Kicks for Christ

Combining Discipleship with Mixed Martial Arts by David Reardon

The summer of 2022 marks the commissioning of the first class of Salvation Army cadets to have gone through their entire two years of training during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Messengers of Reconciliation have endured online classes, reduced opportunities for field training and limited social and leisure activities. At the Western Territory’s College for Officer Training, one cadet, David Culley, decided to provide an outlet for himself, his session mates’ families, and the faculty of the college as well. 

David Culley, from the Santa Clara corps in the Golden State division, was a schoolteacher before he answered God’s call to officership, but he’s had a lifelong passion that he’s maintained throughout his education and career and now into the beginning of his ministry as an officer. David is a World Martial Arts instructor and has been since his days in college. Even after he left his job as an instructor, he continued to teach and train at various levels, for a total of sixteen years as a martial arts instructor. 

To alleviate the growing anxiety at the training college over the isolation and lack of things to do during their free time, David started an official World Martial Arts class where all residents at the college were welcome to participate. David describes World Martial Arts as a traditional system of belts, uniforms and discipline based on Taekwondo and blended with modern mixed martial arts. The ages of his students range from six years old to somewhere in the fifties, as even some of the teachers and administrators at the CFOT have become involved. Since early 2021, the group has gathered consistently both indoors (masked) and outdoors on days when the weather permits it. 

David shares about the importance his martial arts training has held in his life. “It’s where I learned discipline, respect for people, how to be encouraging and loving towards others, even though the techniques are about kicking and punching people … It’s not always about hurting the other person but making each other better through challenging each other. I love that. I love having the opportunity to learn new things, to be part of a community where we learn together, sweat, cry and bleed together, and continue to grow as a team.”

The class David offers to the training college community is unique to other martial arts schools in a simple yet profound way. “At the end of a secular martial arts class, you’d close your eyes and have 30 to 45 seconds of meditation, just breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. You reflect on what you learned that day, or how you’ve been growing as a martial artist and as a person. Instead, in that time, I share a quick devotion about how our progress as martial artists can, in ways, mimic our progress as Christians.” David likens the discipline of martial arts training to the discipline of Christianity. “In your martial arts life, that means to practice at home, practice your kicks, and practice your foot position. And in our spiritual lives, that means being in our Bible and having prayer time be a part of your life.”

David also wants to ensure that the time he and his students spend practicing martial arts is a time of worship. He mentions Deuteronomy 6:5, which reads “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength”. David says, “Physical training is of some value, but the spiritual things are valued for this life and the life to come … we take care of our bodies because God has given them to us to be stewards of them. But they will only last so long. Our bodies will fail. Our health will fail. The time will come for us to give these bodies back up. And what will count is how we’ve grown in our spiritual lives.”

“Everything we do is worship, including our martial arts, and everything we do is secondary to our spiritual lives and growth.” While David is leaving the training college this summer, he is not leaving his students out to dry. Though they may need to start at the bottom again, they have earned official belt ranks and certificates and have the skillset necessary to join most other martial arts schools. “They could jump into any traditional martial arts school and have a great foundation as to what it is to be a martial art student,” David says. “And they would probably go through their first couple belts a little bit more quickly and end up well-integrated.”

David expressed gratitude to God for the opportunity to integrate his passion for martial arts with his ministry. When asked if this might be something he continues to do in future appointments, he had this to say: “I certainly want myself to continue to train in some capacity. But I’m very open to continuing to teach. I worry, as I do with this group, about leaving [students]. It’s not like the next officer would be able to teach martial arts. But I trust that everything has seasons. If I start students off, it’ll be good for the season that I’m able to do it in that community, and then they’ll have to figure out if and how they can continue.” David and his wife Sarah will be commissioned this month alongside the rest of the Messengers of Reconciliation.