Preaching Till It Hurts


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.

Justin Fatica

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.

Hard As Nails

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.


Larry Shallenberger | 07:38 am on 12/19/2007

I'm also a former social worker and the use of violence bothers me. The idea that Jesus requires the physical abuse of the messenger to send the message is troubling.

Nick Thompson | 03:37 pm on 3/28/2009

According to the Bible, Jesus doesn't require the physical abuse of the messenger God does. I mean wasn't Jesus like his number one messenger? His abuse was so bad if they made a movie about it, it would be rated R. Don't believe me check the Passion. It was so violent they had to get Mad Max to direct it. You know the guy that handcuffs a guy to a car engulfed in flames and tosses him a hacksaw to cut his hand off with else he die in a firey explosion. I think what you're trying to say is religion is bothering and troublesome. Two man enter one man leave. Goodbye.

Peter Watson | 03:56 pm on 10/11/2010

These ten statements for being cool are really awesome and almost all of them I can say for myself. The most I like is second. But I do not say that others are not good like this one. I have heard that Lexi Belle really likes these statements but I do not known if this fact is really a true. Anyway thanks a lot for sharing this great information. Best regards!

Charity | 09:21 am on 12/19/2007

That stuff about "praying out loud at every meal." Um, that's nice and all, but didn't I read something in the Bible about "When you pray, pray quietly so that only you and God can hear you?"

Anonymous | 12:37 pm on 1/28/2008

Given this comment, why go to church services?

David Williams | 11:08 am on 12/19/2007

His wounds weren't self inflicted, dagnabbit.

Very thought-provoking article, as always.

David | 02:51 pm on 12/19/2007

Well I think the thing about "praying out loud" isn't so much a matter of them being proud of their holiness, as much as its about them being proud of God. Now while on an aesthetics level, I find much of their stuff corny, I can't deny that they are sincere and preaching truth. They go about it a different way, but for the most part I see what they are saying as truth, neh?

southpaw | 08:05 pm on 12/19/2007

Becky, I LOVE YOU, WILL YOU MARRY ME ? We can rise above these little boys and girls, and really show the world, or at least the readers that there is life after..... this little boy.... Football guy, yeah right...


Michael Camp | 08:47 pm on 12/20/2007

Right on, Becky. People often replace addictions with unhealthy mechanisms, in this case a performance-based religious one. The focus is more on what one should do for Christ, rather than humbly accepting what Christ has done for us. "Are you willing to do likewise?" is asked prematurely--the Good News is not that we get to pursue suffering like Christ but that we are forgiven, accepted, and given the gift of love--and his Top Ten Ways can easily be a license for being an obnoxious Bible thumper, rather than a humble servant.

David | 09:18 pm on 12/21/2007

Oh yeah by the way, I found a quote in this piece a little disconcerting. You said "few things in life are more obnoxious and odious than a gathering of born-again teenagers on fire for the Lord". Does that mean you don't want teens to be passionate about Christ? Sure some of them can be annoying, but shouldn't you want them to be passionate about this sorta thing?

Tempered | 02:46 am on 12/23/2007

I want to see what they are like in 10, 20, 30 years. I support what they are doing, albeit it's very cheezy. Nonetheless, kids are getting saved. Now they only need to be mentored and shepherded. It could be worse... they could've been at "Jesus Camp."

Chadrory | 02:42 am on 12/23/2007

I remember the "Power Team" when they came to our neck of the woods. They bent steel bars, karate-chopped cinder blocks, and blew up hot water bottles. I blew up a hot water bottle once. A piece of it landed in my eye.

Cindy | 05:09 pm on 12/26/2007

I wonder if anyone saw this guy on Nightline last week. One part of his deal is to plant his friend in the audience, have her stand up at some point and say "She's FAT!!! You're all thinking it! Just say it!" Then she cries. I'm gonna skip his show if it comes to my town.

Anonymous | 12:17 am on 1/13/2008

...She is fat! That's the point. He's trying to say that the things we assign value to(attractiveness, money, popularity), they don't matter. They are like chaff in the wind, a passing moment, gone when our breath expires, and that we should love each other and have faith that there is more to existance than this brief moment we spend on this planet, something that Jesus tries to express. And it's not being proud about God, or about replacing addiction, but rather understanding what sacrifice is, and serving your fellow man, while others choose to walk on the backs of the weak. And there have been many biblical figures that did not whisper quietly to God, but rather cried out in thanks or in need during prayer, because no man is an island unto his/herself. We need each other and we need God, and if this is a lie, then we are all nothing to begin with...

Anonymous | 09:42 am on 1/15/2008

As Paul said (loosely paraphrased):
If Christ is preached, then I don't care who does it or how it's done, as long as Christ and his resurrection is preached.

I also would like to see follow-ups, just to see a little more about their follow-up.

A group that does power-lifting did this same thing at my wife's school. I don't know how it made a difference. But, I'm not God...

Michael D | 06:29 am on 1/16/2008

In the Philippines there are some who literally nail themselves to crosses thinking that somehow this "witnesses for Christ" and brings them and others "closer to God." In truth these dramatics and those spoken of in this article involving self inflicted pain betray the gospel of Christ our righteousness the same way the self-flagellating monks and nuns in cloistered convents betray the truth. Martin Luther realized and broke away from this deception. He then became one of the most important agents of the Protestant Reformation. This stuff is just another form of fanaticism that is in truth quite unnecessary. True Christians carry the cross when they deny themselves the desires of the carnal nature and let "self" and selfishness die. If only we would read Galatians 2:20 and let the truth contained in those words become realized experience, the dramatic play acting and "shock witnessing" would vanish like smoke in the wind.

Anonymous | 05:10 pm on 1/19/2008

I found this documentry disturbing. The violence - disturbing. The "Fat Girl" senerio - disturbing. Using religion to make money - nothing new there, but still - disturbing! What was most disturbing, was learning that he "preaches" to kid's in my neighborhood.

Bergen County - NJ

Tired of reading all the criticisms | 10:35 pm on 2/20/2008

He seems quite passionate and although not "Orthodox"(whatever that means)He speaks to many young and old alike and they listen and are helped to better understand their own(some really messed up) lives.Hard as nails gets coverage,unlike the critics who seem to be everywhere on the web,whether social workers or self made judges.Hopefully his Apostolate aka ministry will not cause any one person to be looked at as a substitute for Jesus.

Anonymous | 11:39 am on 3/06/2008

I found the documentary disturbing what does getting wholped with a chair have to do with preaching Jesus but I guss this just shows the spiritual deadness of Catholicism but somefo these children Idothink need help.

Anonymous | 02:46 pm on 4/13/2008

Thank you to Anonymous from Bergen County!! I agree with you! I used to go to the prayer meetings Fatica held at a local catholic high school, and back then he wasnt as extreem. It was just a normal prayer meeting. Then I joined his Hard as Nails Team..when I went to the first meeting I realized that it was a joke. Not God, or the faith these kids have..but Justin. I saw how Fatica treated the members on the was literally mental abuse..Im there trying to help out and he treated me like dirt. I dont judge others but for the record..I dont smoke, or drink and I didnt then but he wanted me to go to an event and talk about "my drinking problem and how I found God through HAN." That was a red flag..HOAX. Everyone on his team HAS to have a story..something bad that they've done and now have come to Jesus. If they dont, Justin doesnt believe you and he will PICK YOU APART until he can find something in your past for you to talk about. He calls this "Letting all the garbage out" As a last resort he will fabricate a story for you to tell if you dont have one on your own. He personally video tapes all the event planning..plays it back and tells people how to act and what else to say.I saw when someone got hurt it would be written off as "Battle wounds for Jesus." ARE YOU KIDDING ME? He did so many other disgusting things..from things he said to me or to others and the "Fat girl seniero is the least of it. He breaks the kids on his team down so he can coach them on. There was one girl who was a self proclaimed "sex addict"..from anything shes ever told me personally I have no reason not to believe her. Instead of Fatica helping her to change he encourages her to get up in front of crowds and talk about her problem..but not to show the change in her but to demonstrate how shes a "whore". Yes, Fatica calls her that to her face. She talks about how shes still living like that and cant stop..she never really gets to a point. Thats because she hasnt not judging her, my point in telling you this is that Justin encourages her to continue her life style so he can use her to show girls "Look at her you dont want to be like [girls name here]. Start living for Jesus because she still isnt." I know this was a very long comment..but my point is he breaks down team members to get to other people. Justin Fatica is an actor who uses God as a prop and the church as his stage. It truly is a mockary to God. God is compassionate and with Him you dont have to go through something bad to get to something good. I never went back to another Hard as Nails event. I dont need Fatica to tell me Jesus loves me..I already know that, because God is who helped me get through the hellish time Fatica put me and so many teenagers through.

-Bergen County NJ-

Anonymous | 05:55 pm on 2/09/2010

Greetings from New York City,

Who in the world told anybody that Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X or Willie Mays were from Queens???
Mays was born in Alabama. Robinson was born in a terrible part of Georgia but his mom got the family to California for most of his childhood. He played in Kansas then Montreal, then famously in Brooklyn.He retired to Connecticut. Mays played for the Giants in Manhattan and then San Fran. He played very briefly at the end of his career for the Mets, 72-73. Malcolm X a hero of Harlem ( Detroit Red) in Queens?? That omits most of his life.

Facts and accuracy anyone??

Freethinker. | 03:39 pm on 5/31/2010

I watched the Hard as Nails documentary. Fatica is mentally ill. He comes across as an obsessive compulsive narcissist. This is my theory. Fatica cannot sing, dance, play an instrument or act well enough to get fame in the secular world. Fatica, upon accepting his lack of talent in these areas, fuels his need to feel famous by spewing religious nonsense to gullible teens.

Jesus is no more real than Bigfoot, the Mothman, the Loch Ness monster or Godzilla. The fact that this myth has caught such fire is mind boggling! I found the documentary funny. Crazy people are entertaining.

fishLover | 04:34 pm on 8/13/2010

I have to say, that does look a little scary. Beginning sunday school lessons with hardcore rap may be a more engaging style for some people, although getting hit with a metal chair while professing love is extremely strange!
Great writing, and it does seem like he preaches even beyond "when it hurts".

JoshG | 01:28 am on 1/22/2011

I totally agree with you that it does look a bit scary, but I am sure the end result is well worth the sacrafice and pain that goes into it.

Josh Grayson,
Free coloring pages

DownloadShield | 08:40 am on 9/28/2010

I may be mistaken, but I have always thought religion or certain beliefs are based on pure energy that goes from our hearts, not on strength or any activity of the kind. it is not sport anyway!(

used auto parts | 09:34 am on 12/07/2010

Isa 22:5 For it is a day of trouble, and of treading down, and of perplexity by the Lord GOD of hosts in the valley of vision, breaking down the walls, and of crying to the mountains.
It is a nice post to go through. Keep on posting such thought articles.

beauty product store | 02:06 pm on 2/22/2011

Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
We should learn from Him. thanks.

Regenerect | 12:01 am on 3/04/2011

I applaud his courage! Our ministry shares a similar story where we are on location in South America preaching our gospel and spreading the word. Thanks for this!

Anonymous | 01:08 pm on 5/04/2011

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Anonymous | 01:08 pm on 5/04/2011

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