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.