Consider the manner in which Michael Jones cane to be saved. Michael was born in India but bred in Thomastown, a flat dreary, treeless suburb on the northern fringes of Melbourne. Here the population is 80 per cent immigrant - Macedonians, Greek, Italians, They come fresh from the reception centres or on internal migration from inner suburbs, only pausing in Thomastown, they hope, before moving on to the brick-veneer palaces of the hilly, wooded north-eastern areas.
Thomastown has no mean streets, just rows of monotony. But the Thomastown sharps rove them, bullying, putting fear into young Michael Jones. Anglo-Indian an outsider, friendless.
No more. This is what happened.
Michael is a waiter at the Regent Hotel, the plushest in town. It’s a soaring building which dominates what Melbourne people call, straight-faced, the Paris’ end of Collins Street. And on this day he is suddenly faced with an emergency: there is no waiter to perform silver service at a dinner for executives from Broken Hill Pty Ltd. BHP’s public-relations people calls the company the ‘Big Australian’... and it is. dominating mining and steel-making, with assets worth more than A$7,700,000,000.
Silver service is, well, an art. You carry in one hand this large silver platter, loaded with food and, in the other, a spoon and fork. You lean beside this very important person from the Big Australian and, manipulating spoon and fork, serve him, with grace and style, meat and vegetables and peas, perhaps. Imagine a spoonful of peas, delicious and al dente, landing in the lap of the Managing Director of BHP.
But it doesn’t happen. Michael and Vaughan would be the pride of any maitre’s heart. Who’s Vaughan? Vaughan is a casual, and he shouldn’t have been doing silver service either. But he has poise and he and Michael get to discussing their triumph.
It just sort of comes out that Vaughan goes to a Revival Centre. Vaughan had been lost, confused. One day, by chance, he met a friend at an airport and they got to discussing nuclear wars and the end of the world and this friend had been to a Revival Centre to hear that it had all been prophesied. All that stuff about the rise of modem Russia, the world-wide arms race, the return of the Jews to Palestine. But this friend was so calm, because she had also heard at the Revival centre that she could have immediate deliverance. Why, it said in Corinthians, chapter 11, 5:7 ‘If ant man believe in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature: old things are passed away. Behold, all things are become new.’ And there was this guarantee in John chapter 1, 5:13 that meant that Armageddon, coming soon, holds no fear: ‘Theses things have it written unto you who believe on the son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life’, that the believer will now be heeled - ‘Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sickness’ Matthew 8:17 - and, the sign, the sign that marks salvation, that set the believer apart, the ability to speak in tongues (Mark 16:17). So the next Sunday Michael goes to the Palace Theatre, itself converted from a place of entertainment. And a week after that he sits down beside me in the Palace Theatre, holds out his hand and says, ‘I’m Michael, God bless you.’ No quiet Thomastown boy now: confident: You’re a journalist,’ he says, as I scribble away. ‘Now, how did I know that? It’s amazing,’ The hall is fairly full. Families, lower-middle class, men in suits ... and a high proportion of young people tee-shirted and jeaned, clapping hands, singing:
‘I can run through a troop and leap over a wall
He’s my strength and my shield, he gives power to all,
Pastor Lloyd is one of six men on stage. There will be Baptism at this meeting and receiving of the joy of the Lord, he says. There will be prayers for the sick and those of us who are ill in the audience can move into the aisle where there will be laying on of hands. There will be speaking in tongues and prophecy.
There will, of course, be a sermon with interpretations of the Bible. So Bibles are produced, some underlined, heavily annotated.
But not Michael’s. His is small, beautiful, bound edged with brass and, in smudged ink on the frontispiece is written FW Peake, February 8, 1884. This is Michael’s mother’s Bible and in it as a place mark is a holy card of the Virgin and Child. His family is Catholic and Michael, all his life until two Sundays ago, had gone to church. But now his faith is in the Revival Centre.
Communion is passed around. The people chant their own words of praise: ‘Thanks to the Lord’, ‘Praise the Lord’. As the burble dies down one voice continues. A man’s voice, speaking strange words, rolling and rhyming, a mantra running wild. Silence, then one of the men on the stage steps to his microphone, closes his eyes and interprets...: ‘and the Lord saith that you have taken your pen and written your myths but they are not my truth, the Lord saith, and I will break your pen and your myths...’
‘Last week I did that,’ Michael says. ‘I was in tongues. Me, who doesn’t know another language.
There are others anxious to give testimony. Mark Rombault, at 23 about 20 years older than 21-year-old Michael, one-time musician, one-time user of and dealer in drugs: one-time overdoser on the mushrooms called blue meanies. That was what did it — snapped him out of the daze. A friend who had battled his way out of alcoholism pointed him to the Revival Centre. ‘1 went, they offered a Baptism and, being an opportunist, I took it.’ Now he has a wife, a child, ajob, the gift of tongues. Now he has salvation.
The Revival Centre is exclusive. ‘General Booth and his wife had the gift of tongues, but the Salvation Army has lost its way. If you can play a trumpet, you’re in,’ Paster Lloyd says.
It is run by a firm male hand. After skipping through the Bible, demonstrating that Eve did sin (but it wasn’t her fault because she had not been enlightened), that Mary should not be called the Mother of God and saying that God had given to the man the prerogative to uphold the word, Pastor Lloyd said: ‘There’s a system in the Bible and so long as I’m around, none of the Revival Centres will depart from the system.
It thrives on simplistic hymns, infallible interpretations of the Bible, determined cheerfulness and grand promises. Calling on candidates for Baptism, a Pastor says: ‘There’s a lot of problems in the world today, Solve them in one swoop.
All in all, it is absurd. But there is Michael Jones. Silver service holds no terrors for him now. Nor, he tells me, does anyone. ‘You know you re protected by God.’
Does it hurt anyone?
By Cameron Forbes, Foreign Editor of Melbourne’s ‘The Age’ and regular correspondent for the New Internationalist.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7