungs. Looking more like Eminem than an evangelist (if they did a fictional movie of his life, I could see a roughed up Mark Walberg playing the lead), Justin Fatica was pure magnetism, keeping a group of 75 mostly black and brown students spellbound for a solid 90 minutes.
After opening with some hard-core rap to get the Jesus juices going, the deejay shifted to songs that are more reminiscent of Michael W. Smith than Holy Hip-Hop. Tim, a former football player who now throws Hail Mary passes for the Lord, joined Fatica to share their tales of personal sin and redemption and then they both hammered home their central message: “No matter what happens to you or what you've done there's someone who loves you. And that someone is God.”
Hard As Nails delivers their message sans any power praise band, or even a Power Point for that matter, but they do bring along a cardboard stick and a smiley face piata. Justin and Tim hit the piñata every time they talk about something “bad” that happened to them. Then they encourage the kids to come up and do likewise.
After the kids spill their guts, Fatica opens up the piñata and encourages the kids to grab the sweetness inside. He then asks them, “Do you want to be a better person?” Now comes the salvation spiel: “God so loved the world that he gave up his life for you. Are you willing to do likewise?”
And the response from the group is a resounding, YES!” Following a “Just as I Am”-styled altar call, the auditorium busts loose as Justin encourages the kids to go “make some Holy Ghost noise."
David Holbrooke, director of the HBO documentary Hard as Nails, jokes that while he’s not a religious person, Justin Fatica is a gift from the documentary gods. He met the Hard As Nails crew at Soulfest, the largest Christian rock festival in the Northeast, while researching a documentary about faithful America. Holbrooke found himself drawn to this charismatic 29-year-old school-teacher-turned-minister (he likes to say that he has the same credentials as Joel Osteen) and founder of the Hard As Nails youth ministry.
The feature-length documentary, which premiered Monday with lots of HBO hype surrounding it, illustrates how the ministry makes its point via a rather literal approach to the crucifixion. Part of the training for future teen leaders includes reenacting Christ’s crucifixion, complete with the simulated nailing and blindfolding of the participants, who carry wooden crosses as others berate them. In two of the more disturbing scenes in the documentary, Fatica demonstrates Jesus’ love for us by having an assistant hit him repeatedly on the back with a metal chair as he tells a troubled teen how much he loves him.
Even his affluent Catholic family does not wholly support this ministry. His mother states, “What he is doing is wonderful and positive, but a lot of people look at him as very different and strange.”
According to Fatica, HBO juiced up the documentary, showing only the best bits and employing provocative terms like “unordained minister” that he doesn’t use. He considers himself to be a minister in the tradition of the Catholic lay Eucharistic ministers, though he travels sans license. According to Fatica, he has working relationships with a number of dioceses including New York, Newark, St. Louis, Erie and Syracuse. However, his intense approach caused the diocese of Vermont to asked him to leave, fearful that he was doing more emotional damage than good.
Such skepticism may be well warranted. As the film demonstrates, the ministry tends to attract some really damaged souls. One passionate young adult leader gets badly injured while participating in a Hard As Nails skit, but blithely explains his accident away. “I’ve never broken anything in my entire life, and now that I’ve met Christ, I’ve separated my shoulder. I also got hit in the face by a beam. So, it’s all about just praising Jesus, you know, and if I have to get hurt to praise Jesus, then that’s what I’m going to have to do.”
The former social worker in me says that some of these kids will need more intensive psychological care than simply having teachers available afterwards to provide follow-up. As I pointed out in The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, some damaged people replace their addiction with their compulsive need to attend 12-step meetings—or religious events. One can replace a deadly addiction with a less dangerous, though still unholistic and unhealthy, mechanism.
Your enjoyment of this documentary in large part depends on your tolerance for teenage traumas. As anyone who has been at the end of a Young Life Bible Blitz can attest, few things in life are more obnoxious and odious than a gathering of born-again teenagers on fire for the Lord. But Justin’s magnetic personality, rugged movie-star looks, and refreshing honesty create a compelling character that’s hard to forget.