March 25, 2022

‘This has been a blessing’

Priest uses martial arts to shape students’ body, mind, spirit—and their bond with God

Students of St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis follow the lead of their pastor, Father Guy Roberts, in doing a tae kwon do move during an after-school class. Thirty-five students train twice a week with Father Roberts, who has a black belt in tae kwon do. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Students of St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis follow the lead of their pastor, Father Guy Roberts, in doing a tae kwon do move during an after-school class. Thirty-five students train twice a week with Father Roberts, who has a black belt in tae kwon do. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about priests in the archdiocese who use their love of physical activity to connect with their community in the hope of drawing people closer to God. See the second story here and the third story here.)
 

Part one
 

By John Shaughnessy

Watching Father Guy Roberts lead children in a martial arts class with a distinctly Catholic emphasis, it’s hard to decide what to focus on first.

There’s the sight of the 54-year-old priest, a black belt in tae kwon do, spinning and unleashing a whirlwind kick of controlled power that leaves the suddenly-wide-eyed boys and girls in awe.

There’s the angelic smile of 11-year-old Elroy Jackson, one of the 35 grade school students who train with Father Roberts, as he shares the news that he has broken wooden boards in half.

And there’s the look of pure joy on the face of Claire Jackson—a mother of five, including Elroy, and a black belt herself—explaining one of the special reasons she loves having her children participate in tae kwon do.

“They stay active, and it wears them out,” she says with a wide grin. “They go to bed at night and fall asleep, instead of laying there asking me questions.” Her smile grows even wider as she adds, “It’s beautiful.”

The impact of the Monday and Wednesday after-school sessions is also powerful for the participating students at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, including the way it has deepened their connection with Father Roberts, their pastor.

‘He’s awesome!’

“One of the reasons I like doing this is because it helps the children to see me as a priest outside of just liturgical celebration,” Father Roberts says. “There’s much more of a familiarity with me. When they see me out on campus, they’ll say hello to me. And they’ll come up to me after Mass and say hello.”

Fifth-grader Elroy offers a more succinct view of the bond between Father Roberts and his young tae kwon do students. Asked what he thinks of the priest, Elroy flashes another smile and says, “He’s awesome!”

Beyond the closer bond with the children, Father Roberts hopes the martial arts lessons will also help them grow personally in certain qualities and even be a way to deepen their faith and their relationship with God. He had all those goals in mind when he started his own tae kwon do school called Taijido Kwan.

Father Roberts’ approach to his classes includes an emphasis on the precepts of tae kwon do—integrity, self-control, indomitable spirit, perseverance and courtesy. There’s also the foundation of the Catholic faith, tying in the Ten Commandments to the lessons.

“Sometimes, I’ll ask them, ‘What do you think the First Commandment is all about—having no other gods?’ Then they have to reflect on it,” he says. “I want their tae kwon do practice to be more than just kicking and punching. It’s about how they conduct themselves in life.

“So we talk about things like, ‘You shall not kill’ and ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ I just like to get the feedback from them, what do they think these things mean. I ask them, ‘How do we live these things out?’ It’s interesting the answers I get.”

As a mother and as the assistant instructor of the classes, Claire Jackson appreciates the emphasis that Father Roberts brings to his teaching of tae kwon do.

“When I did tae kwon do before—I didn’t do it with Father then—it was so much more focused on hurting your opponent and the power in it,” she says. “But the way we do it here, it’s helping each other. You could defend yourself if you had to, but it’s just mostly about keeping your body fit and being kind. It’s just a completely different focus.”

Still, Father Roberts doesn’t allow any shortcuts to learning the movements, the kicks and the flips that are part of tae kwon do. And when a student doesn’t pay attention, there are push-ups to do. At the same time, the students know that everything he asks them to do, he will do with them.

‘I want to build confidence’

Barefoot and wearing a white martial arts uniform, just as the children do, Father Roberts starts each lesson with a prayer. Then he moves the children into a warm-up routine that includes 25 jumping jacks, push-ups, stretches and rotations of the hips, knees and neck. During stretches, he touches his palms on the floor without bending his knees. In doing push-ups, he finishes a set of 20 with the children by clapping his hands on the way up between each of the last few push-ups.

Together, instructors and students focus on doing the standard movements of tae kwon do, followed by working on the proper forms for kicks and flips, and later learning the best way to defend yourself against two opponents.

Father Roberts is at the heart of it all, working up a sweat, his face turning ruddier as the class progresses. And he offers constant praise and encouragement.

“I want to build confidence, self-respect, discipline, respect for others, the ability to know that if they apply themselves, they can accomplish practically anything in life,” he says.

“Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of running jumps, and the children are amazed that they can actually accomplish some of these things.

“I always tell them their biggest opponent in life is themselves. If they can overcome themselves, they can overcome about anything.”

He knows the reality of that belief. While this is his first year as the pastor of St. Barnabas Parish, he previously taught tae kwon do to school children during the 15 years he led St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis.

He saw how the lessons helped increase the respect, self-discipline and even the grades of many of the children in the program. In some cases, it changed lives even more dramatically.

“There’s one boy who’s now in the Navy running the nuclear reactor on a submarine,” Father Roberts says. “He was very, very shy and quiet. Tae kwon do was about the only sport he did. He stayed with it all the way until he went into the Navy. I’ve seen it help them achieve some things that maybe they wouldn’t have had the confidence to achieve if they hadn’t challenged themselves through tae kwon do.”

There’s also the story of how it changed the life of a then 7-year-old boy.

‘It’s kept me young’

Father Roberts was 7 when he initially became involved in tae kwon do because of a 1970s’ television show called “Kung Fu.” From watching the show, his parents looked at their reserved son and thought it would be good exercise for him and increase his confidence.

A self-described “spiritual kid,” he also saw something spiritual in martial arts. Yet a year after he started the sport, he was seriously injured as a passenger in a pickup truck that was struck by a train near his family’s home in Brownsburg. Both his legs and ankles were broken in the crash, and it was more than a year before he could run and play again.

He drifted away from martial arts, but his interest in developing his spirituality continued to grow through the years. Even though he was raised a Baptist, he started thinking about becoming a Catholic priest when he was a freshman at Butler University in Indianapolis. He has been a priest in the archdiocese since 2005. He also developed a renewed interest in tae kwon do as an adult.

His involvement with tae kwon do led to an interesting examination and conversation with a doctor when Father Roberts was in his mid-40s. The doctor said that considering the extent of the damage he suffered to his legs as a child, Father Roberts should have been relying on a cane to walk by that point in his life. Instead, he continues jumping and unleashing whirlwind kicks.

“This has been a blessing for me,” he says about the strength, balance and flexibility he has gained from practicing tae kwon do. “It’s kept me young.”

He offers that same opportunity for increased strength, balance and flexibility to adults in the parish as he leads a class in tai chi on Saturday mornings at St. Barnabas. Christine Turo-Shields has been taking part in the Saturday classes for about two months.

“For me, it is prayerful movement,” says Turo-Shields, a member of

St. Barnabas and a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in mental health therapy. “We live in such a frenetic society and we live at such a frenetic pace that quieting the body quiets the mind. It’s very meditative. It allows the whole presence of God and the spiritual nature of our being to be magnified.”

The connection of body, mind, soul—and Jesus

That’s exactly how Father Roberts views his instruction of children and adults in martial arts—as one more way of ultimately moving them toward a closer relationship with God.

That path includes teaching young and older people alike “to have a relationship with their body, their mind and their spirit,” yet many people “don’t really have that connection with their body,” he says. People need to work to take care of the body that God has given them, as well as strive to develop the mind and “having that proper spirit.”

“There’s something about this kind of cultivation through martial arts that helps us have an appreciation for that which is larger than ourselves,” he says. “In our case as Catholics, we understand that to be God.

“Much of the martial arts world is either Buddhist or Taoist, coming from Asia, but we have that whole Christian connection with Jesus Christ. Who is in better shape than Jesus Christ? He knew how to take care of his body, his mental health, his spiritual health.”

Father Roberts flashes a smile and adds, “Maybe if Jesus were at St. Barnabas, maybe he’d do tae kwon do and tai chi with us.” †

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