June 14, 2004
Matt Smith refused to get naked.
The devout Catholic from Mesa brought national notoriety to his religious beliefs when he appeared on MTV’s "Road Rules" in the fall.
"They wanted me to get naked for a competition," Smith said. "I told them I couldn’t get naked for something when I am representing a Catholic youth ministry. I had to maintain a high moral life."
Smith found his devotion through a Catholic program called Life Teen. The program encourages teens to embrace Catholicism and share it with others through word and deed.
Last week, during a teen ministry convention, Smith and about 500 other high school students could be heard from outside the San Marcos Resort in Chandler as they sang Christian songs.
A band played upbeat music as the East Valley teens raised their hands above their heads, swayed back and forth, and sang.
The program started in 1985 at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Mesa. It includes a weekly teen Mass, meetings with teens and a social night. It also encourages monthly community service. The program has multiplied to 910 Life Teen programs in 19 countries with more than 100,000 participants, said Jennifer Swanson, public relations director for the program.
The teens’ voices don’t just spill into the hallways when they sing, but carry over into their personal lives to set them apart from others.
Mike Jerale, 17, of Mesa said he tells his friends that he’s Catholic and has high morals.
"I have very strong beliefs on just about everything," Jerale said. "I don’t back down because of peer pressure, but usually there isn’t much pressure because my friends respect my decisions."
Mesa resident Leah Schafer, 17, said she has been involved in the program for three years.
"My brother went through it, and I saw that it brought him closer to God," Schafer said. "I wanted that for myself."
She said she has seen people change through the program, through people getting to know her and finding out about Life Teen.
"I know people who weren’t hanging out with good people, but after being in the program for a while, they are now hanging out with religious people,"
Smith said he found a Life Teen program in 1999 in Georgia and it turned his life around, so he has become its national spokesman.
He said he has talked to more than 500,000 teens in person and reached millions more by appearing on MTV’s "The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Gauntlet" and "The Real World New Orleans" in 2000. He constantly wore Teen Life Tshirts and talked about his Christian values.
"I became MTV’s infamous virgin," Smith said. "Everybody has talked to me about sex. Howard Stern knows nothing about sex, like me."
He said people tell him all the time that one person can’t make a difference.
"But they’re wrong," Smith said. "If young people knew the power they had, they wouldn’t be able to sleep at night."
To find out more about Life Teen, visit www.lifeteen.com.