Muscular Christianity lifts up disadvantaged youth

NEWS | Anne Lim

Tuesday 5 May 2015

A weights training programme run by a youth pastor at a Tasmanian high school has produced abundant fruit, including church membership and commitments to the Lord.

Former body builder Matthew Hawkins, from Freelife Church in Launceston, developed the weights programme in response to a request by Brooks High School for activities to help boys aged 14 to 15 who were disengaged and disadvantaged. The school is in Rocherlea, a low socioeconomic northern suburb of Launceston.

Not only did the boys get fit and lose weight but they started speaking positively about themselves and their friends. One of the boys went on to become a prefect and several joined the congregation of Freelife Church and its youth programme.

“It was an amazing thing,” says Freelife Church senior pastor Pete Hewitt. “Immediately, we started seeing effects at the school.”

Hewitt explained that Hawkins, known as “Hawk”, constantly pushed the boys to improve or extend themselves. “So you keep the language of champions. So instead of saying ‘you useless thing’, you say ‘you can do this, just 2kg more, come on,’ and you have the other kids saying same thing.”

Principal Shireen Thomas calls the results “absolutely remarkable”. “Some of the most significant outcomes have occurred with some of our young men who have had poor body image, have extremely disadvantaged home circumstances, and have been engaged in various substance abuses,” she says.

“When Hawk and the team come, you can almost see the testosterone in the air – it’s just beautiful, I can hear them coming and they’re all jostling. It’s about relationships as well, because some of our students haven’t had a positive role model in their life who’s not a teacher.”

10842017_810028039066823_3367548667082963852_oMs Thomas says the improvement in physical wellbeing was just a very small aspect compared with the growth in emotional and mental health experienced by some of the young men. “Particularly in terms of the way Matt and the team have been able to re-engage those very marginalised and disengaged young people, and given them something to aspire to.”

She adds that because the students are calmer and more focused, it also improves their academic ability.

“Today I was talking with a young man who has had significant substance abuse and he said to me ‘Life is just so busy for me at the moment: I’ve got weights on Wednesday, then church on Sunday and youth club’. And I thought ‘Wow, two years ago he wouldn’t have been at that place in his life’.”

The initiative has gone from strength to strength, spinning off to a weights and body image programme for girls, run by the school chaplain, Kylea Aldred and her colleague Michelle Dingemanse, and a partnership with PCYC (Police and Citizens Youth Club) for an after-schools programme for girls and boys aged 13 to 17 called Resilience.

Last year the local football club asked the church for help with running a fun day and for some money for fireworks. The church was able to give $1000 for fireworks and a team led by Hawk ran barbecues and fun activities with kids.

“Then came an invitation from the social development arm of the club, which said ‘we need stuff for kids to do because they’re all so bored, so how would you feel about starting a Sunday school?’ Our response was to say ‘we could go one better and start a church’. They said they would love to have us use their facilities because they had recently renovated them. However, they couldn’t get an occupancy certificate because they were about $25,000 short of completion and didn’t have carpet down and the lift still had to go in. So the church passed the hat around and due to the generosity of the church we were able to put carpet down and raise enough to buy equipment for the church service.

“When you put $25,000 of carpet down you get their attention. They were completely blown away and didn’t know what to do and they said ‘you can use the facilities whenever you want’, so it’s become an amazing partnership.”

Freelife Church sent a team of about 30 to the club for the first official service on Easter Sunday, which attracted about 20 people. That has built over the past weeks to about 90.

“The guy who was on the football club committee in charge of community development gave his heart to the Lord on the first day, so that was great, then another guy at the club gave his heart to the Lord that day as well,” Hewitt said. “Four kids have made decisions through our youth programme and at our other service, at the city campus.”

Hewitt says other local high schools in Launceston are now keen for the church to start similar programmes with them. With a congregation of about 900, Freelife Church does have the capacity to extend the programme but needs to assemble teams prepared to make a weekly commitment.

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