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Black belt Bishop

Tae Kwon Do is ‘part of who I am’

By Bill Vossler

Few people ever become a church bishop, fewer still are women, and fewer yet attain a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Meet Bishop Dee Pederson of St. Cloud. She has earned a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and was recently elected Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s (ELCA) Southwestern Minnesota Synod (serving 229 congregations).

Dee said the Korean martial arts helps her in life in general, and in her job as Bishop. She got interested in Tae Kwon Do after she and her husband John adopted two Korean children.

Dee Pederson of St. Cloud is a Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, serving 229 congregations. She also has her second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Contributed photo

“We started our son in Tae Kwon Do in third grade, and I went with him to class. Eventually I saw other adults training, which helped me realize I could do that too. I watched the moves my son was learning, and then I started it. I loved it, and then my daughter started shortly after that.”

Dee said it was so much fun watching them do their Tae Kwon Do. “We practiced at home, and cheered them on, a family physical activity that a parent and child can do together and bond. A main reason we started was to learn more about Korean culture, and the Tae Kwon Do gave us cultural pride and identification, and was really a gift. The gym was part of the weekly schedule, Saturday mornings, and two or three times a week after school.”

“It’s important to get kids started in Tae Kwon Do in elementary school so they develop physical and mental discipline. It’s helpful in many aspects of life and helps them discover what they can do. When a child masters a pattern or form or passes a test, the child gains confidence, and a sense of accomplishment. And it’s fun to see their skills and physical ability develop, and their joy when they break a board. People cheer them on, and show them to also help others do their best.”

“We also went to a Korean culture camp at Brainerd each year. Korean culture is still part of our family life. This year we had a Korean Christmas dinner,” she said.

What Is Tae Kwon Do?

Tae Kwon Do consists of specific values or tenets, Dee said. “Tae Kwon Do aims to achieve courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance, and indomitable spirit,” meaning a person is impossible to subdue or defeat.

Dee is practicing a defensive kicking technique in this photo. Contributed photo

Tae Kwon Do training requires a teacher who is a master level or advanced black belt, she said. Learners show courtesies when they attend class.

“You bow to the American flag, the Korean flag, and any black belt present, showing respect for your country and your teachers. Every time Tae Kwon Do participants interact with others, they bow before and after the exercises. We also show respect by addressing or addressing each other formally, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, ma’am.’ And referring to each other as ‘Sir, Ma’am, Mr., Ms., Mrs.,’ etc.”

Tae Kwon Do literally means, “the way of the hand and foot.” Dee said warm-ups include major stretching, working on kicks, blocks with hands and arms, and certain kicks, like a front, side, or turning back kick, and then a high block with the hand and a low side block.

“Tae Kwon Do takes a lot of mental focus and perseverance, so sometimes it’s really hard to get into the car and drive to class, and get up and do stretches. Perseverance is important in life, sticking with projects that I have to do. Sometimes you just have to persevere and keep at it. It’s part of who I am.”

Then there’s the indomitable spirit. “I remember a line from a movie on the history of Korea, which noted that although the Korean people had endured changes in dynasties, and the Korean peninsula had been invaded and occupied, they bent, but never broke. When I’m faced with certain life challenges, I can realize that I don’t need to break, the sense that God is providing the strength I need. Really is a matter of endurance.”

Other Tae Kwon Do principles include: “respect your parents and elders, never yield on the battlefield, never lose your self-control or perseverance, devote your self-loyalty to your country, and never needlessly harm or kill.”

She added that Tae Kwon Do might appear to be aggressive, but it is only to be used for self-defense. “In self-defense you use the energy of the opponent, with flowing and blocking movements. That’s also important for life, because if someone is aggressive to you, the best way is not by fighting, but by slowing down and breathing and going with the flow of the energy. Tae Kwon Do is very much flow of movement, like wind or water.”

Tae Kwon Do is not to be used unless one’s life is threatened. “The movements are primarily for self-defense. If someone grabs my wrist, I know how to move my hand and wrist and position my body to get away. Other self-defense can cause injury; I hope I would never have to use it, but it’s part of it. Kicking or even disabling another person can be used if needed to get away. But only in an emergency if you’re being threatened.”

Black Belt is Best

Only advanced level masters can test participants as they progress through the different color belts, and becoming a black belt requires attaining other lower belts first, Dee said, including white, yellow, green, purple, brown, and red. Each step is built on each other. “In the white belt you learn the basic moves, and each following color uses what you learned previously, so each color becomes progressively more difficult.”

Each color belt can take six months to a year, Dee said, “Depending on how often you get to the gym and how often you train. You should be practicing at home and before coming to class, an hour each time, or shorter times for younger kids.”

Dee began Tae Kwon Do in 1992, and reached a first degree black belt in 2014. She said that first dan, or stage, required a really difficult sequence that she had to complete under a certain time limit. “I was just exhausted, with legs and arms like wet noodles. But I knew I had to do it. Many times in life you go through pain, but then you see God’s spirit is lifting you up, and the spirit is indomitable, and you persevere.” She reached a second degree black belt in 2016.

One requirement is breaking boards, first with the heel, then front kick, other kicks, “And then with your hands. During my second dan test I broke a stack of four boards with my hand.”

She said the process involves focusing energy and attention on what you will be breaking. “That is really an important part of all the movements. Where are you going, and what is the purpose of this?”

Dee practices sweeping techniques used to knock an opponent down if it ever became necessary. Contributed photo

Her school with Master instructor Adam Johnson at Evolution Tae Kwon Do in Monticello, is part of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation. “If you are tested for a black belt, a certificate and card comes from Korea to indicate that you‘ve reached that level.”

Tae Kwon Do For Dee Today

When Dee was younger, she participated in tournaments, and sparring, wearing protective equipment, but Covid shut much of that down. Getting older, her new job, smaller home space, and aching-body-after-workouts restricts how much time she spends at Tae Kwon Do. “I hope to test again, depending on my schedule. Getting to the gym once a week isn’t often enough to advance further in the black belts. But the warm-ups are great, the workouts are tremendous, great for the body and the mind, and I enjoy the focus and discipline Tae Kwon Do provides. After a good workout I feel better.”

She also loves the courtesy component. “Bowing to others is a strange and old-fashioned thing to do, but it’s a lovely way to express mutual respect, no matter the rank or age, and is very much part of the Asian culture.”

She said people who find out she does Tae Kwon Do say, “‘Oh cool!’ But it doesn’t come up, because I don’t talk about it very often. I never do any of the exercises or motions in front of people, so it is very much confined to the gym and in context of the class.”

Though the Pederson children no longer practice Tae Kwon Do, their son’s wife is a 6th degree black belt Master instructor in a Tae Kwon Do school in Chanhassen, and their daughter is taking class from her mom, making the Pedersons a three-generation Tae Kwon Do family.

“What I have learned about myself through Tae Kwon Do,” Dee said, “is that the tenets of it are a part of how I am called to life: to show courtesy, and to be respectful to people, because in my position I have to be. Also to behave with integrity, have ethical principles and boundaries, and self-control in all situations, with individuals, in meetings, and in public. I have to put aside my own ego and live with self-control at all times. The tenets that are more challenging are perseverance, and indomitable spirit. If I persevere in Tae Kwon Do, I discover how much better I feel. As much as possible, I’m taking care of the body my Creator gave me.”

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