By day, the Freedom Fellowship church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is filled with laughter, song and sermon.
But by night, the church hosts a fight club, where pastor Preston Hocker has an unusual nickname -- “The Pastor of Disaster.”
“I believe that martial arts can lead people to Jesus," Hocker said.
Hocker himself is a cage fighter and Mixed Martial Arts training sessions are held at the church, led by his father Pastor Rick Hocker.
“When Preston came up with the idea of having a fight club in the church, it was an easy thing to say yes to,” Rick Hocker said.
Most of the fight team members are older, but include 17-year-old Connor Myers. He said the Mixed Martial Arts training has helped him overcome problems with bullying.
“It's funny because the more I fight, the less I kind of want to in a sense,” he said. “When people come at me now, when they say harsh things or do mean things to me, I don't want to hit them back any more. I realized I have my own self-control.”
Children are welcome on the team, but only to train in Mixed Martial Arts and not to fight in the cage. Adrianna Hartman is the youngest member of the fight team at just 10 years old.
“My dad he got me into it. It helps me, I don’t know. It just really helps me,” she said. “My dad’s here so it’s more comfortable. Like other gyms, I don’t know anybody. I don’t know what I’m doing so I get kind of lost. So he’s here and it kind of makes me feel better.”
Christian ministries across the country today who have embraced the brutal sport of Mixed Martial Arts have ignited a firestorm among men of the cloth.
“You can’t use non-gospel values to reveal gospel values, it just doesn’t go,” said Father John Duffell, who has been a parish priest in New York City for over 40 years. “Nothing about the gospel is revealed about cage fighting.”
But that hasn’t stopped pastors across the country from using fight clubs to spread the word of God, attract new members and even try to mold and reshape the modern Christian man.
“I think most people that criticize me or criticize Christian fighters in general, either don’t understand the sport or don’t understand Jesus,” Hocker said.
Hocker wasn’t always so intense. He spent his childhood in the church led by his father Rick Hocker, and though he wrestled growing up, his high school sweetheart, now his wife, says he wasn’t a typical jock.
“He was actually a theater geek in high school,” Lindsay Hocker said.
But Preston Hocker said everything changed after he learned a childhood friend had been murdered.
“It shook up my world, and really brought up some questions in my life,” he said.
The news sent Hocker on a journey down from the pulpit and into the cage, and he got serious about fighting.
“I was newly married, and had a real beautiful wife and heaven forbid anybody want to take her life or take her away from me,” he said. “I wanted to know that I had the ability to at the very least defend her life.”
Cage fighting began as a hobby for him, but then grew into something bigger.
“When he began to move towards fighting, because I knew that whatever he did, he would use it to bring glory and honor to the Lord Jesus,” said his father Pastor Rick Hocker.
Preston Hocker’s story was told in a new documentary called “Fight Church,” which features fighting pastors from all over the country, who all share a love for Jesus and a passion for hand-to-hand combat.
Hocker and the others featured in the film believe they can still preach, including how to “love thy neighbor,” and still deliver crushing blows while cage fighting because they are separate teachings.
“I’ve heard the line before – can you love your neighbor and knee him in the face as hard as you can? – all those things have been lumped together in ‘Fight Church’ and what I do here at Freedom,” Hocker said.
“I think about turning the other cheek,” he continued. “That teaching is about forgiveness, do you have the ability to get hit, forgive someone and offer the opportunity to hurt you again.”
Hocker admits that when he is cage fighting, there are times when he’s is trying to hurt his fellow man on purpose, but he said he sees a difference between receiving pain and inflicting injury.
“I don’t think pain is all bad,” Hocker said. “I think a lot of us are afraid of pain but pain teaches us things, you can learn something is wrong.”
According to the documentary, there are now over 700 fight churches in the United States, which critics of this practice say is evidence of a bigger societal problem.
Father Duffell believes men of the cloth should be leading society and held to a higher moral standard. New York, where Father Duffell serves his parish, is the only state where Mixed Martial Arts is still illegal and he is fighting to keep it that way.
“Jesus is not violent and does not endorse violence,” Duffell said. “Cage fighting is about hating one another. I mean just the whole notion of putting people in a closed environment in an enclosed environment like two animals to beat one another up.”
But Preston Hocker doesn’t see it that way. To him, fighting is a community activity that brings people together. But when children are introduced and encouraged to fight as part of a church youth program, it gives others pause.
Teaching Mixed Martial Arts as a way for children to find discipline, Father Duffell says, is asking too much of impressionable children.
“Any of these types of activities contributes to this situation where teaching young children that the way to deal with the other is to belt them not to love them,” Duffell said. “Young people are not necessarily going to decide they’re going to do it just happens inside a cage. So if I get angry at somebody let’s step inside a cage. No, they're going to belt one another.“
But for fight churches like Freedom Fellowship, where it seems to be working, some parishioners believe it’s a risk worth taking.
“I think there’s something special about having our fight team in the church,” Hocker said. “I’m not sure it would have the same impact on people’s lives someplace else. I’m not going to put a limit on ability of Holy Spirit but I think there’s something neat about being able to train in our ministry center.”