Lee-Ann Matthews is youth coordinator at St Thomas, NDG and rector's warden at St Philip’s, Montreal-West.
MD: Lee-Ann, Tell us a bit about yourself?
LAM: OK. Sure. Let's see — I'm in love with my two dogs and my cat. I devote lots of time and energy to their care. I live a healthy, active lifestyle that includes a daily yoga and meditation practice. I got divorced last year after a 13-year marriage and I came out as a lesbian at the age of 42. I am currently in a happy stable relationship with my partner.
MD: How long have you been involved in working with young people and what made you get involved?
LAM: I've been working with kids since I graduated from Concordia University in 1994. I obtained a degree in child studies with a minor in religion. At that point it was my intention to receive a teaching certificate in "Moral Religious Education" from McGill but the universe had a different plan for me as my application was returned, saying that as of that year, the program was no longer being offered. This was a real blow at the time and I felt entirely derailed but I had student loans to repay so decided to embark on a career as preschool educator. I really enjoyed this work and met some amazing inspirational people who taught me so much. About five years ago, I discovered a phenomenal yoga teacher! This was a transformative experience for me and I began to uncover so many benefits (physical, emotional and spiritual) from my yoga practice that I couldn't resist bringing yoga into my classroom. I was very interested in teaching kids yoga but it was obvious that kids didn't respond to yoga as adults do. They wanted to move more and to have fun and "play" yoga, not sit in a serene, meditative space on an intense personal journey. So, I decided to get trained to teach children's yoga. In 2009 I received my first certificate in children's yoga from the Radiant Child program at Kripalu Centre for yoga and health in Massachussetts. I have subsequently attended teacher training at the "Yoga Kids" foundation and numerous conferences and am completing another certification right now.
The first time I taught a kids’ yoga class following my first training I knew that something magical had happened. I called my teacher and gushed about my newfound passion and the amazing impact of her teachings. I have a voracious appetite for information on this topic and for children's spirituality in general. I teach yoga to kids aged 2-15 in schools, churches, at home, and in my studio.
MD: It sometimes can be thankless job being a youth leader. What keeps you going?
LAM: Actually, of all the work that I have done with kids for the past 18 years, this position has been one of the most gratifying. I love providing a context for kids to access and express their spirituality. Since I began the position at St Thomas Church in January of this year I have truly felt blessed. I know when I am aligned with divinity somehow because I sense it in the group dynamics, the energy, the ideas and enthusiasm. Everything just seems to flow freely. I am so charged and impassioned to be a part of this amazing group. Honestly, it is the most rewarding work! Children's spirituality is a vital part of who they are and to be able to acknowledge them in this way is so validating.
MD: As a diocese (and across the Church of Canada) we are seeing a concerted effort at prioritizing youth ministry. What advice do you have for the decision makers in our churches?
LAM: We need to stop telling kids how to pray, how to feel, what to wear etc. and to start listening very acutely to what their needs are, what their influences are and get to know who they are fundamentally. We have to stop assuming we know about youth ministry based on former models and humble ourselves before our children. Young people aren't attending church because it isn't relevant to them. We need to create environments that are conducive to self-expression and creativity with open-ended activities that provide opportunities for worship and spiritual nurture. We need to think entirely out of the box. We need to make church relevant. And we have some stiff competition!
MD: What “wow” moments have you had in your work?
LAM: When I teach meditation or a "listening" prayer I am often amazed at the sense of reverence and devotional energy that arises. There is a peacefulness, a sense of calm and a powerful sense of connection to Spirit. Kids use very positive descriptive language when asked how this type of meditation feels. I get goose bumps and feel so happy and blessed to be making these connections together.
MD: On a lighter note, have you had any really embarrassing moments in your work?
LAM: Yes! Of course, all the time!! On an average day working with kids I am doing and saying embarrassing things. Making mistakes and laughing at myself. But I have tried to facilitate meditation with certain kids and have them whisper a prayer or a word and all that would come out of their mouths was hysterical contagious uncontrollable laughter. The atmosphere is not always serene and reverent and sometimes my grand plans at conjuring peace backfires and all we do is laugh. There actually is a well-recognized practice of yoga called Laughter Yoga. I guess by default we could just call it that!
MD: Last question: What advice do you have for the synod office in our mission to serve young people?
LAM We need to create a task force, a team of people who are committed to the work of kids and youth and bringing them into the light of our Lord. And we need to include children in all of our thinking and not just compartmentalize youth groups to dingy basements and tuck them away. We need to revitalize the church proper with the amazing energy of children and youth and remember the true value of young people as profoundly spiritual beings.