Rodger Frievalt used to be a believer pretty much only once a week — on Sundays when he went to church.
Then, he said, miracles started happening before his eyes.
Healing the sick. Restoring vision to the blind.
And the dead returning to life.
Today the full-time minister of a Madison church, Frievalt plays a key role in “Project Afterlife” — a television series profiling people with first-hand stories of dying a sudden death, only to return to the mortal world.
Fast-paced and stylized in the spirit of a reality-TV detective show, the six original episodes of “Project Afterlife” drew more than 1.76 million viewers this summer on the Destination America cable network. Episodes of “Project Afterlife” will continue to re-air and can be purchased online.
The series stems from “Deadraiser,” a 2013 film made by Madison native Johnny Clark that also features Frievalt and deals with the same subject. Both men are fascinated by the mysteries of near-death experiences — for Frievalt, it’s evidence of the supernatural powers of God.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface here,” Frievalt said of the stories he’s heard from people around the country who are featured in “Project Afterlife.”
“Matthew 10:8 says, ‘Heal the sick … raise the dead, cast out devils,’” he said, quoting the Bible passage that made him wonder: “‘So where’s the raising of the dead happening, if this is a command of Scripture?’”
“Project Afterlife” is just the latest step in the spiritual life of Frievalt, 42, who left a career in the insurance industry three years ago to found Victory Center Church, located in the East Pointe Plaza on Madison’s East Side, with his wife Melissa. The nondenominational Christian church holds weekly services, Bible studies, and can help with “deliverance,” or exorcism for people who are struggling with unwanted spirits, he said.
He met filmmaker Clark a decade ago, when the Frievalts were “church shopping” in Madison and chose to attend Evangel Life Center, where Clark’s father was pastor. Frievalt and Clark, who shared a passion for rock climbing and other extreme sports, became close friends.
Making “Deadraiser” and more recently “Project Afterlife” — which began filming only eight months before it went on the air in August — was a way to explore a subject that has absorbed them both, Clark said.
“My personal take (on spirituality) is that Christianity, in all of its truth and wonder, is probably only 1 percent of what’s out there,” said Clark, 30, a La Follette High School graduate who is now based in the West.
“I think we still have a lot to learn,” he said. “My passion is really to get people to think, and I want to create things that start a conversation. I want to allow people to ask the difficult questions.”
Clark said he was struck by how “the huge sense of fear” the topic of death holds for many people is absent in those he’s interviewed for “Project Afterlife.”
“When we get to speak with someone authentic who has had something significant happen to them, one of the trademarks we find over and over is that they’re not afraid of death any longer,” he said. “It’s almost as if they have a sense of where they’re going, and they’re not afraid of it.”
Frievalt calls the primary message of “Project Afterlife” a “message of hope.”
“You think of the worst thing that can happen — the finality of death. And yet we have this faith that says ‘raise the dead,’” he said. “When we present it in a way where we can inspire hope, that to me is what it’s all about.”
After witnessing miracles while on mission trips abroad and talking to people in the U.S. about their near-death experiences, “honestly, I believe we can raise the dead,” Frievalt said. “I believe in miracles. I believe if we can conceive it and imagine it and believe it, it can happen.”
But resurrection from the dead can only happen “if the person who is being prayed for has ... some agreement to coming back,” he said. One episode of “Project Afterlife,” for example, profiles a woman who found herself in the afterlife thinking “‘This is awesome,’” Frievalt said. “She is so happy.” Then she thinks of her baby “and she knows she has to go back.”
“There were people praying for her on the other side, saying this woman is brain dead but she can be restored. That is happening in the natural world, but in the spiritual realm where this woman is, she’s thinking, ‘I really like it here, but I need to go back,’” he explained.
“When those two things intersect, then I believe that’s when (coming back from the dead) can happen.”
Making “Deadraiser” and then “Project Afterlife” “was a big risk,” said Frievalt, the father of two young children.
“People probably think we’re completely nuts. But fortunately, it’s been pretty well received.”
A number of people have reached out to tell their own stories, he said. After one screening of “Deadraiser,” a woman “came up to me and said, ‘I died in 1976.’
“She died and had this crazy afterlife encounter, and came back. She’s standing there crying and I thought, ‘Wow, this woman has been carrying this around with her for 40 years, and now she can talk about it.’”
“People don’t talk about this. They’re ashamed of it,” Frievalt said. “But what knowledge can we gain from that? That’s why I’m really excited about this show and being able to talk with these people who can come out and say, ‘I experienced that. Let me tell you what happened.’”