Sunday, July 8, 2012

Emma Matthews - school chaplaincy in changing times

Rev Emma Matthews with a student
Rev Emma Matthews seems well and truly at home in her surroundings at Penrhos College. Girls proudly come up to her in the halls to show their achievements. More students are scattered around her office making Easter baskets. It is through these informal connections as chaplain she is able to build meaningful relationships with the students.
Fittingly placed on the wall, a plaque reads, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
You could say that Emma, a recently ordained Deacon, has come full circle in her journey through faith. Penrhos College, an all-girls’ school that boasts about 1,170 students, including around 100 boarders, and 200 staff, is one of seven Uniting Church schools in WA. Like many of her students, Emma grew up in a non-church family and attended a Uniting Church school. It was at around the age of six that Emma’s faith started to emerge.
Once she left school, she moved into a house full of Christian students where her faith flourished and grew further. Working as a school music teacher to pay the bills, Emma’s passion for social justice formed part of her journey to the diaconate. Her passion can be traced back to a teenage experience at a school speech night; standing on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall, one of the school mums was approached by a homeless man asking what the event was. The lady turned her back, and left a lasting impression on Emma.
“That really had a profound impact on me,” she said. “It melted my heart.”
Emma spent a lot of her time since then volunteering for various causes including social work among AIDS victims, meals on wheels and refugee advocacy. “So basically without really realising it, I was doing diaconate work,” she said. “I started a period of discernment about six years ago and discerned quite rapidly that the diaconate was where God was leading me.”
Similarly, after finishing her theological training and beginning a new time of discerning God’s plan for her, “It became more and more apparent that Penrhos was the place for me.”
Having been in her role for three school terms now, Emma has settled into the busy schedule. The school’s multicultural and multi-faith community brings with it joys and diversity. While some may think of that as being a struggle, Emma is a natural in her role at relating to students.
“The five world’s biggest religions all have things in them that talk about valuing other people, talk about being neighbourly, talk about caring for the environment. So there are ways that you can mould a message that is actually palatable for everybody,” she said.
The college’s Ignite program, which Emma teaches, offers an opportunity to explore such similarities in more depth. Each term the class studies a different religion so by the end of the year they will have learnt about Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. But it’s not just chapel and education that Emma offers. She’s also a friend and a listening ear to students and staff alike.
“My role is pastoral, liturgical and teaching,” she said. “Being a pastoral presence in the playground — being there in that moment — can have a life changing impact.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the difference that church schools make is significant. The chaplain’s door is always open. Girls have an opportunity to ask big questions. And they do.”
As Emma continues to walk her journey, she encourages others who may be hearing God’s call to ministry to take the plunge, despite it shaking your whole life around.
“It changes everything,” she said. “If it’s doing its job, it’s deconstructing you — your faith, preconceived ideas, stretching all your boundaries — and putting you back together again. “Don’t be scared. Have faith. God won’t leave you floundering and will make your path straight. You might not be able to see it in your second year of study, but it will happen.”

Edited from an article by Heather Dowling

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