Jeremy Woodham gets ringside at a church in Nottingham, where the idea of “wrestling with faith” is taken to a whole new level
The House of Pain Wrestling Academy. It would be a great name for a church. A truthful name. A house where pain is held, shouldered, wrestled with – ultimately leading to victory.
There is one church in Nottingham where you can see this story being vividly played out on Saturday nights – and in a rather more ‘in your face’ way than it is on a Sunday morning.
The ‘congregation’ on Saturday nights is a little different too. Though you will find members of St Ann with Emmanuel church there, cheering along with other wrestling fans – because this is where the House of Pain Wrestling Academy now stages monthly shows. They regularly attract around 120 people, many of whom had nothing to do with the church in the past.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were some initial objections to hosting wrestling shows in the church, says church warden Kevin Redmond (who has turned up in his House of Pain t-shirt). “At first some of the older generation were a bit against having violence in the church,” he says. But opinions changed.
What I learned about wrestling
- Good guys and bad guys are known as Faces and Heels
- It’s more about storytelling than violence. In fact it’s practically panto. Or “comic books brought to life” as Stixx put it. Fans follow and know the stories of individual characters.
- The House of Pain Wrestling Academy reaches out to people who don’t quite fit in and generates a feeling of community many churches would be jealous of.
“I think it was three shows in and the vicar came down to watch the show,” says Paul ‘Stixx’ Grint, the man at the heart of House of Pain wrestling. “She came down early and saw everyone working as a team to set up, and then she saw the same people squaring off as good guys and villains and she just got it straight away. That it was almost meant to be a morality tale: that good overcomes – or bad overcomes by questionable means, but that bad guy will eventually lose and get their comeuppance.
“It’s fun, it’s action, it’s like a comic book come to life.”
The initial House of Pain link came through Kevin, whose daughters were training at the wrestling school, which was looking for a new venue.
“Now it’s just second nature but at first it was nerve wracking,” says Kevin. “Even with our mission statement of breaking down barriers it was quite a big barrier.”
That mission statement of ‘Believing in St Ann’s and breaking down barriers’ came from the church’s participation in the Partnership for Missional Church journey, which is now being offered by Church Mission Society in the UK. St Ann with Emmanuel was one of the first UK churches to adopt the PMC process.
“Partnership for Missional Church caused to us to wrestle with being a church for the community around us and it's ironic I suppose that out of that we have got wrestling in the church,” comments Kevin.
What I learned about Partnership for Missional Church
- It helps churches be comfortable with who they are – which paradoxically leads to deep change
- It sets church leaders free to live out their call
- It breaks down barriers between church and community
St Ann’s is a community that bears a lot of stigma from drug and gang related violence in the past.
“Mud sticks sometimes I'm afraid and people forget what a hard working community this place is and how everyone looks out for each other,” says Kevin.
“A lot of different places have been shut down and everyone says the church is the centre of the community. Partnership for Missional Church has helped us realise how to utilise that.”
One of the outcomes was being willing to open the doors to House of Pain.
As well as turning out to be a surprisingly affordable and family-friendly entertainment (£15 for a family of four), Kevin reckons the wrestling has had an all-round positive impact. The shows have brought in some who would not have set foot in St Ann’s before and on show nights the police have noted a marked drop in anti-social behaviour.
Arriving early for the show meant getting to meet the wrestlers and watch them work together to set up the ring and practise some of their moves. The biggest surprise was how sweet and gentle they all were – and it was immediately obvious what strong friendships existed in the House of Pain community.
It seemed like a community many churches would be jealous of. Wrestling really seems to be life-changing for some.
Andrew Parker, or ‘Syntax’ as he is known, is not afraid to say “wrestling probably saved my life.”
“When I started wrestling I was about 20 stone. I don’t mind saying that I was depressed and pretty much suicidal. I knew I needed to make a change. I chose to do wrestling at that point because I thought it would be ‘Oh, there’s no wrestling schools, I can’t do it; I can give it up and go back to my life of being a 20-stone hermit.’ But as luck would have it, on the doorstep there was House of Pain wrestling and, as luck would have it, it was run by Stixx who is one of the most encouraging tutors you will ever meet in your life.
“I remember my first lesson: even though I had no athletic ability, I was accepted. I found a huge group of friends there, everyone just wanted you to succeed.”
Now Syntax is not only a popular wrestler; he has qualified as a personal trainer. “I can put on a mask and suddenly I’m not me. I can entertain the kids, I can high-five them. I’m someone completely different and I can bring those experiences into Andrew Parker the person and make him better for life.”
The wrestlers have played their part in blending church and community, Kevin explains, and even pitched in with the church spring clean. “In June they did a charity show for the church as a thank you for letting them use the place. So we are working quite hand-in-hand.
“Most of the British wrestlers call this church the spiritual home of wrestling; that's how they refer to it. A few of the people from the wrestling are slowly discovering the church. Sometimes they wanted to pray in the church.”
A prayer station, with wrestling related prayers, was well received: “That kind of thing, it goes above and beyond,” Stixx says. “That’s a really awesome gesture as a far as I’m concerned.”
Both Stixx and Syntax say they are agnostic but open when it comes to faith. But as Syntax says, “You can’t deny how this community is brought together, just by the existence of this place.
“This church brings people from all round the community and gives them a purpose. Whether you believe in God or not you can’t deny that’s a power for good.”
The Call in Action
Watch the video of House of Pain and St Ann's and find out more about Partnership for Missional Church