Karate and religion combine in a Baptist preacher's ministry, with the faithful finding strength and seeds of contemplation in slashed watermelons and split concrete
July 29, 1973

Night swoops into southwestern Kentucky like a big blackbird, flooding the valleys and scaling the mountains, painting away the lingering glitter of the sun. Mike Grain, director of the Judo & Karate for Christ Camp, stands at the podium above the congregation of Wells Chapel. Although an ordained Baptist minister, Crain wears the loose robes of a karatist, with a second-degree black belt. It is an outdoor chapel, roofed against rain, with bare bulbs teardropping from plain sockets, tossing light over the solemn faces of Crain's congregation, leaking artificial yellow out into the night.

"I can slice a banana in half on your neck, sever a potato on your hand. I can break 12 inches of concrete with my head. I'm a hardheaded, barefooted Baptist preacher and I have a special power." He has a backcountry voice that rises and falls in a song of words and beats out a rhythm like a hillbilly guitar.

"There are all kinds of power in this world," twangs Crain. "Black power, white power, social power, political power, pucker power. But the greatest power there is and will ever be is God's power. The Bible says God's power is sharper than any two-edged sword." Crain pauses and Master Dan Pai, a 240-pound eighth-degree black belt Kung Fu karatist and former Buddhist monk who now teaches philosophy at Enfield College in Connecticut, joins him on the platform. Splinters of a 300-pound block of ice that Crain broke with his hand minutes before drip wet on the floor behind them. Pai signals and three boys come up, dropping to their hands and knees, side by side. This will be just one of the many karate demonstrations given by Crain and his troop each year, but because it is the first for the camp both men are sweaty and visibly tense.

Pai signals again and two others emerge, slim, short-haired, perhaps 14, in white shirts and ties. The fourth youth lies on his back atop the pyramid of boys and a watermelon is placed on his stomach. The fifth is positioned alongside the pyramid and a watermelon is wedged between his hands and stomach. Pai pulls a blindfold from his robes and wraps it tightly around his eyes. The congregation is suddenly entranced. There is hardly a sound. Even Crain has opted for silent prayer.

Then Pai draws a silver samurai sword from its sheath. Nobody seems to breathe, except for Pai, who raises the sword slowly above his head. It is as if the motor of life had suddenly come to rest, so loud is the silence in this glowing chapel in the Kentucky backcountry where two young boys hold a measure of death against their bodies.

"KIIAA!" Pai yells as the sword flashes in the light down onto the pyramid. "KIIAA!" he screams as it slashes left against the standing boy.

The pyramid remains steady, but the watermelon, sliced in two, rolls onto the platform. The severed half held by the fifth boy, his knees buckling, splatters to the ground. Both boys frantically dig under their shirts to check their stomachs.

It is not the most remarkable feat ever performed. It is, on second thought, somewhat senseless. But for a split second, even for the unbeliever, it is stunning. The congregation suddenly bursts into feverish applause.

The place is Camp Joy, in Brownsville, Ky., 90 miles south of Louisville. Crain leases Joy from a federation of Baptist churches for his Judo & Karate for Christ Camp, which he holds once a year. About 150 adults and children attended this session. They came from Missouri, Florida, Ohio, California, New York—college students, cub scouts, a 42-year-old Teamster, a clerk working his way through law school. They came from the Philippines, Colorado, Louisiana and Maine, some of them rank amateurs, others with black and brown belts. Some came to learn what is advertised as an equivalent of six months' self-defense training for $39.50, including room and meals, others to acquire new techniques and earn an advance in rankings. But most came to gain spiritual as well as physical strength and prowess, to listen as the 28-year-old minister speaks the words of the Lord.

The next morning at seven, on the field down by the chapel, everyone is doing calisthenics. Pai, the Spartan in his karate uniform, was there long before anybody else. Crain falls in with the rest of the campers, some dressed in fatigues, others in Levi's, shorts or pajama bottoms. This is a kind of boot camp for civilians.

"Down for push-ups," barks Pai. "Up-down, up-down, one-two. I want 50 push-ups. Push till you can't push no more. Up-down, one-two!" His voice rolls like the waves of the South Seas. "They got to get in shape," says the 42-year-old Hawaiian-Chinese. "I know. I live and breathe karate 24 hours a day. I give up two wives for karate. Nothing more important than karate."

Sit-ups, splits, knee bends, practice punches. "Now run, my people, run. Run till you think your legs fall off. You having fun? You having good time? You like this? Run, people, run." He is relentless. An hour of calisthenics, half an hour for breakfast, 15 minutes for cleanup, 15 minutes to dress. Then back to the field. They run from the chapel to the graveyard, about 250 yards down, churn up a high hill, bend around a huge white cross standing on top of it, then back 250 yards more. "Run, my people, run. Move, move, move." Around and around they run.

Later they trot down the road that leads into Brownsville where, in the town square, they begin to spar. A lady with peroxide hair is matched against a man with a puffy belly. Boys vs. girls, friend fighting friend, Crain against congregation. "They must learn to hit, they must learn to defend themselves," says Pai. "Choke your opponent," he yells. "I don't want you to hug and kiss him. Harder! Harder! Are you enjoying yourself? Choke, choke, choke!"

They spar, they run in place, they run in circles. They trot out of the square, leaving the townspeople in their straw hats and coveralls gawking in amazement; then around the block, back up the hill and into camp, down to the field where they intermittently run and spar some more. No smoking, no resting. Periodically, like seconds in a boxing ring, mothers bring water to the families. "Drink and run," one lady shrieks to her gasping husband. "Don't let him catch you loafing."

Lunch, rest period, games, then down to the field for more. Instruction for fighting with swords and Nun An Chuks (two clubs resembling blackjacks, connected with a short nylon cord). Defense against rapists, muggers, gangs with knives. There is dinner and two hours of additional workouts afterward. Then half an hour to dress for chapel. "You people like this? You love it? Move, move, go, go, go," Pai beats out the ongoing rhythm of the week.

What is surprising is that nobody quits, or refuses to work as hard as ordered, or jokes, or curses, or complains. One could more easily understand if all were children, playing Spartan, experiencing hardship together. But at least a fourth of the participants are businessmen, craftsmen or professional men, many past 40. Yet they perform with the zeal of religious fanatics, a fervor brought on by what could be an unwavering commitment to karate, Christ or both.

"Do you love Christ?" Pai yells above the thunder of 300 feet slapping the hot pavement.

"Yes," his congregation echoes.

"Then run faster, jump higher. If you gonna be Christian, you gotta be strong. Are you Christians or are you quitters?" Pai yells.


"Who do you love?"


"I can't hear you."


"Religion and karate are taught together, but as the Bible instructs, we are nonviolent," says Naomi Crain, who travels with her husband as he speaks and demonstrates karate in schools and churches across the country. "We're teaching self-defense."

"Karate comes from the Buddhist monks who are the brothers of God," says Master Dan Pai. "Buddhists and Christians agree that man must be physically powerful to teach God's word."

"A lot of people think Christians are sissies," a college junior from Tennessee points out. "This proves we're not."

"If people are converted under Crain's ministry," says a man from Madisonville, Ky., "then I say praise the Lord."

Indeed, a number are converted. Each night after chapel four or five campers remain, in response to Crain's urging, "to invite Christ into their lives." They are taken into the shadows by Crain's assistants, who read to them from the Scriptures. It is difficult to gauge the dedication and long-range sincerity of commitment, but for a week, at least, it is held honorably.

There are, of course, some murmurs of dissent. A psychology instructor from a Midwestern university says, "This is Crain's particular brand of sensationalism, but I don't think he should try to high-pressure me into it. I refuse to respond when Pai asks us to holler for Jesus Christ."

"I came for karate," says a girl from Louisiana. "I hear enough about Christ at home."

A high school student from Missouri concurs: "I don't think it's possible to get the equivalent of six months' self-defense in five days, especially with all the time devoted to religion. And I resent the high-pressure tactics to buy equipment and souvenirs."

Kung Fu patches, mouthpieces, insurance policies ("Just in case you get a tooth knocked out," says Crain), Judo & Karate for Christ T shirts and books—God's Smuggler, The Drug Bug, The Cross and the Switchblade and The Christian and LSD—are for sale. Swords, knives and Nun An Chuks are available "at discount prices" according to Crain, who begins chapel each evening with a polite commercial.

Some of the younger campers purchased equipment before instructions were given on using it. Many played baseball during free time with Nun An Chuks and stones. Professor Ken Regenitter, the jujitsu instructor, carried his Nun An Chuks to chapel in a holster belted to his waist like a handgun set for a quick draw.

"These kids should learn to use this equipment," says Regenitter, who owns a jujitsu school in Kansas City. "It's part of our art. They won't hurt themselves. I wear them all the time. I don't think the government considers them dangerous weapons, although I could knock your head off with them."

Although Pai is the master sergeant, it is Crain's charisma that keeps the congregation together. "I've attended this camp for two years now," says a 57-year-old trainman for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. "Mike has taught me that a good Christian must be physically strong. I am preparing, as the Lord says, to resist all evil."

"This is a camp of God," says a policeman from Bowling Green, Ky. "Mike is supplying training for mind and body. There's nothing to physical strength unless God's strength goes with it. And there's nothing greater than working for the Lord."

From Heaven's Keyhole, a quarter-mile above Camp Joy, the sun pours gold into the valley, and the trees climb up the mountain slope to where green-tipped branches puncture the sky. Crain could hear the voices of the camp from where he stood, and the trucks rumbling far below on Highway 31. He is short, powerfully stocky, with hair falling over his forehead in a straight line of bangs. "While in college I gave a karate exhibition, and a preacher told me I ought to use my karate for Christ. I like that phrase, 'Karate for Christ.' I give karate demonstrations so that people will come and listen to me. I speak about the horrors of drugs, the problems of sex. The flesh is weak. Then I invite them to services that evening. My karate gives me the authority to speak to young people. It establishes rapport. God doesn't make preachers like balonies in factories, you know. We're all different."

Crain pauses to flick a tick from his sleeve. He is silent for a full minute, then declares, "Because they are egocentric it is not easy for karatists to practice religion. Karate gives them an extra power, and they relish it. But it is an untapped ministry and I speak their language. We're not teaching violence, we don't want people to kill. Muhammad Ali doesn't go around picking fights. He doesn't have to prove anything. He has unquestionable power, and so do we. That's why we have this camp. Many come for karate and we give them that, but we also teach Jesus Christ. Everyone attends chapel, that's one of the rules. Spiritualism and wholehearted faith are integral parts of sports."

The superevangelist Billy Graham, who was 1971 Grand Marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade, agrees. "There are probably more really committed Christians in sports, both collegiate and professional, than in any other occupation in America," Graham has said. "The Bible says that lying around is morally dangerous for us. Sports keep us busy."

From the solitary shade of Heaven's Keyhole, Master Dan Pai can be heard exclaiming, "To be the best in karate you must dedicate your lives to Christ."

Crain shrugs. He starts to work his way down the hill, back into the valley where he will give a sermon and break 18 inches of concrete with his elbow that night.