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O.C. RELIGION

Baptized Karate Helps Reinforce Christianity

May 06, 2000|RAUL GALLEGOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Rev. David Baumann is no ordinary priest. On Sundays he stands before his congregation at the Episcopal Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia in full-length vestments of gold and black to preach the word of God.

On certain other days, attired all in white, he throws punches and screams in Korean.

At these meetings his congregation is smaller. Though listening just as intently as parishioners on Sunday, they sit on floor mats instead of pews.

They, like Baumann, undergo a transformation: He goes from preacher to teacher, and they go from church-goers to students, from passive listeners to active learners.

This is no ordinary class and they are no ordinary students. Three days a week, Baumann and a group of more than 30 people--from young children to adults--exercise the art of what they call "Christian Karate." It's a class in which Baumann blends his religious message with martial arts in the Korean tang soo do style.

Taught at Baumann's church, the class gives students the chance to learn martial arts in an environment friendly to their beliefs.

"We take very classical Korean and Japanese karate and baptize it, make it Christian," said Baumann, a second-degree black belt with 10 years of teaching experience.

"Christian Karate" began at Blessed Sacrament in 1985. The school was founded by Richard Kern, a church member who studied the tang soo do style in Korea and Japan. Students from the church and the community took part and among them was Baumann, the parish rector.

The school closed after a few years and then Baumann reopened it in 1997. Today he conducts a karate class in which he combines martial art with Bible readings and discussion. Each session ends with a "prayer squeeze" in which participants huddle to pray.

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Baumann acknowledges that the combination is not a natural one. "It is quite clear the religious origins of martial arts are not Christian," he said.

But Baumann believes the basic karate teachings of respect, self-confidence and obedience to one's instructor reinforce the principles of Christianity.

Students train in an atmosphere of cooperation. Kids spar with adults and they all help each other perfect technique. Nobody ever loses.

"The competition is to improve everybody, not [to] beat your opponent," said 9-year-old Ben Bennet, who has attended the class for a year.

Occasionally class members will pause to read and discuss Scripture. The class also practices Zen meditation.

The two cultures are intertwined in other ways as well. Baumann gives students special names in Korean that reflect their personalities and their relationship with God. The school itself is called Ai-Ten Ryu, or Love of Heaven School.

The combination creates an atmosphere that many Christian parents like.

"My son's been coming here for two weeks now, and it has done a lot for him," said Dennis Coyle, himself a Christian minister from Valley View Community Church in Whittier.

Coyle recounts how his 9-year-old son recently resisted the urge to fight another child who tried to provoke him--a display of self-discipline he attributes to the karate class.

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Others in the class also benefit from the friendly religious atmosphere. Two more clergymen participate as students with red belts, alongside children a fraction of their ages.

Most of the participants have a Christian leaning, but Baumann insists the class is meant for every religion and it can also be tailored to meet the emotional needs of students.

Leslie Owens of Placentia, for example, was looking for a way to confront fears that have recurred in nightmares. But she didn't want an ordinary martial-arts class in which students would not be willing to adjust the pace of the class to her emotional needs.

Owens, 40, a mother of three, said she got the understanding she needed in Baumann's class. At first, "I couldn't stand a hand moving slowly toward me," she said. For months she was excused from sparring with others.

Today, her fears largely put to rest, Owens now says she is able to fully participate in the class, holding the sparring bag while others punch and kick it--and, she said proudly, "I now have actually blocked kicks."

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