FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - They begin and end by praying to Jesus. In between, they kick butt.
In Christian karate, students learn the self-discipline and physical conditioning of the ancient martial art as they study the Bible and develop their commitment to Jesus. They analyze biblical passages that apply to their growing inner strength and rely on this strength to get them through tournaments and the challenges they encounter in life.
Juan Pineda, 15, led the prayer at the end of a Christian karate class at Victory Christian Center in Boca Raton, Fla., recently. He asked God to give the class of 16 a safe week so they could come back for lessons the next Monday.
"This is more than karate, it's about life," said Pineda, a high school freshman who has earned a brown belt, the level below the highest black belt. "Teenagers need this kind of help. There are so many bad influences out there."
Although they may seem an unlikely pair, religious faith and the martial arts have much in common: an emphasis on self-control, meditation, character building and respect for authority.
Martial artists in the secular world do not frown on the religious, said Ron Tramontano, owner of West Boca Karate. "We all have the same values. We are teaching the kids the right thing to do."
Many faiths have made connections with the martial arts. There is a Jewish Karate Federation; a Web site called www.catholic-pages.com has a discussion group for Catholic martial artists. Muslim martial artists have been traced back to the 1300s; the Islamic Center of Boca Raton teaches aikido, considered the gentlest of the martial arts.
Christian martial arts associations also have been organizing over the past few years, including the International Network of Christian Martial Artists, the Christian Tae Kwon Do Fellowship, the Christian Karate Association and the Ryu-Kyu Christian Karate-Do Federation, based in Ohio.
Christian karate rejects some tenets of the ancient martial arts, such as worship of the dead. Instructor Roy Robinson at Church of All Nations in Boca Raton quit a traditional karate class in 1993 when he said he heard God tell him to stop bowing to the picture of the dead teacher in the dojo he attended.
Harris Owens, 51, a volunteer who teaches at Victory Christian Center, is a third-degree black belt and member of Victory Christian Center. He said he grew up in a rough neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale where he was constantly beaten up. As a young teen, he passed a karate studio each day on the way to school. The instructor said he could take classes for free in return for cleaning the studio.
Owens takes the karate students to a dozen tournaments each summer. He tries to foster a sense of family among the students, many of whom come from single-parent homes, with birthday party celebrations, bowling gatherings and karate team picnics.
Many of the students in the Victory class come from immigrant families who are learning the ways of life in America and appreciate the free lessons. Classes at local karate studios can cost more than $130 a month.
Maria Silva, 13, who wears a purple belt, two levels below black, has been going to Victory karate classes since she was 9.
"I like the people and the exercises and the way you form your body," Silva said. "I like the prayers. Jesus keeps me motivated." *