JACKSON HEIGHTS — A free soccer camp in a Queens park is being used to teach the Gospel to kids by a group of missionaries who mix dribbling skills with post-game prayers and Bible stories, many parents said.
The informal camp has been holding sessions at Rory Staunton Field on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons since June 1.
But parents were not told that the organizers' goal is to preach, they said.
The sessions are run by a rotating group of missionaries, college students and church members from around the country who are working with Boto Joseph, 32, a volunteer at the South Asian Community Center on Roosevelt Avenue. They also host arts and crafts in the 78th Street play street.
“Our aim is to uplift our community and, to use a religious term, be a blessing,” said Joseph during a session on Wednesday, where about 15 kids aged 8 to 13 had come to play soccer.
Joseph said he came up with the idea for a soccer camp in the spring after working with a group of students from the University of North Carolina, who were in Queens on a mission trip.
Three of the students were part of the school’s women’s soccer team, which won the NCAA championship in 2012.
“Not only were there three players, it happens to be the World Cup,” he said. “We thought, how about soccer camp? But we want to do more than just play a game.”
They created a two-hour soccer plan that has a 25-minute “debrief” after the game where kids can get to know each other and talk about their issues, as well as pray and learn about the Bible, he said.
The camp didn't require any prior sign-up or parental consent, Joseph said, and kids could come in to play on their own. The sign outside states that it's a free soccer camp but doesn't mention any group affiliation or religious overtones.
Jigar Desai, 22, came to Jackson Heights from Texas three months ago and has been the main facilitator of the camp.
“We're just telling stories about the Bible. We're not here to convert anybody,” he said, adding that they had roughly 60 kids at the camp’s peak in June.
“We don't have the power to do that. We're here to tell stories and have God in their hearts.”
Ronny Ashar brought her 6-year-old daughter to the soccer class after seeing it in the park a few weeks ago. She said she wasn’t told of the religious teaching until her daughter said she learned about Jesus Christ at the camp.
“These soccer missionaries did not declare that there was going to be any religious discussion when we sent our child for soccer,” she said. “What they did was solicitation of a minor without any disclosure or parental consent. If we wanted to go to Sunday school we would make a fully informed decision to go there.”
Another parent approached the organizers Wednesday to voice her concern.
"You've got to tell people you're going to give religious education," mom Jaymie Adachi told Joseph. "Just be straightforward with people. It sounds to me that people don't know."
Larry Holcomb, the director of the South Asian Community Center who suggested Travers Park as a location for the camp, said he understood parents’ concerns but nobody was forced to take part.
“In America we pride ourselves on openness and freedom and if we start saying ‘if there's any religious content it's banned,’ then we're in a Socialist-Communist-Fascist state,” he said.
“Jackson Heights of all places — it's diverse," he continued. "We get along together and make sure that groups like this aren’t trying to trap people or trick people or force people — those are horrible things that I don’t think there was any intention of."
A spokesman for the Parks Department said "a permit is required for any assembly of more than 20 people in a park" — regardless of what they are doing.
The organizers said they didn't obtain a permit for the camp and are now re-evaluating their enrollment process.
In an email sent Thursday, Joseph suggested the group would require parental consent going forward.
"We acknowledged our need to require a written parent consent and/or a sign up sheet with the parents approval for every participating child," Joseph said in an email sent Thursday.
"As parents ourselves, we take it very seriously and totally agree that we need to communicate our programs very clearly and only proceed with the approval of parents."