An African-American church outside of Washington, D.C., has been running an aviation ministry that serves as a teaching tool for students at its school and as a career platform for adult parishioners. First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, Maryland, started the ministry in 2002.
Donnie Simons is a retired air traffic controller who served as district manager overseeing an area that covered the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Air Traffic Control System Command Center. Church Pastor John K. Jenkins Sr., a pilot and AOPA member, asked Simons to start the aviation ministry during the 2002 Easter service.
“I was delighted, but also perplexed when he asked me, wondering what is an aviation ministry,” said Simons. He reached out to church Elder William Jones, a U.S. Air Force retiree on staff, to help spearhead the group. Others who were original members were the late Charles Herbert Flowers, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Dr. William Curtis, a professor at the Naval Academy, and Chalma Hunt, a former flight attendant and human resources specialist.
The aviation ministry is currently overseen by Arthur Johnson, a retired Navy rear admiral, pilot, and Naval Academy graduate. He estimates that besides the pastor, the church has five Navy and five general aviation pilots.
It was important to create the aviation ministry as a way to inspire young people, said Johnson. “I think the potential is humongous because young people don’t envision doing something until they see a role model. Then then they can see it,” he said. “My aviation career took off when I had a football coach in high school who was a pilot. When you see someone else doing it, it gives you the will to pursue it and achieve it. It helps young people see it’s not just a dream, but reality.”
An important component of the ministry is the use of aviation for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the church’s Shabach Christian Academy, which offers preschool and K-6 classes. “We also support homeschooled children in grades three through 12,” said Johnson.
The STEM aviation course was no accident, said Johnson. “We wanted to keep the emphasis on STEM topics, and aviation is our hook to generate that interest,” he said. “We have a flight lab that consists of four PC-based flight simulators with good visuals that allow the children to understand flight. Last year, we served 105 students.”
For adults, the ministry meets on the first Saturday of the month at 11 a.m., said Johnson. “When we originally created the ministry, it had an ATC emphasis, but we’re now working hard to diversify our needs and desires,” he said. “But now that I’ve come on as a pilot, I’m working to expand our offerings in careers including maintenance, avionics, and airport operations. We have people with those skill sets to help us.”
Simons noted that the church holds an annual career fair in May and hosts an Aviation Career Education (ACE) Camp every summer. “We also have five air traffic controllers who came through our ministry,” he said. “Pastor Jenkins is a revolutionary thinker on ways to reach out to people. He’s been a blessing in my life and the lives of those who are in the aviation ministry.”