With a prayer in my back pocket, the next night we negotiated the long queues. There were now eight thousand sweaty hot people in attendance. Each evening we would sing our little hearts out and tarry.
It was like waiting for a bus to arrive with no timetable.
Night after night I felt my chances of encountering this potentially divine experience were slipping.
At the point of desperation I stopped eating. My parents taught fasting was a great way to neuter the desire of the flesh to heighten spiritual receptors. As a growing teenager fond of food, abstaining for three days was a big investment. In hindsight it was pretty extreme. Denying oneself spaghetti, lasagna and my mother’s home cooked meals was no mean feat. Hopefully God would notice.
On the final night I convinced my reluctant dad to attend again. He didn’t enjoy crowds and hours of singing, especially on a school night. Leaving dad at the back, with brother in tow we snuck down to the main floor, four rows from the “hot zone”. The “hot zone” was as close to the minister as possible. This is where the action intensified. The service was long, things were getting strange; it was a circus. Nicely dressed mothers ran in circles, men in suits with sweaty arm patches rolled on the floor; it was what I imagined one would see in a psychedelic testing lab. The preacher would say
“Come drink the Holy Ghost. This is the new wine.”
Underaged drinking was appealing. As people prayed, parishioners started collapsing to the ground all around us.
We were unsure if this was mass hypnosis, mental health issues, self generated emotionalism or maybe God?
It was the end of the meeting and we stood as shy as squirrels. Out of the corner of my eye, a man put his hand on my head, and like 11000 volts through my body I crumpled to the ground. Caught off guard I was strangely electrified by an industrial power supply powering up the molecules in my body. Proceeding the first strike a slow motion intoxication took over and flowed through me. I lay on the ground in a deep consciousness daze. I felt loved.
I guess God was real?
I staggered through the carpark anaesthetised. The exact biological understanding remained elusive but there was definitely a sense of ecstasy and “aliveness”. Cloaked in a fuzzy warm hug, this felt good and not remotely scary. The theological underpinning for me was pretty thin but we were given a booklet called “Being Born Again”. We then had to fill out the paperwork.
Usher: Can you fill out this form?
John: Sure. What’s it for?
Usher: Just so we can follow up.
Usher: Cavallaro. Is your dad Ps Mark Cavallaro the minister?
Usher: Great he’s a top guy.
It made me furious as I wanted this to be my moment, but I had to share it with my father.
Later it was discovered that the person who prayed for me was David Cartledge, the man who mentored my father in his ministry. There was no getting away from paternal bonds.
The next morning I sat on my bed and wept. The whole experience was an incredible release of pent up emotion. Tears were rare with my teenage veneer and it felt good to let them out. The first chapter of the “Being Born Again” booklet read. When you are born again it is like being hit with a Mack Truck.
You walk different, talk different, think different, and look different.
There are videos on youtube of colour blind people donning glasses enabling them see the full spectrum of colour. They are overcome with emotion at the beauty of the world in a somewhat religious experience. This is what the feelings were akin too. My world went from black and white to an explosive rainbow. Like the atmosphere shifted from empty to thick with comfort. I also started having dreams and visions which I would journal of lions pinning me to the ground, pipes cleaned for fresh water, angels, shapes and symbols.
At school I saw my peers through what felt like our parents eyes.
We were all just kids pretending to be adults.
It took the fear out of school yard dynamics. Imbued with increased confidence, my cool facade was replaced with a genuine love for my peers. My school community warmed to the change in me. Coming from a family of farmers, I was the only artist and I always felt out of place. Now I began public speaking in assemblies, writing music, singing in a band, making short films, painting and creating digital art.
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see the seeds of much of my current vocations were developed at this time.
I was still a weird kid, but a somewhat more confident expressive weird kid. Much to my surprise initially teachers and students seemed to respond. During some sermons I remember feeling a divine power coming off the stage wave after wave to a packed assembly.
The staff gave the ones willing many opportunities and freedom in projects. Here we must make mention of Murray Averill, Lyn Smith-Cottrell, Maitlohn Drew, Karen Webster, June Van der Ham, Paul Smith, Graham Clarke, Yvonne Rutch, Colin Purnell, Dermot Cottuli, Alison Foster and Rob Burgess. Patient people who put up with a lot of antics and believed in me.
This other worldly power was also transferable. My father would ask me to pray for adults at our church and people would fall over bursting into tears. There was no training or reference for this, other than observing Rodney Howard-Browne meetings. We were experimenting, I didn’t have inside information, a book or a mentor on how to conjure it up, I was only 14.
There was a sense that it must have been God as we weren’t smart enough or trained enough to contrive this experience.
These were respectable community members, some were school teachers, doctors and family friends. They would often be very thankful after and I never received a dime. It’s one of the perks of being the pastors kid. Free labour.
This continued for several months until it started to fade. With all the noise and emotion it seemed many people who had mental and social issues were attracted to this type of phenomena. Joy was replaced with normalcy. Slightly elevated in my religious intensity came a sense of false superiority, and dogmatism. I couldn’t generate it anymore and found it purposeless.
There was also a sense that one could have the most amazing heavenly experiences with no basic common sense for life.
It was true these experiences didn’t correspond to character. My messy room spoke to that. Like an embarrassing teenage phase, today pentecostals largely gloss over this mysterious season.
Many felt it more of a distraction to the Lords work and some even labeled it the devil’s work. Churches were birthed from it, others split while most returned to business as usual. Like a storm blowing over, visitors to Toronto ceased their pilgrimage, speakers like Rodney Howard-Browne stopped touring and the hum of bedlam lulled to a sense of decorum.
What goes up must come down. God was just as much a mystery to me as he was before. I wondered what was the point? You felt a buzz, had a good cry a hearty laugh and then what? I wanted results.
My solution was to cease talking and sketch, locked away in my dimly lit room. It was a combination of immaturity, a saviour complex, and feeling like God led me down a dead end path, it was also the grunge era, and teen angst was on trend. I was supposed to save the world and I couldn’t even get out of bed. With the end of schooling came a downhill slope into a deep depression.
My thinking spiralled into a whirlpool of negativity creating a real mental strain. The sustained heaviness caused a chemical imbalance. After several months and some advice from my doctor I took some mild medication which helped me slowly come out of the fog. It is amazing how some good old fashioned medical advice and a bit of exercise can help.
It also taught me to be more gracious and understanding to the often stigmatised issues of mental health.
Other streams of pentecostalism rose to prominence. Hillsong, brought in speakers like John Maxwell and Casey Treat, who majored on leadership and life coaching. Conferences replaced church camps and weird expressions were not encouraged. The emphasis shifted to well scheduled services, encouraging sermons, better song writing, personal development and generally living successfully.
It was amazing how much time we spent in the four walls of church auditoriums and in bible meetings.
Every Friday for youth, two times a week for chapel, RE at school, twice on a Sunday, small groups during the week, music practice and the odd prayer meeting.
We’d often sing the same songs and hear similar sermons at all these events. We were also heavily encouraged to reach the world. Unfortunately there was no time for that for me, our schedule was jam packed and I didn’t have any other friends.
We became very good at running services.
Preaching at youth the solution to most problems included, reading the bible, church attendance, faithfulness, singing and praying. I was a voracious student and with this repertoire, felt I had most of the answers for life, which I was willing to regularly communicate. There was also a strong focus on purity which often bordered on fear.
This was my world. Highlights included youth camps and rallies. This was doing the same thing but with bigger crowds and sound systems. Often we bussed in hundreds of local high schoolers to hear inspirational speakers. Most friends came from families with a church background and I struggled to relate to anyone outside of this heritage. What was certain, the “non-churched” must have had a lot of free time.
Sporadically interesting revelations, and phenomena still occurred. One Friday night after youth group, while loitering around at the front of the auditorium deciding on dinner, a strange moment struck us.
Without warning, what can only be described as a tangible bubble of love filled the space in front of the stage.
There were five or six of us and we could all feel it. It was so tactile, we sat in silence for two hours.
It was like a force field. Walking to the back it couldn’t be felt but at the front, suddenly we were faced with a wall of intense atmosphere. It was actually quite bemusing how distinct the shift was as we tested it several times. We tried to stay for as long as we could it was well past midnight and our bedtime. It’s not clear what the exact purpose of the moment was but it bonded those of us who experienced it together.
Living in a preachers house came an unusual spiritual intensity. One night I distinctly remember the dogs barking because a man that looked 200 years old walked into the house to age us. I prayed for it to leave.
In the morning before I explained, my mother at breakfast believed she felt an evil presence in the house during the night.
In another instance, I was to meet a friend Matt, for the train trek to the Gold Coast. It was the weekend and I was looking forward to celebrate the birthday of a lifelong friend Isaac. Waiting at the station it became obvious my friend was a no show. He had the address of the party and there was no way of contacting him. In my frustration I found a pay phone and called my father. It was one of the few numbers committed to memory. Again it’s what one did in a pre-cell phone world.
Pausing for a moment after recounting my dilemma, his response was simple
Dad: Go by faith.
Me: But I don’t know where the party is?
Dad: You’ll find it.
It was at once a ludicrous and simultaneously awesome idea. I was sure my mother would not have approved and that simple fact made it irresistible.
With renewed vigour, a sleeping bag and some basic supplies in hand, the pilgrimage began.
Like a detective my hope clung to a single clue; they mentioned hearing church choruses from the apartment on a Sunday. Thank God for GPS today, back then we only had paper maps and intuition. As I was mapless, like a detective my first stop to search for the church was the Library. It was a long shot, but it was a plan.
After a two hour train ride I found a library. Scanning a map for local churches brought the sudden realisation that there were hundreds of churches on the Gold Coast.
In my dismay I walked aimlessly out of the library for several kilometres.
Plonked in front of the closest church, my food supplies became my comfort. Chewing on a muesli bar, the sun sank along with my hopes and dreams.