Fighting
Father Dave
 

November
Fight Club
by Tristan Gunzman


This was an interview-project put together by Tristan Gunzman as a part of his university studies. It is reprinted with permission.

The Lord is my trainer
I shall not fear the fight

You see yourself in the mirror, arms up, feet apart, you punch the air swiftly, confidently shadowboxing, observing your technique.

He is constantly with me, working my corner
He refreshes me between rounds with cool water
And with even cooler advice

“Arms up, step forward with your jab,” says your trainer, Father Dave.

The priest, who runs the fight club, is preparing you for your first fight.

Yea, though I walk to centre-ring
To stare out an opponent twice my size
Even then He will be with me
His hands on my shoulder
And his words to guide

Time has passed, you’ve trained hard. It’s fight night. You step into the ring, the crowd cheers, you share a silent look with Father Dave.

With His towel and His sponge He will care for me
All the long rounds of my life

Sweat drips from your brow, mingling with blood. Water splashes into the bucket from a wringing sponge. The bell tolls for the second round. You stand and once more take up the dance of the fight: dodging blows, parrying attacks, looking for an opening to throw your hard right.

And when the final bell rings
I shall retire from the ring
Knowing that I fought the good fight.

Blood pumps through your body at the sound of your opponent hitting the floor. The crowd roars, you fought the good fight tonight.

***

Christianity with a punch” is the phrase on the singlet worn by the trainers at Father David Smith’s fight club at Dulwich Hill. For 15 years Father Dave has helped youths get off the street by teaching them to box. People from abusive families, kids who are into drugs, you name it, he’s gotten them off the street and taught them how to fight, to channel their energy productively into a sport he feels teaches you self-discipline, courage and integrity.

“At a practical level [the fight club is] about taking kids who have been on the edge at times, and teaching them to fight and in that process teaching them self control,” Father Dave says.

“Ten years ago almost all the kids we were dealing with had heroin problems and for every half a dozen guys we pick up, five might end up back on the street – but one won’t, and that’s good.”

Many of the kids who pass through the club come out better off. It isn’t just the boxing that helps channel their negative energy that helps though

“People need a community and that’s the secret for turning some of the more difficult kids around. We don’t tell them; the hidden ingredient in making it work for kids is we change their peers,” Father Dave says.

Father Dave loves it when he sees the positive environment create ripple effects on the young men who go to his club. Recently a young Lebanese boy with a lot of attitude started going. One of the older boxers, an Aboriginal boy, was in the year above him at the same school. They initially didn’t get along, however eventually the older lad took the young trouble-maker under his wing. Now he dedicates half an hour per lesson to training the young guy and teaching him moves.

“And I think, 'what a guy'. He bridged that cultural divide. Boxing gave him the guts to reach out and show friendship and support to a kid he found it difficult to get on with at school. His mates would all be ganging up and bullying the young guy, but this young man gave him friendship,” Father Dave says.

It isn’t just youths that go to the fight club, men and women come from all walks of life to train. But one particular group who keep coming back are single fathers.

“To be a fighter you’ve got to have two things going for you. You’ve got to have a lot of energy that needs release and you’ve got to be not too concerned about your own health. And that fits perfectly with kids on the edge, and it really works well for men in custody cases battling for their kids,” Father Dave says.

“I’ve run support groups and meetings for single fathers and they are the saddest group of poor bastards I’ve ever known. I’ve been one myself.”

Father Dave boxes professionally to raise money to keep his ministry going. He sticks out like a sore thumb with the Anglican clergy, and feels that Sydney Anglican Christian middle class values are not helping Christians reach out to the underprivileged.

“The Anglican Church in Sydney is largely middle class and most of the kids we’re dealing with, well, that’s not their world, that’s not their culture. So getting the kids to cross that divide can be difficult and getting the church to extend to them can be difficult, I don’t think it’s impossible though,” Father Dave says.

Sarah, one of the few girls who trains at the club is an atheist. She puts her faith in science unraveling all the mysteries of life, shown with the tattoo of the carbon symbol on her lower back.

“Oh I strongly believe in science as the eventual answer to the unknown,” she says, even though she is wearing the singlet “Christianity with a punch.”

“I wear the singlet because I respect Father Dave, and I respect his fight club. It always gives my flatmates something to chuckle about when I come home wearing the singlet though, because it’s so not me,” Sarah says.

John, an older man and one of the fight club’s newer members, has been boxing most of his life. The thing that keeps on bringing him back to this club is the friendly atmosphere.

“A lot of fight clubs are full of tough boys trying to prove something. There is a lot of attitude and arrogance, but you don’t get that here,” he says.

The fight club operates in the church hall owned by Holy Trinity Church where Father Dave ministers. Money is tight, so to lighten the load Father Dave set up his own company called ‘Fighting Father Ministries.’ In fact the local community is where he draws his financial support to keep the fight club and the youth centre attached to it running.

“If life was easier, then we wouldn’t have the relationship with the local pubs and clubs, today,” he says.

Father Dave doesn’t like to rely on the Anglican Diocese, rather he prefers to see the community getting together and setting up a project. In the long term he would love to travel the country and help communities set up their own fight clubs.

"Having the local church working with the kids, funded by local business with the support of the community is the ideal model; rather than going through that bureaucratic process of getting funds from the diocese,” Father Dave says.

Father Dave thinks the way the Anglican Diocese taxes churches these days makes it harder for smaller churches to serve the community: the size and income of a church is not as important as it used to be in determining the amount of money a church should be taxed.

“We’re not even a name, we’re a number. And the number goes in and gets crunched by a machine and comes out and says you owe this much. You’re not dealing with people most of the time you’re dealing with a system. That’s not bad in itself. It’s just a reflection of the size of the thing,” said Father Dave.

After 15 years of serving the church and community, the years are taking their strain on Father Dave.

“At the start of this year, I thought it was all over. Our financial situation was slim. I thought about just quietly disappearing from the scene and moving away quietly, but the local bishop encouraged me to stay,” he says.

Right now Dave takes the business of his fight club and the church month by month.

“I think we’ve just got to keep taking risks. As soon as we get some money, I’m pumping it straight back into the club,” he says.

He was disillusioned for a while, until recently when he heard a quote from Gentleman Jim Corbett –who was a great pioneer in the development of boxing as a sport because of his scientific approach and innovative technique.

“The quote related to a ‘one more round’ mentality. And I thought to myself, yeah, I have one more round left in me. It helps to think of it like that rather than asking yourself if you have another 15 years left in you,” Father Dave says.

“At the end of the day, we want to teach people that boxing isn’t about winning, it’s about showing that you’ve got the courage to stand on your own feet for three rounds and show that you can survive.”

Fight one more round.

When your arms are so tired that you can hardly lift your hands to come on guard,
Fight one more round.
When your nose is bleeding and your eyes are black
And you are so tired that you wish your opponent
Would crack you one on the jaw and put you to sleep
Fight one more round
Remembering that the man who fights one more round
Is never whipped.” ~ James Corbett.

©2011, Rev. David B. Smith

*    *    *

Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose. - Baltasar Gracian

Rev. David B. Smith is a Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author of Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist: Reflections on life, ministry & fighting in the inner-city and a father of three. Get a free preview copy of Father Dave, the 'Fighting Father's book when you sign up for his free newsletter at www.fatherdave.org or dave@fatherdave.org



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