Vietnamese immigrant uses martial arts to point people to Jesus

Betsabe Chapa participates in a ceremonial tai chi exercise.

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DALLAS—Johnny Le helps his martial arts students not only learn how to care for their bodies better, but also care for their spirits by introducing them to Jesus Christ.

tai chi300Hanh Le demonstrates some tai chi moves.Le grew up in Vietnam as a Buddhist and a student of tai chi and kung fu. He became a Christian in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.

While Le recognized he was taken prisoner because he had been fighting against the North Vietnamese, he met another prisoner of war who was a Christian pastor, not a combatant.

Many died in the P.O.W. camp, either from beatings or disease, and all Le’s ribs were broken at one time or another from being struck by rifle butts. Le was angry all the time, but he noticed the Christian was not.

Body and soul

“He told me, ‘My body, my soul belongs to God,’” Le recalled.

The guards often beat the man Le grew to think of as his pastor. During the seven years he was imprisoned, the minister taught Le the Bible even though there was no copy of Scripture in the camp.

“He had it in his head. He had in his heart,” Le said. After one particularly brutal beating, the man knew he was going to die and told Le and the others who had become Christ-followers Le was the new camp pastor.

Le arrived in Dallas July 4, 1987. Since that time, he has experienced many trials, but God has helped him through them all, he said.

With the idea of serving the God who had been so faithful to him, Le thought about opening a tai chi and kung fu center as an evangelistic outreach about 15 years ago.

“A lot of the younger people and a lot of the older people, they are sick and they never know God,” Le said. “I want to be a missionary and talk about God with them, so they can trust in God.”

Attempts to serve

johnny le demonstration300Johnny Le gives a Tai Chi demonstration at Arapaho Road Baptist Church in Garland.His first effort never gained any traction. About three years ago, he opened a martial arts center that was a financial success, but Le’s dream of being a ministry still floundered.

“I was making money, but my heart is not like that. My heart is to grow someone and talk to them about God,” he said.

“But when I take their money, when I talk about God, they say: ‘No, master. I have come here to learn and spar. I am coming here to learn about tai chi. I am coming here to learn kung fu. I am not coming here to learn about Jesus.’”

So, he shut the doors of the center. Still, he felt called to use tai chi and kung fu to reach people for Christ.

Re’creation Outreach Center

Last November, he received permission to teach tai chi at no charge at the Re’creation Outreach Center in Garland. While it took longer than he originally anticipated to build a following, Dallas Baptist Association vouched for him, encouraging the center to grant him a little more time to develop his ministry.

Less than a year after he launched the classes, they typically draw about 40 people a week at the center and another 80 at classes he teaches at three other locations around the Dallas area.

Lazaro Chapa, a church consultant with Dallas Baptist Association, started attending in February, and Chapa said he has lost 27 pounds and is continuing to lose about one pound per week.

“I’m not on a diet or anything. I’m just working the tai chi,” he said, adding the exercise also offered him freedom from knee pain.

Tai chi provides health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and helping with diabetes, Le said. One man who attends the classes has lost 47 pounds, he noted.

The classes involve many Buddhists and several Muslims, Chapa said.

Beginning with prayer

“At the beginning of every session, we start with prayer. And that’s everybody,” he said. “At the beginning, 90 percent were non-Christians.”

Advertisements placed in local Vietnamese-language newspapers attract some students, but most respond to personal invitations from class members.

“When they start seeing results—the fruit of their work—they invite other people. They always bring in someone else,” Chapa said.

Midway through each session, participants divide into groups that either continue with tai chi or begin to work in kung fu.

“The kung fu is for the young people who want more action,” Chapa said.

At the end of each session, Le tells a story he connects to the way God works through his life and the lives of others.

Through the ministry, 12 people have made professions of faith in Christ—four of them baptized recently in a joint service at Arapaho Road Baptist Church in Garland, which also is the location for the Richardson Vietnamese Baptist Church. All four of the new Christians came from a Buddhist background.

Reaping a harvest

While sessions also are held at Arapaho Road Baptist Church, Iglesia Bautista Internacional in Dallas and First Baptist Church in Carrollton, Le’s ministry isn’t tied to one church. That sets it apart from most ministries the association partners with, Chapa noted.

“I’m so glad the association was so open and ready to embrace it,” he said. “It’s a way to reach out to the community—a way to help them with their health, but also a way to help them with their hearts—their relationship with the Lord.”

In addition to a new site expected to open soon in Dallas, visitors have arrived from Tulsa, Okla., and Maryland to learn how to start a center in their communities.

As for Le, he is thrilled to see the ministry he prayed for across 15 years come to fruition.

“I’m 65 years old. How much time do I have? So, I give all I have to the Lord,” he said.

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