Before they start practicing their punches and kicks, the students in this karate class pray. And before they are paired up to fight, they are told to run away from disputes that turn violent.
The Christian Karate Assn., a Monrovia church ministry, employs an unconventional melding of Christianity and martial arts.
Given the biblical admonition to turn the other cheek, some may question merging the two concepts. But to the black-belt instructors who teach karate to youngsters, teen-agers and advanced students every Monday night, the spiritual implications of martial arts could not be more obvious.
"I never look at it as violent," said Robert Temple, one of the instructors and an eighth-degree black belt who operates a karate school in Santa Monica. "It's an art form. The whole concept is to bring you closer to God."
The hourlong peewee lesson, for children ages 3 to 12, begins and ends with prayer. As they learn the kicks, punches and postures of karate, the children are also taught self-control through Bible stories.
"Who can name me one of the warriors of the Bible?" fifth-degree black belt Jeffrey Samilton of Ontario asks the class.
"David," replies 7-year-old Jonathan Levin.
"And what did David do?" Samilton asks. Jonathan is tongue-tied.
"He slayed the giant, did he not?"
Jonathan and half a dozen others nod.
"And who was in control of David?"
Eight-year-old Domonique Jimenez raises her hand. "God," she replies.
Over and over again, the children are urged to be in control of their lives through God, to talk out conflicts and to run the other way before a fight starts. Their ability to defend themselves is to be used only as a last resort.
Corliss Jimenez of El Monte said the karate teachers' philosophy has helped her 6-year-old son, Alex. "He used to fight at school all the time," she said. "Now he fights less. He's learned to try to talk first."
The Christian Karate Assn. is a ministry of the Family Church, a mostly African-American congregation of about 300 led by the Rev. Donnie Williams, a former international karate grand champion.
Williams, who in 1977 was the first African-American to win the world karate competition, founded the Monrovia church a decade ago. His love for martial arts quickly carried over into his congregation, and many of the men he trained in karate followed him into Christianity.
"As karate schools go, these (instructors) are the best guys on the planet by anybody's standards," said Stewart Levin, who drives from his home in Studio City each week so he and son Jonathan can take lessons. "This is like going to Muhammad Ali to learn boxing."
He said he feels the instructors, who volunteer their time and drive long distances to teach the classes, go out of their way to encourage the youngsters and foster their self-esteem.
Discipline and respect for authority also are emphasized. The children are shown how to line up neatly during the practice sessions and to bow to their teachers and each other.
They are expected to be silent during the class, keep their eyes forward and to applaud when their peers are asked to demonstrate their abilities.
"Some of the kids come in here and at first they just want to do the Ninja Turtle stuff," Temple said. "Actually, they are better prepared to learn this than I was at their age because they see so many of the moves in video games."
The skills they learn in class are not haphazard or showy, however, but painstakingly controlled and executed to avoid injury. "This teaches them to control themselves for one hour. They could be home playing Nintendo but instead they're here working up a sweat," Levin said.
Melody Dominguez, 11, of Temple City said she hopes her newfound ability will help her defend herself. "Some of the boys like to hit and stuff at school," she said.
Jackie Jimenez said she got her four children involved in the class mainly to give her youngest boy, an outlet for his high energy level. "It was a little scary for them at first, but now they look forward to it," said the Monrovia mother. "I like the fact that they're getting discipline, a physical workout and a spiritual emphasis."
Levin said he also appreciates the fact that his son is exposed to children of various races and economic levels in the karate program, which attracts a diverse group of students. "There are kids who are strangers here, who are different colors, and he has to learn to deal with that," Levin said. "Part of tolerance is familiarity."
A respect for and understanding of physical power is another plus of the program, the parents and teachers said.
While today's children are exposed to killings and fighting on television or video games, Temple said, they do not really understand what physical power is all about. "Here, they learn that if you get hit with a punch, it hurts. Then they can understand how that hurts others. It's not just a cartoon anymore," he said.
As well as fostering respect for power, Temple said, learning a skill like karate gives children confidence. "Kids today are more radical, it's harder for them to do what's right," he said. "This teaches them they can have beliefs and they can be leaders."
He said that while Christian doctrines are taught during the lesson, students do not have to be Christians to attend. "We have Jewish kids and Muslims here. They are also getting closer to God. As they respond to the physical lessons, their minds open up to hear what we're saying about the spiritual."
The teachers collect $1 donations from each student. No tuition is charged for the classes, which take place in the small south Monrovia industrial park where the Family Church has its services.
When each child has had a chance to punch, kick, yell karate terms out loud and watch both students and teachers engage in hand combat, the class is over.
"We're going to bow out Christian Karate-style," Samilton tells the boys and girls. "We're going to pray first and then go home to mama."