Everyone belongs in The Tribe. Anyone belongs in The Tribe.
No matter who they are, where they come from or how they’re feeling, The Tribe welcomes them. It’s the group’s guiding principle, made clear through a welcome statement youth recite before each session.
“By expressly saying that every time, it really helped us build a tight-knit community,” said David Hope-Tringali, The Tribe’s founder and leader. “How often do kids hear that we want them here? For them, you can’t say that enough.”
The Tribe—a wrestling club for 6- to 11-year-olds—gathers each week in the basement of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Steelton, Pa., to be challenged physically, mentally and spiritually. Equal parts athletic team and youth group, members learn as much about core values and Bible stories as they do about flips and pins.
Wrestling and church might seem like an unusual combination, but for Hope-Tringali, who formed the group during his deacon internship while studying at United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, the two fit perfectly together. “Wrestling has always been a metaphor of faith for me,” he said. “We talk about wrestling with our faith; we feel that back-and-forth, that pulling and yanking, being thrown around; we’re pinned to the ground and don’t know what to do.”
Like many U.S. churches, Trinity had stayed the same while its neighborhood changed significantly. A tiny, one-grocery store town of about 6,000 in southeast Pennsylvania, Steelton fell on hard times after the steel industry declined. A generation grew up, went away to college and never came back. As new families moved in and the community became more diverse, Trinity’s membership aged and remained predominantly Caucasian.
When church leaders looked around, though, they saw children playing outside, running up and down the streets surrounding Trinity. They wondered how they could welcome the children into the life of the congregation.
The mission was not to fill up the church. The mission was to show them that faith was relevant to them and given them some ownership over that.
That’s when Hope-Tringali thought about starting a wrestling club grounded in faith formation. It would be a way for youth to channel their energy positively and to talk about spiritual topics in a setting different from worship or Sunday school.
The group’s name intentionally evokes an Old Testament sense of belonging, of a family that looks out for one another, yet is not overtly Christian. Children of all faiths or no faith are welcome, as are those of any race or economic background. Of the more than 30 youth who have attended over the past year, about half are Caucasian, a quarter are African American and a quarter are Asian.
“Kids just want to play with each other,” Hope-Tringali said. “So if, right now, we can foster their long-term understanding of who their neighbor is—that it’s anyone and everyone—that’s going to be really great.”
All genders are welcome too. Hope-Tringali sees it as a rare opportunity for boys and girls to interact physically and learn how to respect one another and understand each other’s power.
“Girls learn they can throw the boys, and boys can learn that girls are going to throw them back,” he said. “It helps them learn that you’re responsible for your partner’s safety. If they say ‘ow’ or ‘stop’ or ‘no,’ you’ve got to back off.”
Zach Anthony has learned a lot from The Tribe. He is perfecting his roundhouse kicks and defense skills. But the 11-year-old also has learned a lot about loyalty. “We talk about who we can trust, and how your friends and family can trust you,” he said.
Loyalty is one of 12 virtues that are discussed at the start of The Tribe’s gatherings. After their welcome statement and a prayer, Hope-Tringali leads a discussion of a virtue—a list that also includes integrity, justice, courage, compassion, humility, respect, understanding, endurance, wisdom, patience and trust—and how it relates to that week’s Bible story.
I’ve learned that [God] gave us the ability to do this stuff. And that we gotta have some faith and some patience.
The kids answer questions about the day’s topic and are encouraged to ask tough questions. Rather than forcing recitation, Hope-Tringali finds it beneficial to provide an open forum where youth can think critically and see their voices are valued.
“The mission was not to fill up the church. The mission was to show them that faith was relevant to them and give them some ownership over that,” he said. “If we raise up kids who can always think about these issues with more complexity, they’ll show us how church is supposed to look in the future.”
Zach’s mom, Abby Anthony, has seen the impact of The Tribe’s emphasis on virtues. Three of her four boys are in the program, and the virtue of the month is a frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table. “We explain to them when they do something that doesn’t match with the word,” said Anthony, a Trinity member. “They really catch on to it. They’re ready to answer David’s questions every week.”
For 8-year-old Joey Resak, a Tribe member who hadn’t been to Trinity before, the weekly sessions are a great opportunity to learn how to wrestle safely—and to find out about God. “I’ve learned that [God] gave us the ability to do this stuff,” he said. “And that we gotta have some faith and some patience.”
Expanding The Tribe
In the year since its founding, The Tribe has proven to be an expandable model for a creative form of youth ministry.
A church in a nearby suburb is interested in replicating the program, and Hope-Tringali was invited to lead wrestling activities at a downtown Harrisburg vacation Bible school last summer.
He’s also had conversations with Jewish and Muslim leaders about forming an interfaith program.
The Tribe also emphasizes the importance of strong adult mentors. Trinity’s new interim pastor, who hadn’t wrestled in 40 years, has been getting on the mat with the youth. And a police officer also regularly attends, an effort to build positive relationships between youth and law enforcement.
In The Tribe, all are welcome. And all can benefit from the community it has formed.
“When I bring up wrestling to people who aren’t involved with it, they aren’t so sure. It takes a lot of intentional conversation to express that this is teaching nonviolence,” Hope-Tringali said. “We’re teaching kids that they’re strong enough to handle conflict, but also strong enough to not engage in it.”