If the title of this post sounds like the start to the lamest joke in the world, it’s because it’s not a joke at all — it’s just a normal day for JM Smith and any of his students from a program he’s named Refugee Jitsu.
Smith, who is a self-proclaimed “preacher’s kid” and has spent his whole life studying the Bible and Christianity, runs Disciple Dojo, which is a place where jiu-jitsu and Christianity come together. And as of 2015, it’s also a safe haven for Charlotte, North Carolina’s refugee community and low-income population.
Smith started RefugeeJitsu with the help of Project 658, which is a local organization dedicated to helping settle and assimilate the area’s refugee community. Once a week, he heads over to Project 658 to teach jiu-jitsu to students who either come from low-income families or who came to the United States after fleeing disaster, war, or persecution in their own countries.
So far, the program has been a massive success, not only in attendance numbers, but also in individual accomplishments. Smith told the Jiu-Jitsu Times:
As any BJJ instructor can attest, seeing kids who come in too shy to make eye contact or say more than a few words in English now walking in each week with smiles, confidence, and a love of jiu-jitsu…and then reaching out and working with the newer students who are where they were just a few months prior is always amazing! But what stands out in my mind as something I’m incredibly proud of is how ready our students have been to help others in the community.
He recounts one of his favorite memories that came as a direct result of the RefugeeJitsu program:
Last Christmas we identified a local Navy veteran who was on the verge of homelessness and the kids and their families banded together to do a mini-food drive for her and give her some gifts and Christmas cards. She ended up with probably 2 months worth of groceries and was so grateful for the thoughtfulness of these kids and their families. We took a picture in class to send to her and as I sat there surrounded by refugee and immigrant kids (some of whom are from countries that many Americans believe to be filled with nothing but hatred and fanaticism!) holding the American flag and a huge sign that said “Merry Christmas!” and “Thank you for your service!” almost made my heart burst. It was a small but powerful way to show the world that when it comes to helping refugees and helping veterans in need, we don’t have to choose!
It’s hard to imagine anyone having an issue with a program that teaches self-defense, builds a sense of community, and helps refugees create friendships and adapt to their new way of life in a new country, but Smith has encountered nay-sayers on his journey to make the world a better place. But thankfully, they mostly just stick to being tough on the internet, and his relentless positivity tends to overshadow their negativity.
On social media I will get the typical troll comments—either someone is upset that I’m working with refugee and immigrant kids when ‘we should first take care of our own!’ (as if nationality is any indicator of human worth!)…or someone is okay with welcoming refugees and immigrants, but doesn’t like the fact that it’s being done by an evangelical Christian (after all, we evangelicals are all supposed to be Trump-supporting, Muslim-hating, wall-building racist xenophobes!). But once people see what we’re actually doing, and especially if they are able to come meet the kids and see with their own eyes what is taking place, such concerns have a funny way of vanishing entirely.
Smith’s upbeat attitude has a way of making all this seem easy, but the truth is that running RefugeeJitsu is anything but simple. Finances are tight, and though donations have helped make all of this possible, Smith would like to be able to afford more for the students. He works to earn additional funds for the program through his “Art of the Dojo” artwork (which you can view and purchase here), but even that can only help so much.
Transportation issues also plague students who live far away and can’t walk or bike to class, especially when volunteers can’t make it to pick them up and drive them to the location. But Smith makes do with what he has, trusting that it will all work out in the end.
I just keep asking God to provide whatever we need at this moment rather than wishing we were able to do things we can’t yet do.
The can-do attitude and generous spirit that Smith emulates are contagious, and especially after you listen to the Dirty White Belt podcast episode he guest-starred on, you shouldn’t be surprised if you yourself start looking up refugee programs in the area to see if your own BJJ academy could be of service. Don’t worry — that’s exactly what Smith wants, and he wants you to get on the ball now.
Don‘t wait for a huge budget, or for everything to fall perfectly into place…just find a single family or group of kids in your area who could really benefit from jiu-jitsu training and start with them! If the need is there and they see someone genuinely reaching out to them, that is ALREADY a success in our current cultural climate. Imagine you have brought your family to the safety of a new country after going through incredible hardship or dangerous conditions. Imagine you are doing everything you can to learn the language, adapt to the culture, provide for your family’s needs, and pay back the government that helped you find a place to live and a job. Think how hard normal everyday parenting is even when you’re born and raised in that community…now imagine having to do it in a totally new and foreign setting. NOW imagine someone reaches out to you and says, ‘I’m glad you are here and I want to help you and your family in a tangible way. I teach self-defense and would like to offer you and your family a place to train so that you can not only protect yourself, but also so that you can experience what an awesome community the BJJ world entails and so you’ll have trusted friends in your life as you navigate what must surely seem like a cultural labyrinth!’ Think how grateful you would be and how much you would want to contribute to your community’s success as a result!
If starting up your own program seems a little overwhelming, though, RefugeeJitsu can still use whatever help you can offer, whether it’s in the form of donations or just another place to train. Smith is currently seeking “high-level instructors or athletes” who can either come to Charlotte to do benefit seminars or help RefugeeJitsu’s older students come visit their academies to train. “I know how much my own jiu-jitsu had benefited from getting to visit other academies all over the country,” he says. “I would love to be able to help some of the more dedicated of our students experience more of the breadth of BJJ in a similar way!”
Smith is also looking for tournaments, federations, or businesses who can help his students with either sponsorships or reduced fees for students who wish to compete, but can’t afford it.
Many of our students live below the poverty line and things that are normal minor expenses in BJJ for most students are simply out of reach for them. So part of Disciple Dojo’s budget is specifically for sponsoring kids at local competitions or seminars by visiting instructors.
More than anything, this teacher of gospel and guillotines wants the message found in Disciple Dojo and RefugeeJitsu to spread outside the walls of the gym and seep into the way we live and interact together.
We are specifically setting politics (and race, religion, economic class, and nationalistic devotion) aside and focusing on treating people as human beings first and foremost. I said from day one to the students, “Anyone who steps onto these mats to train is a part of our family and a member of our team. No matter what they believe, what color they are, or what language they speak. We all start off the same in BJJ…we’re clueless and must humbly set aside all ego and prejudices if we want to get better.”
These kids and their families are here in our midst, regardless of what anyone thinks about things like immigration, the refugee crisis, English-only policies, social welfare programs, or interfaith endeavors. So the question we seek to answer is simple: How can we use the martial arts to create a better community in Charlotte, North Carolina? That question helps us transcend politics and work together alongside those we would never normally gravitate towards were it not for our shared love of jiu-jitsu. Even among our regular volunteers we have rightwing Republicans, progressive Democrats, ideological Libertarians, and staunch Independents! Where else do you find that except on the BJJ mats these days?
For me in particular, as a follower of Jesus (who himself was part of a refugee family who had to flee to a foreign land at one point!) the deeper foundation question is: How can I tangibly reach across the various divides our world creates in order to show Good Samaritan love and hospitality to even “the least of these” in the process? What is the greatest message you want people to take away after learning about your program? I would want them to spend way less time viewing people from “other” communities through the lenses of cable news, political punditry, and partisan stereotypes, and way more time finding actual, tangible, flesh and blood ways to reach out across the various chasms that separate us in this country. Hashtags and profile pic changes are fine for raising awareness of various things…but in addition, we must—whatever our passion or cause—be willing to put down our phones, turn off our TVs, leave our houses, and do something concrete to make someone else’s life a little better. I want people to look at #RefugeeJitsu and see a program that is intent on treating others the way we ourselves would want to be treated if we were in their shoes.