OUTSIDE the café on Marrickville Road where Father Dave Smith has coffee every morning, a tattooed 20-something is slouched in a chair, sipping on a drink between cigarette drags.
Inside, an open newspaper page is headed “Muslim Unrest” above pictures of young men hurling things, clenched-fisted and shouting.
Smith, 51, apologises for being late, but “one of our kids” was sick last night. “Our kids” doesn’t refer to Smith’s four children from his two marriages. It refers to one who regularly joins the Fight Club in Dulwich Hill that the Anglican priest has been running for 20 years.
Smith was a “nasty, angry” teenager who went on a two-year rampage after his mother’s death.
“I had a conversation with my dad where we talked about right and wrong,” Smith says, recalling his life change. “I knew what I was doing was wrong. One night I came to terms with it. I started praying; telling God that I’d made a bad job of this.
“I woke up the next morning feeling much less angry. Soon I stopped carrying my knife around, stopped wearing studs, stopped all that angry behavior. The church became a new family for me.”
As his first marriage was failing and Smith was “drinking himself to sleep”, he started a martial arts club, then the Fight Club.
Smith soon became attuned to the drivers of angst amongst the area’s youth. Back then, it was expressed in heroin addiction. But anger and confusion remain, much of it in the Muslim community. Whatever the cause- poor role models, social injustice, racism, each of which he has strong opinions on –Father Dave’s coping mechanism is consistent. He believes young men are innately aggressive and their energy must be positive channeled.
“Fight Club is a training ground for that. We’re helping young men latch onto their aggressive drives and learn to control it.”
Smith concedes the concept of boxing for peace is counterintuitive. “But rough play is essential for boys. Boys rumble with each other. They always have. In our society, amateur boxing is one of the only places they’ve got left to do that.”
That night, in a worn-out parish hall with plastered walls and cracked windows, Hussain Jamali is sharpening his technique. The atmosphere is focused but worm. Hilltop Hoods is on the beat box. Smith, dressed in a singlet and satin boxing short with ‘Father Dave’ embedded on them, is mentoring youngsters as they strap on their gloves and stretch.
“I used to get into a lot of trouble, get into fights at school because of my religion and stuff,” Jamali, 16, says. “People would say things, I’d be teased. It’s good to get away from that and release my energy here. When I get teased at school now I’m a lot more calm.”
Ash Carroll, 16, wasn’t a bad kid, he says. “But I did have a lot of anger. I just needed to know how to get rid of it.” Carroll, who has been boxing for a year, concedes it’s unusual for a priest to preach boxing.
“But It works,” he says. “He encourages you to box but not to be violent. He’s a good role model.” It’s been a long day and Smith has again gone the distance, powered by passion. “I used to be a nasty, angry person. But I see the spirit of God in lots of people now, including those who don’t give assent to any one God. I see the spirit of God at work in our gym all the time.”
Article by David Sygall.