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Paul "Bob" Rush used to think judo was fake.

Now, the new pastor of First Baptist Church Solvang describes his introduction to judo as a kind of awakening.

Having taken up karate in the fourth grade, “Pastor Bob” already had a decade of martial arts under his belt when he attended his first judo class. He followed that up with kickboxing, an aggressive sport that’s all about beating one’s opponent — sometimes to a pulp.

“It created both humility and arrogance,” Rush said of kickboxing, noting he was a sparring partner for three world champions. “Being able to hang with them was empowering.”

Empowerment is an interesting choice of words for a Baptist minister who holds a third-degree black belt in judo. He uses the word often during the course of a long conversation about martial arts and faith, troubled youth and the plight of today’s elderly.

Like a man who’s been thrown to the mat a few times, Rush, 48, reflects on his early adulthood with humility. When he first witnessed judo practitioners throw each other, Rush thought it looked staged.

“I found judo when I was about 18,” the pastor said, leaning back in a tall desk chair in his large office.

The Solvang Baptist church sits on a hilltop off Janin Way, overlooking Santa Ynez, a stone’s throw from the sanctuary’s substantial parking lot.

“As I was watching the class for the first time,” he recalled, “I thought to myself, ‘This is a bunch of garbage.’”

After he was thrown to the floor, Rush discovered the sport was genuine.

“Judo has 67 official ways of picking someone up and throwing them down,” he said.

When he hit the mat for the first time in judo, Rush was amazed at just how real it felt.

“No fluff at all,” he said. “Judo is very definitely a martial art. But it’s also a sport. When you put someone into an armbar [lock] you automatically extend it out to the point that is the edge of where … you’re like a hair’s breadth away from breaking it.”

Careful wishes

Rush had reached a kind of breaking point in life when he decided to enter the ministry.

“I surrendered to the ministry when I was about 20 years old,” he recalled. “I asked God to help me.”

Although he was making a substantial salary as a salesman for a computer company in 1991, Rush said he felt compelled to seek guidance, as if something was missing in his life. Shortly thereafter, the company went belly up. Rush lost his job and he got in a car accident with a hit-and-run driver, resulting in permanent back damage.

“There’s a certain amount of conviction that came upon my soul from outside myself,” Rush said, noting he became a Christian when he was in first grade after attending a “backyard Bible club” in Hayward.

After the car accident, Rush enrolled in college to study for the ministry.

“I was kind of floundering in my life as far as education until I entered the ministry,” said Rush, who earned his undergraduate degree in theology at California Baptist University in Riverside. Later, he received a master’s degree from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley.

“I think I was running from something,” Rush said. “I think I’ve had a call to the ministry much of my life, going back to grade school. As a young man, I was fearful of that.”

Church life requires commitment, especially for a minister; Rush explained he wasn’t prepared to make that commitment until after his accident.

“In a church, you’re not doing it for yourself,” he said. “There was a big part of me that said, ‘Maybe if I just look the other way, if I stay away from the calling long enough, perhaps it will just go away.’”

That didn’t happen.

Minister dreams

After earning his master’s degree in theology, Rush joined a Baptist church in Cloverdale, California, as youth director. Five months later, he was appointed senior pastor. He served in that position for five years before moving to Nipomo in 2001 to start a new church. Rush served as pastor of Nipomo Community Baptist Church for more than 15 years.

In December 2017, he joined First Baptist Church Solvang as pastor.

“It was time for me to spread my wings,” said Rush, who has plenty of hands-on experience leading organizations. In Nipomo, he started the Common Era Ministries (CEM) judo program 15 years ago, encouraging troubled youth to become active in martial arts.

Rush has coached students in competitive judo since 1993, when he started a judo club in Riverside. Several of his judo students have earned black belts. More than 50 of his students have received tournament championship medals, and one recently became a U.S. champion in her class level.

Rush, who refers to CEM as the “judo ministry,” continues to work with youth throughout Santa Maria because he believes it’s vital.

“We have a problem now in our country, especially with our young people,” he said. “There is a certain weakness with them … so much potential, so much capability, with very little drive.”

Through his judo ministry, Rush believes he is able to restore a sense of purpose and competitiveness in young people.

“I think that young people have a great fear of the future,” he said. “The average young person is asking, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Helping youth is personally rewarding for Rush because they learn to set goals that enable them to thrive as adults.

“I’ve run into so many young people that are floundering because they don’t know what to do,” he said. “I try to get them to open up their eyes ... I believe a lot of young people today are being encouraged not to achieve.”

The thread that pulls judo and his ministry work together is selflessness, said Rush, whose father was a hard-working truck driver prior to retiring.

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“The spotlight has to come off of ourselves and on others,” said Rush, who resides in Santa Maria with his wife, Julie, assistant nurse manager of the Cardiac and Interventional Radiology Catheterization Labs.

On the subject of bullying, which has become prevalent in some K-12 schools, Rush said he is exposed to more complaints from youngsters and parents.

“For a long time … years perhaps, I didn’t have reports of bullying,” he said. “There seems to be a resurgence of it now.”

To counteract bullying judo helps to build self-confidence in young people, Rush said, adding adults are responsible for setting positive examples.

“There is a certain disparity that exists in our society right now, where people are treating each other with a certain amount of barbarism,” the pastor said, invoking the theme of ‘love thy neighbor’ — treating others as one wants to be treated.

Helping hands

As a Baptist minister, Rush also deals with senior citizens who face their own challenges — from living on fixed incomes to making end-of-life decisions.

“There’s a temporal and eternal perspective when it comes to many a senior,” said Rush. “They have a certain degree of confidence when it comes to the hereafter, but I think seniors also benefit from ministering to younger people.”

It’s premature to announce plans for the direction he hopes to take First Baptist Church Solvang, Rush said, as he and the deacons are in the process of vision casting.

“I wanna build this church to reflect Christ in its mindset and in its ministries,” said Rush, who has two daughters: Kaitlin, 19, and Heather, 17. “I want it to be a place of hope for young people as well as old, even if they don’t realize they’re in need of hope.”

The judo master draws parallels between teaching martial arts to troubled youth and guiding churchgoers through everyday struggles.

“In judo there is definitely a fine line between winning and losing,” he said. “The philosophy behind judo is for the mutual benefit and welfare of all. When we bow to each other, it shows mutual respect.

“In judo,” the pastor continued, “there is a very strong understanding that you learn more through losing than you do through winning.”

The same is true in life, he said, noting his role as a Baptist minister is to help people lift each other up.

“People come in seeking guidance and counseling,” Rush said of churchgoers. “They’re not your customers — they’re your family. The word I use is shepherding.”

Like a newcomer to judo who has been thrown to the mat by a stronger opponent, everyone needs a lift sometimes, he said.

“God made us all rational beings,” Rush said. “Rather than just being psychoanalyzed, we need a helping hand to get us through our stresses.”