PAWTUCKET — Neighborhood teens looking for something to do on a Sunday night can find Oreos and Mountain Dew, games of Nerf basketball and “Apple-to-Apple,” and general comradery — with a dollop of prayer and worship mixed in — at Woodlawn Baptist Church on Lonsdale Avenue.
They will also find the friendly face and understanding soul of Brad Lavoie, the church's new youth director. Lavoie, usually accompanied by his equally friendly and understanding wife, Amanda, leads the Catalyst youth group meetings, for those ages 13 through 18, every Sunday night at the church hall from 7 to 9 p.m.
Lavoie, 23, is an East Providence native who has been a member of Woodlawn Baptist Church, along with his family, almost his entire life. The East Providence High School graduate, who played basketball for the Townies, is now pursuing a degree to become a minister.
In the meantime, he has been hired by the church in the newly created position of youth director—a role that church leaders believe is key to the congregation remaining vital.
Lavoie will be officially installed as youth director at a special service on Sunday, May 15, at 10:30 a.m. A luncheon will follow.
Rev. Terry J. Morgan, pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church, said there has long been a youth group at the church, but it was typically run by volunteers—usually older teens who had participated themselves. The decision was recently made by church members to have a paid youth director and to expand the scope and duties of the position.
“We feel it is very important to establish this position for the future of our church.” said Morgan. “It's part of our greater commitment to youth and to promote the life of the church and to address what our church can offer to new families. That's what will keep our church alive—being able to reach out to young families.”
Morgan said that Woodlawn Baptist Church, which has been a fixture at 337 Lonsdale Avenue since 1893, draws members not only from Pawtucket but from neighboring communities such as Central Falls, Lincoln, and East Providence. Yet, it's the teens who live around the church, particularly, that the youth group hopes to attract and for which the church aspires to be a safe haven. “We feel our responsibility is to our neighborhood, first and foremost,” said Morgan.
Lavoie, who has been attending Woodlawn Baptist Church since he was brought there by his parents as an infant, said he has always been a spiritual person. “I've never left the church. I had my 'teen years,' so to speak,” said Lavoie with a smile. “But from the time I was very young, I've accepted Christ in my life and this had made me a stronger person today,” he said. He was a longtime member of the Catalyst youth group himself, and spent five years as its volunteer director.
Upon graduation from East Providence High School, Lavoie began attending Nyack College in New York. However, he ended up meeting and marrying his wife, Amanda, and then starting a family. The couple has a four-year-old son, Cameron, a one-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and another child on the way. “My family was growing, and New York was just too expensive to live. Rents were $1,400 a month, so we came back home,” Lavoie said.
Now back living in East Providence, Lavoie is taking on-line courses with the Moody Bible Institute and is grateful to have received the salaried job offer from his church. Amanda, who had been a youth group leader herself at the First Baptist Church in her hometown of Narragansett, regularly helps out at the Catalyst meetings as well. She provides “emotional support” as well as hands-on assistance, Lavoie said. “God put it all in place for us,” he added.
Those “teen years” that Lavoie referred to, along with some other life experiences, as well as being only a few years older than many of the youth group participants, help make Lavoie an effective mentor. “I can take my experiences, and God's word, and talk to these teens. There is a nice trust factor,” said Lavoie. “They can say, 'here is someone my age.'” He added that the youth group teens “trust us a lot. The guys are close to me and the girls are close to Amanda.”
Lavoie said the Catalyst meetings used to be held on Friday nights, but the decision was made to change to Sunday nights, where there is less competition from movies, dances and other events. In addition to serving “teen friendly” snacks, Lavoie organizes group games and holds discussions on a variety of topics pertaining to youth-related issues and concerns. The group then holds a short, 15 to 20 minute devotion.
“I change up the topics. We've talked about “Who is Jesus?”, social media, YouTube videos. We talked about bin Laden's death and how we, as Christians, should react. I'm trying to do things that are relevant, and then the kids sometimes bring up topics. We're here to discuss with them things they are going through in life. And we take biblical truths and apply them to the situation,” said Lavoie.
Lavoie stressed that any teenager from the public who is in either junior or senior high school is invited to come to Catalyst, and can bring friends. The hope is that these teens will also take part in Sunday church worship as well, but there is no pressure. “A lot of kids don't want to go to church, and we don't want to force them into religion,” said Lavoie. “We encourage kids to come to our youth group. We have a lot of fun, but we're also here to discuss with them the things they are going through in life,” he stated. He added that several members of the youth group have begun going on their own to the Sunday morning services as well.
As to his own future ministry, Lavoie said he “felt like God was calling me to it. Leading me in this direction.” He continued, “I have an interest for the people. The people who are lost, looking for something, or feel like life is over for them. I have the interest and desire to share with them Jesus Christ. I want to give an opportunity for teens and all who come into church to find Christ and accept Him into their lives.”
Lavoie added that, in addition to the youth group, Woodlawn Baptist Church has numerous programs for all ages. “This church building has been here since 1893. The neighborhood may have changed, but the building is still here, and it is surrounded by many people. We want people to know we are here for them with programs for young kids, vacation Bible school, programs for teens, and many things for adults and seniors.”