Dropkicks for Jesus

(Appeared in the November 14, 2007 issue of Time Out Chicago)

What would Jesus do? He’d head straight for the top rope, according to the gospel of Steve Szoke. Better known as “Diehard,” the bald, muscle-bound, tattoo-sporting Szoke is the pastor of Impact Christian Church, a nondenominational institution in a converted warehouse outside of a strip mall in Merrillville, Indiana, approximately 50 miles from Chicago. He’s also one of its most popular wrestlers. Running both a house of worship and a house of pain, Szoke is the mastermind behind Fire Pro Wrestling—a collective of about 20 local pro athletes that stages monthly family-friendly wrestling shows. Think Monday Night Raw (sweat, trash talk, and spandex unitards), minus the cursing, explicit music and bikini-clad ring girls. And if you’re willing to make a run for the border, you’ll get your chance to see the gospel grapplers Saturday 17.

“We’re like a live-action Disney movie because we’re PG-rated,” Szoke says. “Fire Pro has all the excitement of professional wrestling, but it’s so safe you could bring both your grandma and your five-year-old daughter to it.”

In fact, many grandmas and five-year-old daughters regularly attend Fire Pro events. Despite the body slams and submission holds, Szoke keeps his smackdown squeaky-clean and booze-free, attracting an all-ages crowd—many of whom attend services alongside wrestlers the next day. “Any given Sunday morning, we usually have 10 to 12 professional wrestlers attending our church,” Szoke says. “If you were to come tomorrow morning to church, you would be like, ‘This is so weird because I saw him fighting him last night, but now they’re serving Communion and offering together.’ ”

That’s exactly what Fire Pro was designed to do. Created as both a promotion and recruitment tool for Impact, the nonprofit wrestling collective draws a cross-section of both athletes and action-hungry fans who flood through Impact’s doors each week to hear a blue jeans–clad Szoke preach from the ring…well, the ring minus the ropes.

Szoke says that Impact’s atypical congregation composition combined with its casual atmosphere is exactly what makes the organization successful. “There are a lot of people that come to our church that would never go to a traditional-type church,” he says. “They’ll come here because they know it’s not going to matter how they’re dressed. It’s not going to matter if they’ve got tattoos. It’s not going to matter if they wear a ball cap inside the building. It’s a very cool thing.”

Szoke designed Impact to meet the needs of those who simply don’t fit Sunday School stereotype.  “I understand that we’re not going to fit everyone,” he says, “but we’ve touched a lot of families through wrestling.”

Since Fire Pro’s inception in January of 2006, the organization has raised money for mission trips and local charities as well as collected for Toys for Tots. At the Saturday 17 “Ground Zero” show, sweaty dudes in tight pants will duke it out for the Chicago Christian Service Center, a nonprofit agency that provides antigang alternatives for kids.

The irony of putting on a fake battle royal to raise money to prevent a real-life battle royal isn’t lost on Szoke; however, he maintains that the show is an effective way to reach a nonchurchgoing demographic.

“I’ve taken a lot of potshots from people about how Christianity can go with wrestling, but at the end of the day, this is strictly to promote the church,” he says. “If this is a tool that God can use, then he’s going to unleash it, so why wrestling? Why not?”

All Fire Pro events are $10 and $6 for kids at Impact Christian Church (401 W 82nd Pl, Merrillville, Indiana). For more information on Fire Pro Wrestling or Impact Christian Church, e-mail fireprodiehard@hotmail.com or visit its MySpace page.

—Christina Couch

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