Hammering Kids for Christ

Controversial Catholic youth minister Justin Fatica is tough and bruised, but soft-hearted, and few dispute he has a knack for reaching troubled kids

Szpila says the event was poorly planned. “Without pointing fingers, the right kind of preparation wasn’t done. Not even the guidance counselors knew about it. Some kids went home crying, and lots of parents were upset.”

School officials asked Fatica to suspend his presentation for the day. As Fatica’s team departed, Szpila says that complaints began trickling into the office of Bishop Salvatore Matano from Rice parents. Within the week, Matano had sent a message, through Szpila, to Hard as Nails, asking Fatica to desist from preaching at any parish in Vermont until further notice.

“There were a lot of kids who shared something serious,” says Fatica, sounding both contrite and hurt, “and they had to go to guidance. I thought personally it was an amazing experience. But I messed up by not talking to the principal, and I’ll never do that again.”

More than two years later the diocese has yet to welcome him back, and Justin Fatica finds himself on the outside looking in—a man with an HBO movie, a book deal with Random House, and national name recognition, preaching his message in a run-down building in Burlington, telling a small, tearful, nondenominational swath of the city’s troubled youths that they are amazing.

“I come back here because these kids are worth that much,” Fatica says. “There are hundreds of bookings we could do elsewhere, but until there’s not one church that will have me, I’ll keep coming. And it’s good for my spirit to remember I make mistakes.”

It Changed Her Life

“You’ll never find anyone more faithful to the Catholic church than Justin Fatica,” says his friend, Fr. Richards. “But often the one you love the most hurts you the most, and the one hurting Justin the most is the church.”

The morning after talking at Kids ALIVE, Fatica arrives at Community Bible Church on Williston Avenue for his second engagement in Burlington. The church’s marquee advertises the event, and cars jam the parking lot, where the snow has been shoveled out of the way into mountainous piles.

In the foyer two Hard as Nails volunteers, Kim Kelly and Sean Campbell, sell the ministry’s merchandise. One shirt sports a crown of thorns and

boxing gloves; another lists the tell-tale signs of a H.A.N. disciple, like “I make my mess into a message.” Kelly, 23, traveled here from her native New Hampshire to assist Fatica and share her own story. Another Kids ALIVE volunteer informs me that some of these children have been exposed to all kinds of abuse. They can handle the straight talk.

“Justin looks inside, and loves everybody no matter what they’ve done,” Kelly says. “He took the time to care about me when nobody else did. Through him I got on track with God and learned that as I change, I can change other people’s lives.” That knowledge, Kelly says, has also changed her as a mother. “I learned to be faithful, and to lead my son in the right direction. Now that I’m going to church again, I take him with me.”

When it’s time to speak, Fatica takes the stage to address the Sunday service in a t-shirt, blazer and faded blue jeans. He bounds from side to side as he skips between talk of his conversion, video clips, and reading a few of the nearly 1,200 e-mails he received from people who were touched by the documentary film.

Finding Fatica
Reactions to the HBO Documentary

“We found him at Soulfest, a big Christian rock festival in New Hampshire,” remembers filmmaker David Holbrooke, about the day he met Justin Fatica. “We were searching for another character in a larger project about faith in America. He was one of the few Catholics there, and he just jumped off the screen.”

Fatica’s charisma and intensity complicated Holbrooke’s plans. “If we’d folded him into this other film,” he explains, “Justin would’ve come off like a cartoon character. You wouldn’t have understood his background. You’d just think he’s crazy.”

So Holbrooke narrowed his focus. From August 2005 to January 2007, his crew was granted remarkable access to Fatica and his wife. They followed the minister at home in Syracuse, on the road, at his parents’ lakefront mansion in Erie, Pa., and at the hospital with the Faticas’ newborn first son. Their cameras also captured moments of turmoil, including when Fatica was disinvited from his Vermont tour.

The documentary “Hard as Nails” screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and reached HBO in December (it is being re-aired on HBO on Tuesday, April 22). Holbrooke says the response to Fatica has been remarkably diverse, mirroring the reactions within the film itself. In “Hard as Nails,” the preacher’s evangelism wins over some, and infuriates others (including, memorably, one patron outside a Manhattan strip club, who rebuffs Fatica’s request to pray together with a storm of profanity).

In Fatica’s view, the national coverage has skewed toward the negatives. “Anybody who didn’t meet me and covered [the movie] slammed me,” he contends. A 10-minute profile on “Nightline,” for example, only showed his most controversial practices, including the bit where he gets struck by a folding chair (which Fatica says he has retired).

Fatica’s wife, Mary, has found the criticism sometimes hard to stomach. “The documentary made a great attempt at being as accurate as possible,” she says, “but it can’t … capture a person in 78 minutes. I find it difficult to hear criticism of Justin most of the time because it is based on the small piece of what people know about him.”

But Holbrooke, who calls himself “not religious at all,” points to Fatica’s powerful influence on teens in the film. “They’re hungry for guidance MTV can’t provide,” Holbrooke says. “And with all this technology they’re as lonely as ever, arguably more so. Kids need to be with other kids, and Justin creates a positive, structured environment for them.”

—Greg Ruehlmann

Visit NCR Online to read an exclusive sidebar: “Fatica finds champions, detractors in his home church.”

“[Fatica] seems to be speaking almost in the spirit of an Old Testament prophet,” says Tom Legere, a Philadelphia-based fellow with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, who studies the intersection between spirituality and psychology. Since watching the HBO film, Legere has followed Fatica’s story with interest. “He’s not necessarily trying to be logical or reasonable. He’s trying to get people’s attention in a way that sometimes challenges them. With teens, he’s doing it by tapping into their idealism, so it’s naturally attractive to them.”

Even in front of a largely adult audience, Fatica’s speech inevitably returns to that group that is closest to his heart. A concern for teenagers fastens together his disjointed talking points. “There are kids out there who cut their whole body because of the pain they live with,” he tells the congregation. “I met some of them yesterday. They need us to worry about them and their suffering.” His eyes well up, as they do when he mentions the beating he has taken from some circles because of the documentary.

“I’ve cried more this year than any time in my life,” Fatica says about the HBO backlash. “But it’s made me a better minister, because now I know what it’s like to be those kids who say they’re hated.” And despite the polarized response, the experience has opened up new doors for Fatica. His first book will hit stores nationwide in January 2009, a sort of spiritual biography of the Hard as Nails movement. He now has an entertainment agent fielding scores of proposals for TV shows. “My calling,” he says, “is to bring the Gospel to the world, not just Catholics or Evangelicals” he says, and because of the film, that goal is in sight.

But even when Fatica says that word—“Catholics”—his voice catches slightly, betraying his longing for greater acceptance within the faith community he calls home. However much Fatica wears it on his sleeve, that desire may reveal a certain naivety. Historically, the church has viewed any new surfacing of spirit, any deviation from predetermined norms, with cautious scrutiny, particularly a spirit that roams as freely as Fatica’s.

“You’ll never find anyone more faithful to the Catholic church than Justin Fatica,” says his friend, Fr. Richards. “But often the one you love the most hurts you the most, and the one hurting Justin the most is the church.”

A frequent theme of Fatica’s preaching is God as the loving parent that many of his followers don’t find at home. “You have a God who is proud of you,” he likes to say. When he concludes his speech at Community Bible Church, he calls the congregation forward. They flood the front of the stage to hug and pray over each other. Justin Fatica rarely resembles the teens he preaches to as much as he does at this moment in Burlington, where he waits to be welcomed again. His voice grows softer and seems uncommonly vulnerable as he encourages everyone to embrace. It is easy to picture him dwelling at this moment on his own hope for a sign of approval, for some indication that one day he might be wrapped up in the arms of his own Mother Church.

This article was done in partnership with the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), an independent newsweekly founded in 1964. It is the cover story for their April 4th issue.