Noted 40-year-old Karate school teaches self-defense and life skills
It is one of the country’s most unique fraternities.
Men and women make up its membership, although most earn admission as children. As such, they don’t need to pledge as a college student, although the fraternity has a strong educational component.
Its membership is as diverse as its fundamental tenets, and includes physicians and police officers, educators, clerics and an African poet and storyteller.
No one knows its exact membership, or has kept comprehensive records of those who have studied under its banner; evolved, both physically and spiritually through its practices.
The fraternity is Kempo Goju Karate. October marks the organization’s 40th anniversary. The unprecedented occasion will witness a reunion of members, who will gather this Saturday at Terri Lynn’s Supper Club on 47th and Bradley Road.
The hardest task of reunion organizers has been to locate the thousands who can claim membership in what obviously is one of the longest standing ‘fraternities’ in the state.
When recently asked to provide a ‘guestament’ of its membership, founder Charles Warren paused for several seconds before half jokingly responding, “that’s probably the hardest questions that has come up recently.
“Thousands, obviously,” Warren calculated. “There are generations of members. We’ve been networking for months trying to get the word out about this celebration. E-mails and flyers have been sent out around the country.”
Community activist Muhammad Sabir, one of the original members of the Kempo Goju fraternity was also taken aback by the question. Sabir currently has over 100 members practicing at his dojo (school) on 48th and Center. Most are children and teenagers, but there are members in their 60s also regularly attending classes.
“I’ve been teaching for nearly 40 years,” he said. “Worn out a lot of carpets and wood floors. Easily, several thousand…”
Neither karate pioneer was being fractious, because the fraternity ‘Grand Master Charles Warren’ brought to Milwaukee in 1970 has grown into a dozen martial arts satellites over the years. And not just in Milwaukee. Kempo Goju dojos are serving children and adults in small cities like Palmaya, Wisconsin. There are even two satellite schools in Europe.
But this article isn’t merely about the impact Kempo Goju has had in terms of providing students with the ability to defend themselves or participate in various levels of competition. Kempo Goju offers much more than karate training, and literally thousands of students have benefited from it in ways that transcend martial arts.
Indeed, Kempo Goju is a way of life, a philosophy wrapped in and around tenets that include spirituality, fellowship and the meditative principles that bring peace and serenity to its practitioners.
In a literal sense, Kempo Goju has served as a rites of passage system for thousands of Black children, providing them with discipline, building self-respect, and a greater sense of purpose.
In some respects, Kempo Goju is probably one of the city’s foremost social service agencies and youth guidance programs. It is no coincidence that a majority of its young students come from single parent households, and many of their parents view instructors as much as mentors as they do martial arts instructors.
“We gained a reputation over the years of being an instrument that instills discipline and motivation in children,” Warren explained. “We incorporate a strong educational component into our system for children. They are required to bring in their report cards, and conduct reports to class. It’s not unusual for our instructors to provide tutoring, and show up at student’s school classes. Many of our instructors are professionals, some are teachers.”
The instructor I’m most familiar with is Muhammad Sabir, a retired pubic schoolteacher who earned his PhD a few years ago. If you venture downstairs at his school, you’ll discover school desks next to the locker rooms. Chances are you find several students in his office with schoolbooks open and ink pens scribing across paper. Sabir frequently asks to see students’ homework before they are allowed to engage in karate training. He’s also known to provide tutoring before and after classes and to counsel with teachers if he senses a roadblock in their educational journey.
I’ve been a student and occasional instructor at Sabir’s dojo for nearly 30 years. My late son earned his black belt there, and taught karate to classmates at Lake Forest College. My two youngest sons are brown belts (student instructors), and earlier this month I enrolled my grandson at the school.
The contributions the system has provided my family far transcend learning how to defend themselves, or to participate in tournaments. As a fraternity, Kempo Goju has helped guide them emotionally and provide them with a moral foundation.
The essence of Kempo Goju is discipline and system wide camaraderie that bonds people into a unique family. It is a union that is bound by a shared culture.
There is something special that evolves from people who seek physical and emotional excellence, who share a common goal rooted in mastery of a discipline, and who push each other toward a common goal.
‘Sensei’ Warren developed the system of Kempo Goju after years of training while stationed in the Middle East with the U.S. Air Force. He studied under grand masters including Gojen Yamaguchi, a renowned martial artist.
Warren’s system is a combination of Kempo, a Chinese martial art that means ‘boxing’ and includes rapid hand striking and circular movements, and Goju Ryu, a traditional Japanese/Okinawa discipline. Goju means ‘hard and soft or gentle,’ which Warren said complimented Kempo.
“Kempo is more combat oriented and an excellent discipline for street fighting,” he explained. “Goju is more traditional karate, but includes both a soft and hard fighting style which makes it perfect for people of different sizes. Putting the two disciplines together brings balance to the system.”
Warren built his system through schools in Milwaukee’s central city, exposing hundreds of young men and women to the martial arts just as the karate and kung fu movie phase was reaching its apex.
But in Warren’s eyes, karate was more than fighting and competing, it was an avenue to help develop young men and women. It was a recreational and physical outlet. But more importantly, it provided students with mentorship, discipline and a will to succeed in school and their eventual chosen occupations.
As the system grew, and dozens of Tae kwon do schools (which was predominantly run by Koreans) left for the suburbs (“and the money,” he said), Kempo Goju schools began to open under Warren’s direct guidance.
The Kempo Goju system also gained national recognition as its students dominated state, regional and national competition. Warren even took some of his students to Japan to compete and to expose his system to karate traditionalists.
Warren’s personal biography is worthy of recording in the pages of Black history. He served as an officer in the state patrol, and several years ago became the first Black police chief of Palmyra, Wisconsin, a city in Jefferson County.
In between those accomplishments he served for two years as a military advisor in Eastern Europe. While there, he approached local authorities about the possibility of opening a dojo for area children. Local politicians accepted his vision and allowed him to utilize public facilities to teach. The program grew, reaching as many as 100 students.
Prior to leaving after his two-year stint, he trained a student to continue the school as he mapped out his return to the U.S. They keep in constant contact, as the school continues to grow.
In 1986, Warren moved his family from Milwaukee to Palmyra partly to compliment his role as a state patrolman. While the only Black family in the area, he quickly cemented himself to the community when he opened a dojo there. It has become his headquarters, feeding the half dozen Kempo Goju schools in Milwaukee. Each year, black belt instructors attend weekend development training in Palmyra. There are also hunting, fishing and camping opportunities during which the fraternity bonds.
His current occupation allows him access to law enforcement agencies, where he often teaches, but more important it provides him with a primary source of income, allowing him to offer lower fees to his students. That paradigm is shared by most instructors at the various Milwaukee schools, and one that has become ingrained in the legend of Kempo Goju.
“It’s never been a money making venture,” he explained. “It’s been about providing a service, a discipline. There are many adults, even seniors in our classes, but our primary emphasis has always been about bringing in kids at a young age, and helping them grow physically and mentally. We’ve never closed our doors to anyone. Money is not our motivation.
“You can say it’s been a 40 year journey of community service. A special bond, whether they started in 1970 or yesterday, links all of those who have participated in our program.
“Our system has been about building self-confidence, directing energies and building a strong work ethic. Our students have taken these skills to school and their career endeavors.”
And this weekend, hundreds of those who matured under the culture that is Kempo Goju will reunite, some coming from LA and D.C. and Atlanta. They will again experience the comraderie, the foundation and bond that unite them.
Doctors, lawyer, carpenters, ministers and politicians. All are united through a fraternity of shared experiences, a unique camaraderie and a common bond of community service.
“The essence of our system is a Japanese principle of communal obligation—each one teach one. It is our goal to expand the life experiences through teaching and mentoring,” the grand master explained.
“We are a unique family. Saturday will be a family reunion.”