Scuba instructors Sujon Low (top left) and Jimmy Moyen (top center) with youth from St. Albans Congregational UCC in Queens, N.Y. Marcia Moxam Comrie photo.
On a recent Saturday, a group of youngsters dived into the pool at Roy Wilkins Park. But these teens were not merely swimming and splashing one another. They were loaded down with scuba gear and listening attentively to a similarly attired instructor.
The swimmers were part of the St. Albans (N.Y.) Congregational UCC's scuba ministry, a program developed by the Rev. Wayne Wilson, associate minister for children and youth.
Jimmy Moyen, a church member who also is a member of the Aquatic Voyager Scuba Club, a predominantly African-American, scuba-diving organization, approached Wilson with the idea.
"Jimmy offered to start a club for the kids and the oddball Californian that I am, I was willing to give it a try," says Wilson. "We had gotten a small grant from the Department of Youth of the City of New York and used it to start.
"It's a great program because it brings together four aspects of our community: our church, Roy Wilkins Park, the black scuba club and Stingray Diving Shop, a minority-owned business which sells us the gear and equipment almost at cost."
The scuba ministry, according to Wilson, started with 16 youngsters ranging in age from 10 to 16 in the 10-week program. It is equal parts academic (theory) and practical (in the pool).
"They're practicing in closed water," says Wilson, referring to the pool. Then they will follow that up with a trip to "open waters" at a variety of sites, such as Dutch Springs in Pennsylvania.
There they will qualify for their diving certificates, which will allow them to purchase diving equipment on their own to continue this newly acquired skill.
For the youthful minister, it's already starting to yield fruits after only a few sessions.
"Fifty percent of the young people involved don't attend our church regularly," he says. "But four out of seven who were on the edges have drastically increased attendance here at church. It's a kind of discipleship and, for parents to see their children involved in something that has been closed to African Americans because of the cost, this is great for them."
Byron Tannehill agrees. He's the father of 10–year-old Byron Jr. and 13-year-old David, both members of the church and the club.
"They're learning a new skill and learning to work as part of a team," Tannehill says. "The skill they're learning at nine feet, they will be using at 90 feet," he says, looking at the group following Moyen around in the pool. "Jimmy was able to recruit several club members to come in and help so they were able to get a lot of one-on-one at first."
Asked how they felt about this unique opportunity, the Tannehill lads were both enthusiastic.
"It's fun and interesting," they say. "That's the reason we started scuba, because we thought it would be fun and interesting, and it is."
Asked if he brags about his growing prowess in aquatics, David says, "No, they'll just think it's dorky or something."
"It's a good experience for me," says Byron Jr. "I like it!"
Wilson is not surprised at the boys' excitement. "It's a different world at 25 feet below sea level than it is above water level," he says. He himself is a new student of scuba diving. "It will have an effect on the rest of their lives, Wilson says. "They develop a buddy system by always diving two at a time in case of trouble. It's health and fitness and they learn marine biology.
"This is the connection between the church and the secular," he says, "by taking activities that are normally done in the world and bringing them into the church, the two became partners in educating and training our children. Hence the church and the community become one."
For Moyen, who brought the idea to Wilson, this is a dream come true.
"The goal of the program is to expose kids to something they've never been exposed to before," he says, echoing Wilson. "They could possibly find careers in marine biology, underwater photography and oceanography. The environment we live in does not offer these opportunities because we're not around a lot of water, but this broadens their horizons and opens their minds to other possibilities."
This article and photograph appeared originally in the PRESS of Southeast Queens and are reprinted with permission.