The New Norris
by Carol Chapman Stertzer
America's original action hero is using the martial arts to give underprivileged kids a purpose in life.
Chuck Norris is no stranger to most men. He's been called the first American-produced martial arts star, landing roles in Bruce Lee movies early in his career and, more recently, winning TV fans as Texas lawman "Cordell Walker."
While he has gained a reputation as a "good guy," many people don't know that he's a follower of Christ. A somewhat private person, Norris said Christ has been a big part of his life since his childhood. But close friends and family members indicate that he has refocused on the faith of his youth in the last few years. So important is his faith, in fact, that he's even stepped out on a limb to present the gospel on Walker, Texas Ranger.
"When you look beyond the surface, you see a man with very deep beliefs," said Norris' pastor Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist church in Dallas. "I think even in recent years, he is discovering more and more what his faith in Jesus Christ means."
Mother Knows Best
At age 60, Chuck Norris is a TV icon. But his life growing up was anything but Leave it to Beaver.
Norris grew up poor, and his father was an alcoholic who was "in and out of our lives." By the age of 10, Chuck had moved 16 times with his family, finally settling in Torrance, California. The glue that held the family together was Chuck's mother, Wilma. Although times were hard, Wilma kept Chuck and his brothers, Aaron and Wieland, in church and Sunday school. Norris recalls that his mother always had a positive attitude, which has carried over into his life. "She never complained and would tell us that there were other people worse off then we were," he said.
Wilma faithfully took the boys to Calvary Baptist Church, where all three were baptized. She said Chuck didn't take his church involvement lightly. When the church was involved in a building program, Chuck helped out on weekends. "The pastor would say, 'Most teen-agers are outside doing their own thing. Not Carlos,'" Wilma explained. (His family members still call him "Carlos," his given name.)
As a kid, Norris was shy and inhibited-largely because of not having a strong male influence. Further, he was not athletic. "No one (had) less capacity for martial arts than I had when I started," he said. He believes martial arts helped him overcome his inhibitions and attain many of the things he has accomplished in his life today.
Norris learned the martial art of tang soo do in Korea while serving in the Air Force. It was only a matter of time before his dedication paid off. "I really focused my energies into training," he said, "and I got the rewards for it by being a world champion." In 1968, he became the Professional World Middleweight Karate Champion, a title he kept until he quit competing in 1974.
While some Christians are concerned that martial arts can present a dangerous philosophy, Norris maintains that the sport doesn't delve into any kind of religion. "You have Catholics, Jews, Baptists-people of all different backgrounds and faiths-training in the martial arts," he said. "It's just to help strengthen you as an individual."
Many martial artists, he said, are Christians-including his friend John Jacobs (of The Power Team), who has spread the gospel for the last 20 years by using his power and strength as a way of getting across the message.
After returning from Korea, Norris taught karate lessons; and by the age of 34, he owned 32 karate schools. One of his students was actor Steve McQueen, who encouraged him to try acting. Norris gave it a whirl and eventually found success. To date, he has landed roles in more than 20 films. The most meaningful, he told TV Guide, are the three Missing in Action pictures filmed in the '80s. He played an ex-prisoner of war on a mission to bring back the soldiers from Vietnam. Because his brother Wieland died in Vietnam, these films are very close to his heart.
Norris' TV venture, Walker, Texas Ranger, has kept him busy since it began airing in 1993. To many people's surprise, the show has done amazingly well for its Saturday night slot. Walker proved that on the least-watched night of the week, "you could be a top show if you have a show people want to see," he said.
More than a boon to an already long and successful career, the show has become a platform for something bigger.
One of the most influential people in Norris' present-day spiritual life is his wife Gena, 37, whom he married in November 1998. Gena, who accepted Christ 11 years ago after a bad marriage, has helped to provide some of the spiritual input for Walker. She helped Chuck pick some of the Scriptures used for the show's Christmas episode, "A Matter of Faith," which won Movie Guide's Grace Award this year. She also wrote the prayers for that episode.
"Walker has hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide, and you have somebody who's going to pick up the remote control, turn on the TV, and there is Walker talking to Jesus," she said. "You don't ever hear that! On television, that's the taboo word."
Gena had her first date with Norris after playing a small role on Walker three years ago. She could tell from the beginning that he was a man of integrity, discipline and consistency, and she was attracted to those qualities.
The attraction was mutual. Norris said Gena is the "missing piece" of his life.
Wilma was particularly happy to see Chuck and Gena tie the knot. "It's like God knew we needed her, and maybe she needed us," she said. "It thrills me to see that they are praying and studying their Bible together."
While their schedules may not always allow for Bible study, Gena said their prayer time is a priority. "Every time a couple is obedient to do that-even if it feels awkward at first-it will create a bond between God and the couple where nothing can really come in and shake that relationship," she said.
Gena believes that if God weren't the focus, it would be very difficult for them to have a strong marriage today. "We're avid workout people," she said, mentioning that they have gyms in each of their three homes. "We train physically very, very hard. But you need to train your spirit-feed your spirit-more than your body."
Even though he is at an age when most people think about retirement, Norris is in better shape than most 20-year-olds, and there seems to be no end in sight to his acting career. But the Kick Drugs Out of America (KDOA) Foundation he created a decade ago will likely get his full-time attention down the road.
KDOA came about after a luncheon he had at the White House years ago with President George Bush. Norris told him that his future plans were to start a martial arts program for underprivileged kids. Bush responded favorably and asked him where he wanted to start. Norris replied, "I've already checked with the Board of Education, and they said there's no way-that all we'll do is make bad kids 'badder.'"
Bush responded, "Let me see what I can do." The rest is history.
The first school to adopt the program was M.C. Williams, described by Norris as "the toughest school in Houston." The pilot program was successful, and today it is in 37 schools and involves 4,200 middle-school students.
Supported by private funding, the program costs $60,000 for 150 children, or about $500 a year per child. "I tell my sponsors, 'You can pay $500 now for a child, or it will be $50,000 a year when we incarcerate them,'" Norris said.
Gena has devoted a significant amount of time to fund-raising. She said the program helps downtrodden young kids develop purpose in life. "Martial arts has instilled discipline in these kids, as well as respect, which is something we're desperately lacking today," she said. "Most of all, it builds up their self-esteem."
Certainly, Norris is respected by many and epitomized as a "man's man." But he knows that being a real man encompasses much more than brute strength.
"Real men do live for Christ," he said. "It is important to make your peace with Christ while the opportunity exists. Life is so fragile that you never know when it's going to be over. It could be over in the blink of an eye, and then it's too late to accept God's gift of salvation."
In the end, good will triumph over evil. And, as Norris knows, it will be for real...not just another good script.
Reprinted with permission by New Man, July/August 2000. Strang Communications Co.