It seems like a paradox: teach unruly youths how to box to dissuade them from pursuing a life of violence. But an Anglican priest from Australia swears that it works.
The Rev. Dave Smith serves as the priest at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, a 100-member parish in Dulwich Hill, about 5.5 miles southwest of metropolitan Sydney. A big part of his ministry has to do with working with the toughest of the tough teens there.
It’s a rough area, the 47-year-old pugilistic preacher said, one that lots of people avoid.
“I grew up near there, and we were terrified to go in the area”, he said, sitting at a table inside Doug Pyeatt’s house in Laurel. Smith was dressed in his Anglican collar, a silver cross draped around his neck, and his hair a bit mussed.
I came to talk with him at the invitation of Pyeatt, who himself is a martial-arts practitioner and boxer involved in a local boxing ministry. Pyeatt, who works in federal law enforcement, found out about Smith’s work online and the two struck up a friendship a couple of years ago.
When Smith traveled to the United States for a fundraising seminar in San Francisco, he decided to travel by car to visit some of his American supporters, including Pyeatt. Traveling west to east, his plan was to finish up his journey in Washington, D.C., and then hop on a jet back to Australia. Smith concedes that he turned into a punk growing up, drinking, doing drugs and generally acting violent and nasty”
But he converted to Christianity at age 18 and said he felt called to the ministry.
“My father, who’s a very godly man, told me he’d been praying for me every day of my life,” Smith said.
Smith tried praying himself, telling God that if he could do a better job with Smith’s life, he was welcome to it.
“I woke up and felt less angry” Smith said. “I stopped carrying a knife or chains and I joined a church!”
Smith started out learning martial arts. He gradually found his interest was drawn to kick boxing, wrestling and especially boxing.
Boxing, he told me, left no room for hiding.
“In the ring it’s just my body and his body” he said. “It’s just honest. It’s very raw and real, and if done properly, it can be very positive!”
Eventually, Smith earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy and then he went on to seminary and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1989. He was sent to Dulwich Hill in late 1990, basically to close the parish there.
The church had only 30 members with only two under age 70. The old church building was condemned.
Smith suggested that if the dwindling congregation wanted to reach out to young people, they’d have to be willing to invest in a more modern building with a kitchen where kids could hang out.
With the congregation’s blessing, a modest youth center was built. These days, it draws 50-plus kids every day, and a fight club keeps them occupied every night.
“Fighting is like a magnet for kids with problems, boys particularly,” Smith said, “although girls come and box to get fit.”
The ratio of boys to girls who carry out assaults, drug overdoses and suicides is 4 to 1, Smith said. Of the kids who come, 10 percent choose martial arts and the rest put on boxing gloves.
“Boys come to box because they’re angry and they want to prove something.” Smith, who gained the title ‘Fighting Father Dave’ said that boys who are into violence generally lack confidence and set out to prove they’re tough to gain prestige.
Interestingly, Smith said, a boy who steps into the ring angry doesn’t necessary end up on top.
“They find out very quickly if they lose control, they can’t win” he said.
“They also can’t win if they smoke and drink and do drugs. Not every teen that comes to box succeeds, he said, but the ones willing to learn discipline – the biggest key,” Smith said “- have the best chance to win in the ring and in life.”
Often the boys drawn to the sport have been victims of abusive authority. At the fight club, they learn that Smith and the other mentors have the ability to beat them in the ring but choose not to. “You build this relationship with trust that I think can take social workers years to build,” he said. “It’s not all positive”, Smith said. He’s buried a lot of kids in the past 20 years, he said, who have been hooked on heroin or methamphetamine.
The real fight, he said, isn’t at the church or even in the boxing ring.
“It’s out there, to remain faithful to partner to do the job to make a contribution to the community,” Smith said. “Ring fighting helps to harness the energy and channel it!”