Through martial arts, chaplains help students connect with body, mind, soul

INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) – Watching Father Guy Roberts lead children through a martial arts class with a distinctly Catholic emphasis, it’s hard to decide what to focus on first.

There’s a 54-year-old priest, a black belt in taekwondo, who spins and unleashes a whirlwind kick of control that leaves boys and girls suddenly wide-eyed in awe.

Elroy Jackson, 11, one of 35 elementary school students training with Father Roberts, shared an angelic smile as he shared the news that he had snapped the plank in half.

There was pure joy on the face of Claire Jackson – mother of five including Elroy, herself a black belt and an assistant coach – as she explained her One of the special reasons to love having kids in kickboxing.

“They stay active and it exhausts them,” she said with a grin. “They go to bed at night instead of lying there asking me questions.” Her smile widened, she added: “It’s beautiful.”

After-school activities Monday and Wednesday also had a huge impact on participating students at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, including deepening their bond with Pastor Father Roberts.

“One of the things I like about doing this is that it helps the kids see me as a priest outside of the liturgical celebration,” Father Roberts told the Indianapolis Archdiocese newspaper The Standard. “The familiarity with me is higher. Much more. When they see me on campus, they say hello to me. They come to say hello after Mass.”

Elroy, a fifth grader, offers a more succinct view of the connection between Father Roberts and his young taekwondo students. When asked what he thought of the pastor, Elroy smiled again and said, “He’s amazing!”

Father Roberts hopes that martial arts classes will also help children grow in certain qualities, and even be a way to deepen their faith and relationship with God. He had all of these goals in mind when he started his own taekwondo gym, tai chi gym.

The pastor’s approach to class includes emphasizing the precepts of taekwondo—integrity, self-control, perseverance, perseverance, and courtesy. There is also the foundation of the Catholic faith, linking the Ten Commandments to the curriculum.

“Sometimes, I’ll ask them, ‘What do you think the first commandment is about — there are no other gods?’ And then they have to reflect on it,” he said. “I want their kickboxing practice to be more than just kickboxing. It’s about the way they behave in life.

“So, we talk about things like ‘you can’t kill people’ and ‘honoring your parents’. I just want to get feedback from them on what they think these things mean. I ask them, ‘How do we live out these things? The answers I got were interesting.”

Like the children, barefoot and dressed in white martial arts uniforms, Father Roberts begins each class with a prayer. He then put the kids into a warm-up routine that included 25 jacks, push-ups, stretches and rotations of the hips, knees and neck. During the stretch, he puts his palms on the floor without bending his knees.

While doing push-ups, he did a set of 20 push-ups with the kids, clapping in between the last push-ups.

Coaches and students work together to focus on doing the standard kickboxing moves, then practice the correct form of kicks and flips, and then learn the best way to defend against two opponents.

Father Roberts, who was at the heart of it all, was sweating, and his face became even more rosy as the class progressed. He continued to give praise and encouragement.

“I want to build confidence, self-esteem, self-discipline, respect for others, and the ability to know that if they use themselves, they can accomplish almost anything in life,” he said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of running and jumping lately, and kids are amazed that they can actually do some of these things,” he said. “I always tell them that their biggest opponent in life is themselves. If they can overcome themselves, they can overcome anything.”

This is his first year as a priest at St. Barnabas Parish. Previously, he taught taekwondo to schoolchildren during his 15-year pastor at Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis.

There, he saw how these lessons helped improve the respect, self-discipline and even grades of the many children in the program. In some cases, it has been life-changing even more dramatically.

“There’s a boy in the Navy now, running a nuclear reactor on a submarine,” Father Roberts said. “He was very, very shy and quiet. Taekwondo was the only sport he did. He kept going until he got into the Navy.

“I’ve seen it help them achieve things they might not have the confidence to achieve if they hadn’t challenged themselves with kickboxing.”

It also changed the pastor’s life when he was 7 years old.

As a child, he first got into taekwondo because of the 1970s TV show “Kung Fu”. From watching the show, his parents looked at their reserved son and thought it was a good exercise for him and boosted his confidence.

Self-proclaimed “spiritual boy”, he also saw spirituality in martial arts. However, a year after he started the sport as a passenger, he was seriously injured when a train hit a pickup truck near his home in Brownsburg, Indiana.

His leg and ankle were both broken in the crash, and it took more than a year for him to run and play again.

He gradually moved away from martial arts, but his interest in developing spirituality continued to grow over the years. Although he was a Baptist, he started thinking about becoming a Catholic priest when he was a freshman at Butler University in Indianapolis. Since 2005, he has been a priest in the archdiocese.

He also developed a new interest in taekwondo as an adult.

In his 40s, a doctor told him that Father Roberts should have been walking on crutches until then, given the extent of the damage to his legs as a child. Instead, he keeps jumping and unleashing a whirlwind kick.

“It’s been a blessing for me,” he said of the strength, balance and flexibility he gained from his kickboxing practice. “It keeps me young.”

For adults in the parish, he leads a Tai Chi class Saturday morning in St. Barnabas.

Father Roberts said people need to work hard to take care of the bodies God has given them and work to develop their minds and “have a proper spirit”.

“This kind of practice through martial arts can help us appreciate something bigger than ourselves,” he said. “In our case as Catholics, we understand that is God.

“Most of the martial arts world is Buddhist or Taoist and from Asia, but we have a full Christian connection with Jesus Christ. Who can be better than Jesus Christ? He knows how to take care of his physical, mental and spiritual health.”

Father Roberts smiled and added: “If Jesus was in St. Barnabas, maybe he would do taekwondo and tai chi with us.”

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Shaughnessy is an assistant editor for The Criterion, a newspaper in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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