WARDSVILLE — Michael Burris grew up watching professional wrestling. At just 4 years old, he would plead with his grandpa to take him every Friday night to the wrestling matches in St. Joseph, 12 miles from Clarksdale where he lived, to watch “Handsome” Harley Race, “The Stomper” and other big-time wrestlers compete in all-star shows. Burris would never have guessed that one April evening nearly 40 years later he’d be watching a wrestling match while seated beside Harley Race himself.
Amid the sounds of cheers, jeers and body slams, the message emerged that Jesus changes lives. But this wasn’t church; there was no traditional sermon or music from a choir. Instead, the pulpit was a wrestling ring, and the man who preached Jesus’ power was dressed more like he was on his way to the gym than to church. That man, Ted DiBiase, known to fans as The Million Dollar Man, took center stage in the ring and told the story of how God turned his life around. It wasn’t until DiBiase learned to stop trying to control his own life that he realized he had something powerful to live for.
Burris had also struggled with surrendering his life to God.
At 17, Burris felt God calling him to be a pastor. “I ran,” Burris said. “I had gotten caught up in some sin, and Satan convinced me that I couldn’t be a pastor because I’d made a mistake.”
In 1999, Burris stopped running and finally decided to listen. He fell to his knees in a hotel room in Columbia.
“God, I’ll go anywhere you want me to go, do anything you want me to do and be anything you want me to be,” Burris said he told God.
He entered a special program at Oral Roberts University, got a certificate in charismatic ministry and waited to see what opportunities God would give him.
“God gave me individual people to encourage when they were down and pray for when they were sick. When a tornado wiped out the town of Stockton in 2003, I got the chance to start a Bible study among survivors.”
And then Burris got something else: cancer.
Ted DiBiase was living a dream. Rising in popularity in Mid-South Wrestling, DiBiase had caught the attention of the World Wrestling Federation, which offered to make him the “Million Dollar Man.” DiBiase accepted, and the WWF bathed him in money, limos and fame. Yet DiBiase said he was empty inside.
“I tried to fill that space with all that junk,” DiBiase told more than 500 high school students and adults during a recent visit to Blair Oaks High School in Wardsville, just south of Jefferson City.
The crowd that night had gathered to see more than just Ted DiBiase and hear him speak. World League Wrestling was there to put on a great show, featuring more than a dozen wrestlers. Burris was grinning from the sidelines. His ministry was sponsoring the event.
It all started with a bad cold. Burris stayed home from work that September morning in 2006. “After showering and dressing, I went to talk with my wife, Nancy. She asked me to look directly at her face and say something,” Burris wrote in a memoir on his Web site, rejoicinginhope.org. Something was wrong. The right corner of Burris’ mouth was drooping. Two CAT scans confirmed it — Burris had a brain tumor.
The tumor was cancerous: Glioblastoma multiforme, a rapidly growing and very serious form of brain cancer. Doctors said his life expectancy was 15 months.
“My doctor and father looked at the floor while I was given the facts about the cancer that had invaded my brain. (The doctor) pronounced a death sentence over me,” Burris wrote.
Burris realized he had two choices: Accept this death sentence or live what he believed.
“I have prayed with many people afflicted by sickness over the past seven years and asked God to heal them using the promises in the Bible. Many times I was blessed to see them healed. Could I believe the Word and expect to see God rescue me from this trial? Would God heal me from a brain cancer that has no known cure?” Burris wrote.
Burris chose to believe. He said the miraculous story of his battle with cancer fueled him to give hope to others facing bad news or impossible odds.
Through a seemingly random series of events, Burris had obtained licensing for a nonprofit corporation and had renewed his license for a couple of years without knowing why.
“In September 2006, I knew why,” Burris said.
Being diagnosed with cancer gave Burris a story to tell. He created a Web site to share his story and to invite others to submit their own.
“Our stories and testimonies could lead others to trust in Jesus Christ and to give them hope — a persistent, confident expectation of something good. Nancy, my wife, and I prayed about the Web site and asked God for His plan. And that is the simple goal of this Web site — to bring stories of hope to those in need,” Burris wrote.
Burris didn’t stop with a Web site. He said that he felt God urging him to start a billboard campaign that Burris named the Driving Hope campaign, using the nonprofit corporation to put up billboards which simply said, “Need Hope Today?” and displayed the URL for Burris’ Web site.
“When you’re in the car, sometimes you just think a lot,” Burris said, which is why he chose to put billboards along highways in Missouri. His goal is to have one billboard for every hospital and cancer center in the state. Currently, Burris has 20 billboards; through the WLW event, his ministry raised enough money to buy eight more. That leaves only about 102 to go for Burris to reach his goal of providing hope to those in need in Missouri.
Ted DiBiase was in need of hope — hope that his marriage could survive the affairs he’d been having. A pastor with whom DiBiase was friends urged DiBiase to tell his wife the truth.
“Jesus said the truth would set you free, but he didn’t say it would be painless,” DiBiase told the crowd, remembering his friend’s words. Fearing the worst, DiBiase told his wife he’d cheated.
“She walked out in tears, saying ‘Who are you? Where’s the man I married?’” DiBiase said.
Weeks later, DiBiase was at a youth event where his friend was speaking.
“He gave the altar call, and I knew I had to go,” DiBiase said.
Pride was his greatest weakness, but when it came time for people to come to the front and accept Jesus into their lives, DiBiase let go of his pride.
“I beat all those kids down there, dropped on my face and sobbed like a baby,” DiBiase told the crowd in Blair Oaks High School’s gym.
DiBiase turned his life around, and his wife could see the change. She was willing to let go of her bitterness, and since that day in 1992 they have remained married. DiBiase said his wife has never once brought up his mistakes.
DiBiase became an evangelist and used his wrestling fame to attract crowds to hear his own message of hope.
Together, old friends DiBiase and Harley Race formed World League Wrestling. The league focused on good, clean wrestling that made wrestlers feel respected and made families feel safe letting their kids watch. The WLW itself is not religiously affiliated, but it has such a clean atmosphere that Burris decided after watching three separate shows that his ministry could comfortably sponsor a WLW event.
One of the wrestlers, Steve Anthony, was surprised that a ministry would sponsor a wrestling event.
“Churches shy away from this kind of thing,” Anthony said.
Where some ministries see questionable material, Burris saw an opportunity.
“It’s not what the ‘church’ looks like, or even what the ‘pulpit’ looks like, it’s the message that Jesus changes lives that matters,” Burris said.
As DiBiase told the crowd, “Any good fisher knows when you go fishing, you have to have bait.”
Borrowing on Jesus’ analogy of fishing for men, DiBiase uses wrestling to attract a crowd. Once DiBiase stood in the ring for his own glory, but now he wrestles for hope.
“Jesus said, ‘I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly,’” DiBiase said.
Burris has that abundant life, he said, not because he got to spend the evening watching wrestling beside his old wrestling heroes, but because the event’s real message of hope touched his body and changed his life.