THE GOLDEN RULE OF FlGHT Club is not negotiable: first night, you’ve gotta fight. That’s what Father David Smith tells his young charges when they come looking for action at the Holy Trinity youth centre in Dulwich Hill in Sydney’s inner-west.
Smith, the founder of Fight Club, is a 40-year-old Anglican minister who is as much at home in the ring as in the pulpit. When he’s not carrying out his parish duties, he devotes virtually every spare moment to the centre, which he says provides an alternative peer group for the district’s youth.
The nuggety minister has seen life from both sides of the tracks. He spent his teenage years as a punk rocker and played
drums in a punk band called Faex (“Latin for scum”). “I was carrying a knife and a bike chain and being a real arsehole. It wasn’t a lifestyle where you had a very long life expectancy,” Smith says. “I can really relate to the kids that drop in at the centre. I think you go back to working with people you understand.”
When he was 18, Smith found religion, studied philosophy at university and enrolled in theological college, which he considered a waste of time. “It was a sausage factory to produce people who would say the right things, rather than stimulate original thinking.”
The idea for the centre came about in late 1990, when he moved to Duiwich Hill and realised kids had nothing to do after school. At the time, the area was rife with drugs and gang violence. Smith secured the use of an old church, hung punching bags from the rafters and left the doors open. Gradually kids started wandering in off the street. Next came a proper ring, and Smith started to teach boxing and kickboxing.
The philosophy behind the youth centre is simple: it gives teenagers a safe place to gather. It also provides counselling for those with emotional problems and drug dependency, and offers spiritual guidance to those who want it.
If it weren’t for Father Dave and the Fight Club, I’d probably be dead by now,” says Rob*, a 19-year-old at the centre. “He got me off the streets and gave me a new focus. He’s cool. It was a bit of a spin out at first, you know, punching a priest.”
It’s only through the help of sponsors – Petersham RSL and three local pubs – that Smith can afford to keep the doors of his youth centre open. “We get bugger-all support from the Church,” he says. “We’re just a number; they even wanted to tax us on any money that came in to the youth centre. I told them, ‘No way, that money goes 100 per cent to the kids and community work.”
Archdeacon Geoff Huard, however, thinks Smith’s work at the centre is fabulous. “His street-kid program at Trinity is relevant, caring and highly thought of,” Huard says. “Dave is a very compassionate advocate for kids in trouble. I think he’s disappointed that the Church has been unable to offer him all the financial support he’s asked for, but we continue to support him in his ministry. I don’t think we want to lose him.”
Smith is up against the ropes from several quarters. There’s the neighbour who has threatened to burn the place down because it attracts undesirables”. Even a former senior schoolteacher in the area was antagonistic because he thought the youth centre was a haven for drug dealers.
“All these people like what we’re doing just as long as it’s not on their doorstep,” Smith says. Then there’s the boxing, a sport that has fallen from favour in recent years because of its brutality. Smith sees it differently: “Boxing is a very honest form of communication, especially in our culture where people say one thing and mean another. There’s nothing ambiguous about boxing — a punch is a punch.
“The ring becomes a symbol of life and your ability to stand in there and stand up to pressure. So many people out there are controlled by fear. Nobody wants to take a risk anymore. They’re afraid of wandering off into eternity with a bruised lip.”
Working within a culture dominated by materialism hasn’t fazed Smith since his punk rock days. “The Sex Pistols saw through most of that. They didn’t offer any solutions but they saw through the crap,” he says. “The ‘me generation’ isn’t so much evil as just stupid. I can’t see a point in waking up in the morning just to go out and make some more money.”
Smith’s favourite philosopher is the Dane Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about the individual swimming against the flow. “He believed a crowd in its very concept is the untruth,” Smith says. “You’ve got to find your own way.”