Fr. Guy Roberts instructs St. Barnabas School students in Indianapolis in taekwondo. Roberts, a black belt in taekwondo, is pastor of St. Barnabas Parish. CNS photo/John Shaughnessy

Taekwondo priest helps connect body, mind, soul

By  John Shaughnessy, Catholic News Service
  • April 27, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS -- Watching Fr. 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

The impact of the afterschool sessions 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,” said Roberts. “There’s much more of a familiarity with me.”

Fifth-grader Elroy offers a more succinct view of the bond between Roberts and his students. Asked what he thinks of the priest, Elroy 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 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.”

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 jumping jacks, pushups and stretches.

Together, instructors and students focus on doing the standard movements of taekwondo, followed by working on the proper forms for kicks and flips, later learning the best way to defend yourself against two opponents.

Roberts is at the heart of it all, working up a sweat. 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.

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.

“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.”

Roberts first became involved in taekwondo because of the 1970s television show Kung Fu. A self-described “spiritual kid,” he also saw something spiritual in martial arts. He drifted away, but developed a renewed interest in taekwondo as an adult.

“This has been a blessing for me,” he said about the strength, balance and flexibility he has gained from practising taekwondo. “It’s kept me young.”

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.

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