For most people Schoolies was just a week of partying. It's almost certain you drank too much and slept someone you don't like, but what you probably didn't do is join a Christian cult. I did.
I was just shy of 18 when I headed to the NSW north coast for Schoolies. My shonky fake ID was taken off me at the first club we visited because I didn't know the star sign of someone born in August. FYI, it's Leo.
With few options that didn't involve clubbing, I wandered around aimlessly until I came across a group of people fire-twirling in a park. You hear about the Byron Bay hippies and expect them to spend their days smoking weed or taking acid. These ones weren't like that. They called themselves The Tribe and were anti-drug, pro-chai sipping Christian evangelists. Their primary interest was this game called Treasure Hunt—where they'd find people on the street and "heal them with the power of prayer."
On that first night I sat in the park with them, sipping chai and feeling weirdly elated. I quickly accepted their offer to come along to lunch the next day. Now normally I wouldn't accept a lunch invite from Christian evangelists. Like most people, if I see a person preaching Jesus on the street I generally run in the other direction. But The Tribe were different. They were artistic, inclusive and made me feel as though they could peer into my soul and see the kind person I really was. I wanted more of this love, the kind of love that didn't mean getting naked with another drunk 18-year-old.
Lunch was casual, just sandwiches and cordial on a park bench in the main street of Byron Bay. As I spoke with other members, I found no-one was originally from Byron. It seemed most of then were there because they were escaping something else. One woman was an alcoholic and drug addict who came to Byron Bay to sober up. Another man was estranged from an abusive family and found community with The Tribe. For them, The Tribe offered eternal love and forgiveness.
Their leader was a softly spoken white man with sandy dreadlocks in his 30s. He didn't seem at all surprised to discover we'd grown up in the same house, ten years apart, in a sleepy suburb back in Melbourne called Beaumaris. He asked me what primary school I went to. "Same," he replied. To this day I'm not sure whether he was telling the truth or simply finding a common life path. I'm told this is a key tool of indoctrination. I was more naive at the time and mostly just surprised that anyone else actually knew where Beaumaris was.
The most cultish part of The Tribe came at church on Sunday. While our friends battled hangovers and comedowns from the night before, I roped my friend Miranda in to slog through four hours of dancing and praying. All set to a soundtrack of modern Christian hymns played by a live band.
The air was thick inside a modest weatherboard church, crowded mostly with women in long flowing skirts. There was the occasional man who resembled John Butler and scattered children running around in nappies. Halfway through the service the leader of The Tribe read a passage about self love and forgiveness. I couldn't seem to shake an uncontrollable urge to cry. It was sometime around here I realised that while my friends were out enjoying their Schoolies, I'd accidentally joined a cult.
Around me members of the service laughed in a frenzy, others rolled on the floor and hugged each other. I vividly remember watching one woman on the ground praying in tongues, heaving her slight body up and down on the blue carpeted floors. A woman in her mid-30s asked if she could "heal" me, placing her hands over my heart and on my head. We hugged and she said I was cleared from the emotional trauma from my parents' separation. I felt a surge of warmth across my body. Although, thinking back, it could just have been the rush of blood that comes in the middle of a panic attack. I spent the next two hours in tears, basically howling.
Miranda and I left the service hours later, exhausted, and sat on Byron Bay beach. We didn't really tell any of our other friends what had just happened when they finally wandered out, hungover, around 2pm. The thought of staying in Byron Bay definitely crossed my mind. The Tribe offered me accommodation in exchange for volunteering with the church. After filling up on sandwiches and cordial at a final community lunch, I politely declined. I had to go back to Melbourne to organise my 18th birthday party.
To this day I'm not sure why I was so vulnerable. I've heard that people who gravitate to new age spiritualism are more likely to be more impressionable, have mental health issues, and think less critically about the world around them. I probably tick all of those boxes. But ever since I met The Tribe I've always been a bit more wary of kind strangers with dreadlocks.
My Schoolies was weirder than yours.
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All illustrations by Alex Jennings. Follow him on Instagram