INDIANAPOLIS — Watching Father Guy Roberts lead children in a martial arts class with a distinctly Catholic emphasis, it’s hard to decide what to focus on first.
There’s the sight of the 54-year-old priest, a black belt in taekwondo, spinning and unleashing a whirlwind kick of controlled power that leaves the suddenly wide-eyed boys and girls in awe.
There’s the angelic smile of 11-year-old Elroy Jackson, one of the 35 grade school students who train with Roberts, as he shared the news that he has broken wooden boards in half.
And there was the look of pure joy on the face of Claire Jackson — mother of five, including Elroy, a black belt herself and an assistant instructor — as she explained one of the special reasons she loves having her children participate in taekwondo.
“They stay active, and it wears them out,” she said with a wide grin. “They go to bed at night and fall asleep, instead of laying there asking me questions.” Her smile grew even wider as she added, “It’s beautiful.”
The impact of the Monday and Wednesday afterschool sessions also is powerful for the participating students at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, including the way it has deepened their connection with Roberts, their pastor.
“One of the reasons I like doing this is because it helps the children to see me as a priest outside of just liturgical celebration,” Roberts told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “There’s much more of a familiarity with me. When they see me out on campus, they’ll say hello to me. And they’ll come up to me after Mass and say hello.”
Fifth-grader Elroy offers a more succinct view of the bond between Roberts and his young taekwondo students. Asked what he thinks of the priest, Elroy flashed another smile and said, “He’s awesome!”
Roberts hopes the martial arts lessons also will help the children grow personally in certain qualities and even be a way to deepen their faith and their relationship with God. He had all those goals in mind when he started his own taekwondo school called Taijido Kwan.
The priest’s approach to his classes includes an emphasis on taekwondo’s precepts — integrity, self-control, indomitable spirit, perseverance and courtesy. There’s also the foundation of the Catholic faith, tying in the Ten Commandments to the lessons.
“Sometimes, I’ll ask them, ‘What do you think the First Commandment is all about — having no other gods?’ Then they have to reflect on it,” he said. “I want their taekwondo practice to be more than just kicking and punching. It’s about how they conduct themselves in life.
“So, we talk about things like, ‘You shall not kill’ and ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ I just like to get the feedback from them, what do they think these things mean. I ask them, ‘How do we live these things out?’ It’s interesting the answers I get.”
Barefoot and wearing a white martial arts uniform, just as the children do, Roberts starts each lesson with a prayer. Then he moves the children into a warm-up routine that includes 25 jumping jacks, pushups, stretches and rotations of the hips, knees and neck. During stretches, he touches his palms on the floor without bending his knees.
In doing pushups, he finishes a set of 20 with the children by clapping his hands on the way up between each of the last few pushups.
Together, instructors and students focus on doing the standard movements of taekwondo, followed by working on the proper forms for kicks and flips, and later learning the best way to defend yourself against two opponents.
Roberts is at the heart of it all, working up a sweat, his face turning ruddier as the class progresses. And he offers constant praise and encouragement.
“I want to build confidence, self-respect, discipline, respect for others, the ability to know that if they apply themselves, they can accomplish practically anything in life,” he said.
“Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of running jumps, and the children are amazed that they can actually accomplish some of these things,” he said. “I always tell them their biggest opponent in life is themselves. If they can overcome themselves, they can overcome about anything.”
This is his first year as pastor at St. Barnabas Parish. Previously, he taught taekwondo to schoolchildren during his 15 years as pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis.
There he saw how the lessons helped increase the respect, self-discipline and even the grades of many children in the program. In some cases, it changed lives even more dramatically.
“There’s one boy who’s now in the Navy running the nuclear reactor on a submarine,” Roberts said. “He was very, very shy and quiet. Taekwondo was about the only sport he did. He stayed with it all the way until he went into the Navy.
“I’ve seen it help them achieve some things that maybe they wouldn’t have had the confidence to achieve if they hadn’t challenged themselves through taekwondo.”
It also changed the priest’s life when he was 7.
As a kid, he first became involved in taekwondo because of a 1970s television show called “Kung Fu.” From watching the show, his parents looked at their reserved son and thought it would be good exercise for him and increase his confidence.
A self-described “spiritual kid,” he also saw something spiritual in martial arts. Yet a year after he started the sport, he was seriously injured as a passenger in a pickup truck that was struck by a train near his family’s home in Brownsburg, Indiana.
Both his legs and ankles were broken in the crash, and it was more than a year before he could run and play again.
He drifted away from martial arts, but his interest in developing his spirituality continued to grow through the years. Even though he was raised a Baptist, he started thinking about becoming a Catholic priest when he was a freshman at Butler University in Indianapolis. He has been a priest in the archdiocese since 2005.
He also developed a renewed interest in taekwondo as an adult.
When he was in his mid-40s, a doctor told him that considering the extent of the damage he suffered to his legs as a child, Roberts should have been relying on a cane to walk by that point in his life. Instead, he continues jumping and unleashing whirlwind kicks.
“This has been a blessing for me,” he said about the strength, balance and flexibility he has gained from practicing taekwondo. “It’s kept me young.”
For adults in the parish, he leads a class in tai chi on Saturday mornings at St. Barnabas.
People need to work to take care of the body that God has given them, as well as strive to develop the mind and “having that proper spirit,” Roberts said.
“There’s something about this kind of cultivation through martial arts that helps us have an appreciation for that which is larger than ourselves,” he said. “In our case as Catholics, we understand that to be God.
“Much of the martial arts world is either Buddhist or Taoist, coming from Asia, but we have that whole Christian connection with Jesus Christ. Who is in better shape than Jesus Christ? He knew how to take care of his body, his mental health, his spiritual health.”
Roberts flashed a smile and added, “Maybe if Jesus were at St. Barnabas, maybe he’d do taekwondo and tai chi with us.”
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Shaughnessy is assistant editor at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.