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From Heel to Good Guy

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Chuck Catalfu, a retired U.S. Army veteran and Assemblies of God pastor, is used to playing it close to the vest. But on Saturday nights, he dons an alter ego to become a ring announcer at Tennessee All Pro Wrestling matches.

That’s because the pro wrestling circuit rents Smartt AG’s Victory Center, a multipurpose building located next to the church sanctuary.

Last summer, Catalfu acted as the “heel commentator,” sticking up for the bad guys. Lately, he’s been praising the good guys, but whatever role he plays, Catalfu likes to ham it up.

That included once climbing into the ring after the referee got knocked out. The heavyweight champion called on Catalfu to take the referee’s place before taking a swipe at the pastor, who fell to the mat. Later, a crew carried Catalfu out on a stretcher.

“I must have done a good acting job,” says Catalfu, who moved to central Tennessee two years ago. “The next day I saw a guy who had been at the show and he asked, ‘How are you even walking today?’ I said, ‘Only by the grace of God.’ ”

The one-time master sergeant gets a chuckle out of recalling the incident, but the boost the Smartt congregation has received from hosting the matches is no laughing matter.

The Saturday night events have brought new life to the Victory Center, which is only partially completed. Before Catalfu accepted the church’s pastoral call, construction had stalled amid declining membership.  

In addition to rental fees, the church keeps all proceeds from the concession stand. The income helps defray expenses associated with the facility.

More importantly, thanks to the matches’ lineup of an opening prayer and invitation to follow Christ, Smartt AG has recorded eight conversions outside the ring.  

Seven of the new Christians are wrestling fans. The eighth was a competitor (now wresting in another city) who goes by the name of “Dangerous James Black.”

Beau James of Kingsport, Tennessee, a traveling wrestler who has given a pair of altar calls in Smartt, says the program shows how more churches need to think outside the box.

“We’ve seen it reach people you couldn’t pay to come to church on Sunday, but who will go to a wrestling match on Saturday night,” says James, who has also led wrestling exhibitions for AG churches in Louisiana and Virginia. “Since I went into the ministry in 2009, we’ve planted thousands of Bibles into wrestling fans’ homes.”

Catalfu hopes to see other salvations through relationships with the wrestlers; many are friends on Facebook. He has prayed with several and shared the gospel with others.

“Some listen and others kind of humor you,” Catalfu says.

The Victory Center matches originated with Smartt AG’s first “Back to School Bash” in August 2015, when the church distributed more than 100 backpacks filled with school supplies.

During planning for the event, the pastor met the owner of the wrestling operation, which was losing its lease on a building in nearby McMinnville. Catalfu thought it would be a good idea for the church to be a host site.

To say they were a hit is an understatement. Although turnouts in the rural county average around 100, on a recent Saturday the crowd nearly reached 200.

Last year, Smartt AG connected with Convoy of Hope and has given away 1,300 pairs of shoes to elementary students in the economically depressed area.

As for wrestling, Catalfu says it’s all about going outside the four walls.

“People don’t come to church like they used to any longer,” the pastor says. “This is reaching people we wouldn’t normally reach. The more people we reach, the easier it will be to grow the church.”

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