The Punching Priest – On Being, September 1994

Taking on all corners for the Gospel

Among other things, Jesus was called a drunkard by his detractors during his time on earth. David Smith, acting rector at Dulwich Hill Anglican Church, Sydney, could perhaps be similarly labelled a “punch drunkard” in the future.

But for now David, also known as the “fighting Father”, is enjoying widespread approval for reaching young people with the Gospel according to Hapkido (a martial art combining boxing, judo, kickboxing and wrestling).

David, a black belt in Hapkido, has held classes in the martial art, mainly with street kids, for three-and-a-half years. However, his recent media appearances have seen his work become better known locally and throughout Australia.

He appeared on Channel Seven’s Real Life current affairs program in June and Channel Nine’s afternoon youth program Wonderworid in late August. Add to that recent Sydney newspaper coverage (in which he was dubbed the “pugilistic padre”) and you can see why there’s been a few more budding Claude Van Dammes through the parish doors.

“The media things have been fun for the kids [already involved in David’s classesi, seeing themselves on TV. We’ve had a lot of kids coming through recently as a result, but we haven’t yet got the structures in place to try and channel that. “However, I think I’ve got a good relationship of trust with the local kids. They don’t hassle me, they respect me because I can fight!” David told ON BEING.

The media spotlight turned on David as an indirect result of his frustration at not being able to attract young street people to church, via his martial arts classes. After other failed attempts to involve young people, David decided to appeal to the “tough guy” mentality.

By dropping flyers in local letterboxes and advertising in a suburban newspaper, he promoted “Father Dave’s Five-Round Challenge”. Local would-be Bruce Lee’s were told that if they could beat David he’d shout them out to dinner. However, if they lost, they would have to attend a church service.

The media picked up the story and kids started to roll in to meet the ‘famous’ “fighting Father’s rather than to take him on. Only one local tough guy took up David’s challenge, was

promptly floored in a fight recorded by Real Life and then didn’t fulfil his part of the bargain by coming to church!

JESUS’S TEACHING IN REGARD TO violence—to turn the other cheek—would seem to run contrary to the ethics of Hapkido—to knock your opponent out! I quizzed David about the issue on a number of occasions, but, like a true fighter, he evaded and ‘blocked’ my line of questioning. He told me instead that his ultimate aim was to share the Gospel and that Hapkido was proving to have a number of positive effects on his young charges.

“It builds up self-confidence and it’s cathartic for them. It obviously provides good discipline and! think it helps them to relate to each other in a positive way.

“It also makes the church a more accessible entity in the community for people who’d normally put it in a bracket with the RSL club: something totally alien.”

Dulwich Hill is an area where the church needs to be seen in a different light if it’s to be relevant to younger people. There are many, as David put it, “rough kids” in the area and the district has many ethnic groups. There are few church youth groups and they have all had enormous problems with vandalism and other violence. David believes God has used the fighting skills He has given him to make him relevant to the Street culture in which the young people are involved.

“There’s a real difficulty breaking through to the youth in this area. Most of the Anglo churches are made up of older people who don’t have a link to minister to young ethnic people. God’s given us people with the ability to communicate to them.” After gaining the respect of the young people, David then finds he must try to break down cultural barriers the ethnic kids have toward the Gospel.

“For a lot of them religion is a cultural thing associated with their parents and a cultural thing they’re moving away from. They might have sometimes gone to Orthodox churches with their parents, so Christ is somewhere in their thinking, but it’s all in Greek, or whatever, anyway. We actually get down and pray and read the Bible a bit together to try and make it all a bit more relevant”, David said.

He’s found that his street-wise approach has effected obvious changes in the young people’s attitudes.

“I deliberately didn’t take scripture with kids when I started here, partly because I’m no good at it and also because I didn’t want to be seen as just another authority figure.”

David said he’s now seen as “one of the guys” and that violence and vandalism are currently not a problem. The young people are seeing themselves as part of a team and David’s basketballs aren’t being stolen anymore!

“In the past we thought a good evangelistic strategy for the area would be to write messages about our youth fellowships on the balls before they disappeared. That would get the ‘word’ around!”

David has seen a number of young people come to Christ through his martial arts classes. In many cases youth in their late teens and early 20s with, as David put it, “some kind of belief in Christ”, through their religious upbringing, have become serious about their faith.

However, David finds that keeping younger kids who come to Christ through strong conversion experiences on track is more difficult. He doesn’t have the support staff he needs to disciple them and so they are forced to hang around with the older guys in the “Fighter’s Fellowship”. Not many find they can relate to the older age group.

“We need a backbone of converted kids who can work as a team and be accountable to each other’s David said, echoing the concerns of many people working with preteen Christians.

David has a genuine passion for the young people he works with, having been a violent knife-carrying rebel as a teenager. He in fact initially took up martial arts before his conversion for what he described as “all the wrong reasons”. Although he wouldn’t comment too much about what those wrong reasons were, David said he had had a lot of enemies. One assumes he wasn’t loving them as he would attempt to today. David has only once had to use his Hapkido outside the ring, when he intervened in an attempted rape: “I didn’t know as mucn then as I do now and I was lucky to survive. The guy had got out of prison that day (he’d been in on assault charges) and was on drugs at the time”. Nowadays he prefers to stand between possible combatants on the street and defuse the situation, knowing he has the ability to protect himself if necessary.

Despite years of experience in the ring, it was only in April this year that David had his first amateur kickboxing fight, which he won.

“I’m quite amazed at how far God has taken this [“fighting Father”] thing. I never thought I’d have an amateur fight. But it builds contacts and credibility for working in this area.”

As he has gone deeper into the fight game, David has seen that there is a huge ministry among professional fighters, a ministry that he feels God could be leading him to for the future.

“Getting to know these guys—very rough sorts of guys—I find they always have some kind of faith, too. Maybe it’s the nature of the dangerous profession!”

David has been offered many more amateur fights as a result of his first stoush, but at this stage he’s not sure if he will take them up. However, if he does decide to enter the ring again, his opponents should bear in mind what one of his Dulwich Hill students said:

“Father Dave fights like hell and he’s got the devil of a punch”.

On Being
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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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