Joel Caldwell rocked on his feet as he injected a lung’s worth of air into the already grossly overfilled hot-water bottle.
Kids shrieked as they plugged fingers into their ears and awaited the blast.
After 2 1/2 minutes, the hot-water bottle exploded to cheers, laughter and astonishment. It was like nothing these kids had ever seen before in church.
Caldwell had been egged on by big man Craig Lemley, who himself can drive 16penny nails through a board with his bare hand and snap a crescent wrench in two. Also urging Caldwell on was a menacing-looking, bald titan named Russ Clear, who can propel his head through a stack of concrete slabs and who grunts like a monster as he lifts telephone poles over his head.
All for Jesus, all for salvation and all for turned-around, purpose-filled lives.
Here were daredevils fighting the devil. Here were fire and ice and walls tumbling down. Here was The Power Team, guys in testosterone overload who had come for a five-night Christian crusade, displaying feats of brawn and body-torturing strength, backed up with faith testimony and altar calls at Celebration Christian Center in Mesa.
With don’t-try-this-at-home disclaimers, the beefy, grimacing preachers moved through their eye-catching stunts with aplomb. Crushing success comes from speed, strength and willpower — not trick stunts, they insisted.
Their sideshow of superhuman strength was accompanied by intense Christian talks targeted to youth.
"These are real concrete bricks," Lemley said. "They are really hard when you don’t break them, I can promise you." He had broken his arms twice in ill-fated attempts, he said, and his teammates had their own accounts of bone breaks and dislocations.
"These are physical walls. . . . Jesus is our peace, and he has broken down every single wall," he said, pointing to the stage featuring stacked bricks awaiting assaults from thick arms and heads.
"The ministry is committed to fight for this generation," Lemley said, adding that if he had just shown up with a Christian message, he would not have drawn a loud, eager crowd. "If you come in and break something with your head, blow up water bottles, snap baseball bats . . . you are going to get their attention, so you can get to the heart, and that is where God changes lives."
"If God had an 11th commandment, it would be this: Thou shalt not bore," Lemley told his audience to start the opening-night feats. "We are going to have a good time tonight" and an "astounding week right here in this church, and I think it’s going to be the worst week the devil ever had in Mesa, Arizona."
By the end of the night, the trio had left destruction behind — piles of rubble, shattered building blocks, splintered two-by-fours, shattered baseball bats and twisted steel rods. But about 125 people — most of them teens and children — had answered the altar call. They huddled and repeated a short prayer, which included, ". . . I am a sinner who needs to be saved, and I accept what you did on the cross for me." All were then escorted into a side room for encouragement in Christian discipleship.
Lemley lauded Pastor Randy Visconti for letting his sanctuary become their den of demolition. While the chancel carpet was covered with plastic and plywood for protection, he said, "It’s not every pastor that will have The Power Team in their church. I don’t know why. We like to think this is normal for us."
An occasional rip in a church’s carpet, he said, cannot compare to a soul won for Jesus.
Founded in 1976, The Power Team (www.thepowerteam.com) has been widely seen in tours and on television. They rip thick phone books in seconds and smash to smithereens stacks of bricks covered in fuel and set on fire.
For more than a decade, their weekly show, "The Power Connection," offered a fastmoving demonstration of brazen feats. They were also regulars on "Walker, Texas Ranger" and spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."
Today about 20 men, some ex-pro football players, travel in as many as five teams of three or four members each. They typically work Tuesdays through Sundays three weeks per month and spend the rest of the time at home with their families, Caldwell said.
"When I first met The Power Team, I weighed about 148 pounds, so I definitely wasn’t Power Team material, said Caldwell, 30. Now weighing 215 pounds, Caldwell said he remains a kind of "utility player," light enough to jump from scaffolding, driving his arms through two set-ups of blocks during the descent without breaking through the stage. Son of a pastor, Caldwell was already doing his own traveling ministry when he joined.
In public school assemblies, they put aside Christian testimony and do motivational speaking against drug use, alcohol and suicide and for academic excellence and sexual abstinence. All share their life stories. Clear, for example, draws from his 15 years in prison and cautions against making bad choices.
"It’s a completely secular assembly," Caldwell said. "We talk about about values" and urge students to make good choices to reach their goals and dreams. "Most schools will allow us to invite and tell where were will be in the nighttime, and some kids will come out and hear the gospel," he said.
"I used to watch them (on television) as a kid when I was growing up," said Stephen Dunegan, 21, who attends Celebration Christian Center. "I had never seen them live. It is kind of cool to have them come to our church."
"We decided it was a great thing to do," Visconti said. Part of the church’s commitment was obtaining the pallets of concrete blocks (75 a night are used), a supply of steel rods, cases of soft drinks to be ripped open by hand, the phone books, wood and other materials. Concrete blocks were donated by a business. The church furnished food for the team and made arrangements for them to work out at a gym.
Caldwell told his audience, "We didn’t come here to show you we could bend steel. Who cares? Your biceps will mean nothing in the future life. But let me tell you, the sign in your heart that Jesus Christ is your savior is what will get you to the other side."