The white belt beginners at two Dallas area YMCAs get their very first karate lessons from a tenth-degree black belt. And if you dig through the history of martial arts in America, you’ll find that their instructor, Keith Yates (MA[BS], 1983), is a former champion, a nationally certified instructor, and an inaugural member of the Texas Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
A monthly columnist for Martial Arts Professional, Keith has been published or featured in martial arts magazines such as Black Belt, Inside Kung Fu, and TaeKwonDo Times, with over four hundred articles and ten books under his belt, including a children’s story, Young Samurai. He also holds leadership roles in several national martial arts organizations, including the Gospel
Martial Arts Union and Chuck Norris’s Kick-Start Foundation.
Yet Keith’s primary interest is teaching and training, evidence of which can be seen in the seventy-three students who have earned black belts under him. In fact he’s been teaching martial arts continuously since 1967, almost as long as he has been a believer, and longer than practically anyone else in Texas.
“Many Christians are concerned that the martial arts are all about Asian religion,” says Keith, whose seminary thesis sparked the publication of a tract, Martial Arts: Religion or Sport? (available from the American Tract Society). “But after doing extensive research in this area, I can confidently say that the vast majority of martial arts simply teach fitness and self-defense. Still, if you’re concerned about a particular instructor,” he adds, “find out his or her teaching philosophy. Even better, be a witness of Christ.”
For Keith, his ministry in the field of martial arts is simply an extension of his full-time work at Dallas Seminary, where he serves as director of Creative Services and Publications as well as teaches a class in publication design. But it is in the martial arts where he has a unique opportunity to model Christ to non-Christians. Rare among high-ranking instructors, Keith doesn’t push the beginner classes or the children on to junior instructors. Instead he makes time for each of his students, who range in age from six to seventy.
“Keith just seems to draw good people to himself. It’s a big difference from some of the other schools we visited,” says Dr. Tom Pledger, who has watched his son Drake train in karate under Keith for the past four years.
Although he didn’t know Keith was a Christian when he enrolled his son in the class, Dr. Pledger quickly noticed Keith’s character and the climate he created.
“All of the instructors and senior students model gentleness and self-control—it’s a great environment for my son,” he says.
Ask any of the parents—Christian or not—to describe Keith and inevitably the same words come up: goodness, knowledge, humility, patience. He strives to be a kicking, punching, breathing model of 2 Peter 1:5–7 and Galatians 5:22—a touchable model of Christ in the gym.
“Because of my faith in Christ,” Keith says, “I’ve been able to tailor my martial arts as a method of more deeply relying on Him. For example during my daughter’s battle with bone marrow disease a few years ago, the discipline, focus, and single-mindedness required in martial arts helped me focus on the task at hand. It was an overwhelming experience, during which I had to rely totally on the Lord.”
Whether or not one is involved in the martial arts, Keith believes its principles apply to the toughest of circumstances—something everyone faces.
“One of the things that martial arts teaches beyond just ‘training hard’ is the attitude of never giving up no matter how difficult the task might be. We call that ‘indomitable spirit,’” he says. “I would say that is one of the greatest lessons I have learned—and that I try to teach—from white belt to black belt and beyond.
“Every believer strives for discipline, not only in the spiritual life but even in everyday activities,” Keith adds. “But that is hard to accomplish. Discipline [in training] pays off in a tangible way and it encourages you to broaden that to all areas of your life.”