Jordan: I figure I should tell you before today’s discussion that I’m not much for religion. Never really went to church as a kid. Definitely don’t go today. Not a big fan of what organized religion has done to the world generally over centuries. And look, whatever, that’s just me and I’m only saying it so you know where I’m coming from.
But faith in general. Faith in a higher power is just fascinating to me. It’s a mystery that we will never solve. It means something different to everybody. It manifests differently. And it’s just so quintessentially human. Today’s guest is going to tell us a story about religion and faith and about miracles that maybe happened, but probably didn’t.
Her new podcast, which launches today is about a movement that began in Toronto and spread across Canada and around the world. And I’ll let her explain a bit of it before we introduce her.
Clip: Heaven Bent: This is the most significant spiritual event in our generation. Praise you, Jesus. Praise you. Jesus. On January 20th, 1994 strange things started happening at Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. People would start laughing, falling down on the floor. It was dubbed the Toronto blessing, a bizarre spiritual movement that spread from Toronto to my childhood church in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Thousands of teenagers just praising god, screaming and shouting and shouting and holding each other up. But 25 years later, I want to figure out what this was really all about.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Tara Jean Stevens is the host and creator of Heaven Bent, which launches today. Hey TJ.
Tara Jean: Hey Jordan, it’s great to be here.
Jordan: Oh, I’m so happy to talk to you and I’m excited to hear where your story goes. Why don’t you just start by explaining what we teased out a little bit in the intro? What was the Toronto blessing, what supposedly happened?
Tara Jean: Well, the Toronto blessing was a really bizarre and unusual spiritual movement that broke out in a sort of wing of the Christian Church. It started January 20th, 1994 in a Thursday night service. So you’d imagine, what would go strange in a Thursday night service? But at this church near Toronto Pearson International Airport, on that night, every single person in the meeting fell to the ground. They were laughing hysterically, shaking and crying. And it was the beginning of 12 and a half years of meetings like this. But over time, they would involve thousands of people. As over time, millions of people traveled from all over the world to experience whatever this was.
Jordan: Why did it spread like that? What was it about whatever happened in that church?
Tara Jean: Well, the most common way that it spread was people coming to the church in Toronto to visit. They would experience the Toronto blessing, and then when they returned to their church, there would be reports of similar phenomena breaking out there. So for example, someone from Minnesota or someone from Florida might visit Toronto, when they get back home, they explain to everyone either, this is what happened to me, maybe it’ll happen here, or they claim that it just happened on its own. I’m a little bit more suspect of that. I feel like there’s some connective tissue in how it spread, but it’s definitely part of what makes the story so curious.
Jordan: Give me the big picture a little bit. Why does this story matter today?
Tara Jean: Well, I mean, as I’ve been producing heaven bent, I started the research for it and the investigation a year and a half ago, but as I’ve been producing it, COVID 19 happened and the pandemic, and you may have seen these yourself, there’s been numerous stories about people from churches, evangelical churches like this one, charismatic churches like the one that I’m speaking about in Toronto, where they believe that God will protect them from the virus, or if they get the virus that through the Holy spirit, they can be healed. And that is a concern, if people are not social distancing and abiding by rules in their area that virus can get spread around. So these types of beliefs should be questioned at this point, and we should be sort of looking into how it impacts our lives today. This revival, they call it, that started January 20th, 1994, it’s had great impacts in how the churches operate now.
Jordan: Can you explain for people like me who don’t have a religious background, what is a revival? Give me the big picture.
Tara Jean: A revival is an event or a period of time where a church or a network of churches, experiences a great renewal. So there are lots of more people that are interested in coming to that church. The people within that church are just lit on fire for God. They have a renewed sort of Christian spirit. They believe that during these revivals, whether it’s on one day, two days, or 12 and a half years, like the Toronto blessing, that during that time, great healing takes place in people’s lives, and not just mentally, but physically. There’s also this inevitable spirituals, signs and wonders. So people seeing visions prophecies coming true. All of these things in sort of general, make up what a revival is in the Christian Church.
Jordan: And this story I understand is personal for you as well. So tell me, how did you first hear about the Toronto blessing as a child? Where were you?
Tara Jean: I was growing up in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which is up the BC coast, just before you get to the Alaska panhandle. And as I was mentioning about the spread, it spread from Toronto to Prince Rupert, and it happened by a group of people from our church hearing about what was happening in Toronto, going there, attending a series of services, and then coming back to our church. And it started sort of small, in youth group services with shaking and falling to the ground, laughing hysterically. I have memories of attending youth conventions in Kelowna and Kamloops and standing at the alter with my arms up.
Speaking in tongues and believing that God was about to manifest in my body, and in that moment I would start shaking and then eventually fall to the ground as all the other kids around me were doing. The podcast also investigates a memory that I have that I honestly thought was always a dream, and that was some people returning from one of these trips to Toronto, coming back to Prince Rupert and telling us that God had supernaturally placed gold molars in their mouth.
So the memory that I have is of holding flashlights into these people’s mouths at the end of the service so that we could see what they said God’s work was, in their mouth. And that is, I think, sort of the pinnacle question for me with Heaven Bent. Is there any truth to that at all? Did anything supernatural actually happen here and whether or not it did, how do these stories impact the people that live them?
Jordan: Tell me a little bit about how you try to, first of all ascertain fact or fiction, on one hand, but also examine what makes people believe this stuff and act like that. Like what were you thinking when you were speaking in tongues?
Tara Jean: Yeah. I think it’s important that for me, as I’ve been doing this, to remember what it felt like to be a 100% believer in the fundamental aspects of the Christian Church and in the Toronto Blessing movement. I was a child at the time, so I believed what adults told me. It was only when I got into my, well I guess about 16, but definitely into my twenties when I started going to college, where I started to maybe get alternative answers to some of the things that were happening, but I still never got to the root of, does magic exist in the world? Whether or not it’s God. Do miracles really happen? And I want to know when I get right down to the roots of these stories, is there anything unexplainable and I’m just so curious, and that’s where I’m coming at this podcast from, is from a great spirit of curiosity.
There are people who I interview who are believers, followers of this movement then and today, but I also talk to atheists. I talked to historians and religious professors, scientists. I want to make this as a safe space for everyone, but maybe not a comfortable space. We’re going to all hear opinions from different people that we maybe don’t agree with, but I’m hoping that, we can all just sort of sit in it together and learn from each other.
Jordan: How the heck do you go about finding out if magic exists?
Tara Jean: That’s a really great question. I think talking to people. Just talking to lots and lots of people. And as I hear their personal stories, I’m going to try to boil them right down to the guts of them. And then with respect, come to a conclusion.
And I think that’s Jordan, been one of the trickiest spots for me is if I’m hearing a story from someone that is so unbelievable, it’s making me roll my eyes, how do I welcome them to the show and still have them feel that this was a valuable experience for them? So I’m never making fun of anyone, but I do have to potentially consider that I’m going to come to some tough decisions in the end.
But there’s also this small hope in me because I want magic to exist. I want there to be something supernatural and mysterious about the world. There is a hope in me that maybe I will find one of these stories that I won’t be able to figure out what happened. And maybe that’s going to be enough.
Jordan: Well, as I mentioned before we introduced a little bit of your trailer in the intro to this podcast, I’m not a fan of organized religion, but I am fascinated by faith, and what I wanted to ask you about and maybe explore with you a little bit is at what point does organized religion end and cease to matter in this story? And at what point do the individual beliefs of the people who claim to be affected takeover?
Tara Jean: That is a tough question because it’s something definitely that I’ve brought to the table with this. I haven’t been to church since I was 16, that’s when I stopped going regularly, and I’ve always wondered what harm did that have to me. If I was taught that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. It’s the only way to secure any positive light in your afterlife. But that’s not true. I mean, I don’t know. It’s something I’m still unraveling now. I’m going to work it through as I move through this podcast, I do feel that that some people, when it comes to missionary work, and I speak about this in episode two, it does make me uncomfortable because it brings up topics of colonialism and racism and how white people think that they can be saviours in Africa. That stuff makes me uncomfortable, but what parts about my religious upbringing still work for me? Does any of it still work for me?
That’s what I’m going to try to find out.
Jordan: I want you to tell me a little bit, if you can, about the process of going from being a true believer who was so wrapped up in this movement and then stopping going to church at 16, as you said, what takes place in your mind? Because as you described, you were in the middle of what sounds like a really intense religious regimen.
Tara Jean: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was everything that my life was about. I went to the Christian school, not the public school. I was in church almost every single day of the week. And honestly, when I stopped going to church, it wasn’t because of theological reasons.
It was because I was 16, I was going to start having sex with my boyfriend who also went to the church. And I had this impression that if I started having sex, my youth pastor would be able to notice that we’d lost our virginity and I didn’t want to be embarrassed. But after years of not going to church and more of the theological resonance of my experience, when I started to consider that a little bit more, it was guilt.
Years and years and years of guilt and worry that because I wasn’t going to church anymore because I was having sex outside of marriage. Because I loved music from secular artists, meaning non-Christian artists, that this was all going to lead to me going to hell. But it was so fun that I was willing to sacrifice it.
And oh man, I can’t even tell you how long it took me to… it actually took until starting to build this podcast that I could start to sort of separate those feelings of guilt and see some of the positives that I got from my experience, and try to just take those positive things forward in isolation.
Jordan: Tell me about the process of reporting this story because beyond asking those big questions, you did a lot of on the ground footwork, and you went back to that church in Toronto 25 years later. What was happening?
Tara Jean: Yeah. It was a complete coincidence that the day that I started my research, when I went, ‘you know what, I think I might start researching this spiritual movement I was grown up in for answers’. Pretty quickly it evolved into, ‘I’m going to record this experience and share it in some way’, and eventually it turned into a full fledged podcast. But it was a complete coincidence that pretty much the day that I started my research, they had announced a 25th anniversary conference in Toronto. It was going to be attended by people who were there the very first night it broke out. Some of the major leaders, prophets, important people in this movement. And I thought, ‘I gotta go’. So I flew to Toronto and I spent four days interviewing people. I’m standing in a worship space for the first time in quite a long time, and seeing how that felt to me. And it’s all things that I reveal in my podcast.
Jordan: Tell me about that experience though, of talking to people in there and being back in that church. Give me a little taste of the sights and sounds that were still happening 25 years later.
Tara Jean: Yeah. I mean, even though they say that the Toronto blessing movement sort of had a window of 12 and a half years where it was mass conversions and claims of miracles and supernatural signs and wonders. It died down. There was still a group of people there in Toronto and around the world who still believed that God was carrying on this spirit of… revival is what we call it in the church. And when I went there, I was surprised that there was still that happening. Shaking and falling to the ground in the middle of a sermon. You can hear people wailing in the background.
It sounds like people are being put on torture devices and the speaker will just continue as if nothing is happening. And that is also, when people are on the, on the ground moaning like that, as I saw them do in Toronto during that conference, as I saw people and did myself when I was young, what’s happening to them on the floor?
That is something that I believe I do come to a conclusion to in one of my episodes and I was really happy that I came up with an answer that I hope is satisfying to believers and nonbelievers.
Jordan: You’re not going to spoil it for me, are you?
Tara Jean: Yeah, no way, dude. I will say that the way that the Christians describe what’s happening down there is God working on them and that could maybe, that kind of work could take place on the floor of a psychologist’s office as well. And that I think is something curious that leads me to a conclusion.
Jordan: I want to ask you some straight up questions right now. When you were peering into people’s mouths with the flashlight, were there gold teeth in there?
Tara Jean: Yes.
Jordan: Do you know where the gold teeth came from?
Tara Jean: I mean, one of the gold teeth that I saw wasn’t even a gold molar. It was in the shape of a cross on top of a molar. Anybody can look at them online. You can Google ‘Toronto blessing gold teeth’ and you’ll see. Press releases from the church during that time, photos that people have posted. And I look into some of the more high profile claims of gold teeth that were made by Christian televangelists in Canada during the nineties. I look at really personal claims, I’m trying to track down still people from my church who made those claims. Who were those people that stood in front of me and told me as a child that God had supernaturally placed these gold teeth in their mouth?
If it really happened, I want to know, and if it didn’t happen… I come to it softly, but I want them to be accountable for the things that they said, especially when there’s children like me in the room who were incredibly impressionable.
Jordan: What do you want people like me, who basically never spent any time in a church and who, when they hear that story about gold teeth, just immediately think it’s fake and these people are frauds. What do you want us to take from this story?
Tara Jean: I think what I’m taking from it already, and speaking with some of the people who have made personal, let’s say, gold teeth claims, is that for the most part, I haven’t come across anybody yet that I feel is a full out fraud.
Do you know what I mean? Like my husband always says that I’m a bit naive and maybe I’ll have a change of heart by the time I come to the conclusion of my podcast, but everyone that I’ve talked to, they honestly believe that this gold tooth was placed in there by God. Do they not know what work the dentist did in their mouth?
I don’t know. Some of them said they did. So I’m going to talk to dentists too. I just hope that people understand that I’m not trying to expose some kind of fraud or scandal. I want to get to the root of, and as you mentioned, just that curiosity about faith and belief. How can you convince yourself to believe something that maybe didn’t happen?
Maybe the answer is that it was because it was something supernatural or mysterious. I don’t know. I’m coming at it again with this spirit of curiosity, and I hope that it’s infectious.
Jordan: Now that you’ve done all this work and all this reporting, what do you think about the time that you spent in a church as a child?
Tara Jean: I used to be really angry about it. I was really angry about it until, I don’t know, maybe about six months into researching this. And I think educating myself about the history of revival in the church, and finding out about revivals from, you know, the 1800’s and revivals from turn of the century.
There was a massive revival similar to the one in Toronto that happened in Los Angeles in the early 19 hundreds and man, the similarities with what happened are incredible. And I think that that made me feel like, ‘oh, this is my history’. Maybe I don’t believe in everything that everyone did, but this is somehow a part of me.
And I’ve found some peace in that. And that anger that I had before about being raised to maybe believe things that weren’t true, has subsided a bit. And I think that that was helpful for me. I also think that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of people just like me who were raised in a church, who are questioning their faith, who just need a space to sort of consider it and talk about it.
I think that’s what Heaven Bent is going to do.
Jordan: Well, I can’t wait to listen to the first episode and the rest of them after that cause I want to know what conclusions you do draw. So thank you so much.
Tara Jean: Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan: Tara Jean-Stevens, host and creator of Heaven Bent. If you want to listen to Heaven Bent, you can find it wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find it at frequencypodcastnetwork.com. And of course you can find the big story at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryFPN and you can write to us by email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also of course, rate and review this podcast as well as Heaven Bent wherever you get podcasts and Apple and Google and Stitcher and Spotify, doesn’t matter. Check it out. Let us know what you think. Thanks for listening.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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