'Postmodern' pastor digs rock 'n' roll, loathes religion, but loves Jesus

John Cavell, an articulate, leather-jacketed senior pastor at Echo Mountain Church, one of a handful of Valley pastors who embrace a postmodern approach, says the city is saturated with conservatism. "Christian" to him is a dirty word. "It ["Christian"] is full of all these negative stereotypes. I've always been embarrassed by a lot of Christians. You know, that 'Toupeed Christianity.' When you watch TV, how often do you see somebody who believes in Christ, let alone a pastor, who isn't just a total idiot? The closest thing on TV to a realistic portrayal is that show 7th Heaven. And even they need a better consultant."

"Once in a while, I use the word "Christians" in terms of talking about people, but usually it's in a negative sense," he continues. "I talk about being a child of God. I talk about those of us who believe in Christ, who've accepted God's forgiveness. I tend to qualify it more and say, 'Here's what I mean.'"

"Say the word 'Christian,' and immediate judgments apply," says Szakonyi. "What we are supposed to be is loving and open-minded, full of joy and humor. If you say you're a Christian immediately, what would somebody think? They'd think that you're judgmental, a tight-ass, sheltered, white, middle- or upper-middle-class. I tell people I'm a follower of Christ, that I'm a believer in Christ."

Heaven up here: Spy in the Land's Jeff Szakonyi, flanked by wife Alisha against his 1977 El Dorado.
Paolo Vescia
Heaven up here: Spy in the Land's Jeff Szakonyi, flanked by wife Alisha against his 1977 El Dorado.

Tom Beaudoin, a Catholic theologian, says in his book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X that Xers are distrustful of institutions, particularly organized religion.

"I don't wanna be religious," says Szakonyi. "I really struggled with that. Who wants religion? I want new life. There's an interest in the spirituality; there's no interest in organized church. Forget the institutions, let's talk about God, let's talk about Jesus.

Szakonyi came out of a "poor, white-trash neighborhood" outside Chicago with limited opportunity and no spirituality. His real father vanished before he was old enough to remember, and his mother left him with his stepdad when he was in kindergarten. He describes himself in those days as a deep-thinking loner who never went to church.

"When I grew up into my teens and 20s, I was just really out of control. I was looking for ways to mask the pain. I lived a highly sexualized early 20s. I had an influence of my stepfather: I was taught love is sex."

He got into weight lifting, drinking and women. He became a professional body builder and later, a personal fitness trainer. Then came the road to enlightenment.

In 1985, Szakonyi was driving through the country with some friends. One night, they stopped at a bar in Spearfish, South Dakota, and Szakonyi mixed it up with one of the locals. Everything got crazy, and he soon found himself outside. His foe hopped in his truck and ran him over. Szakonyi got caught in the truck's underside and was dragged 60 feet over harsh road. He wound up in a Rapid City hospital going in and out of consciousness for nearly a month. His left kneecap was torn off, as was half his calf. He says it was the muscle bulk from body building that saved his life.

The redneck motorist got off.

"I lost all faith in the court system, in the hospital system, in everything. Before the accident, I was pro-American, a loving-the-Fourth-of-July kinda guy all the way."

The experience left in him an aftertaste that made him a believer.

"I believe that night was a battle for my soul, because as I laid in the street bleeding -- it was 30 minutes for the ambulance to get there -- I said, 'God, don't let me die.'"

Szakonyi became a regular at Willow Creek megachurch in Chicago. He worked with orphans on a mission trip to Haiti, only to return with a heady case of typhoid. He volunteered to go to Bellevue, Washington, where he produced worship services and did high school ministry. He landed in Salt Lake City in 1995 as a co-pastor at a GenX church called New Song. He studied theology at a Utah seminary.

Now he looks around Phoenix and sometimes scratches his head, wondering. Before the ministry was up and running, Szakonyi was working as a handyman in Scottsdale.

"I don't know why God brought us here, but this is where we are supposed to be. But there's no community here."

Or at least no community at his crib.

Szakonyi shares a cozy, California-bungalow-style home in the Coronado with his wife Alisha and the couple's 12-week-old daughter, Caden. Alisha is the daughter of It's a Beautiful Day founder and violinist David LaFlame and is a singer-songwriter who performs at ministry functions.

However, the scene ain't always cozy. A slumlike property across from the Szakonyis' home was, until recently, occupied by washouts who made life hell for the family. Threats to kill the family dogs and sexual innuendoes toward Alisha came often.

"These guys were smoking pot out front, blaring their music all the time, and drinking. The kids were running around, not going to school. One day, I asked them not to scream at the top of their lungs. And I asked them all to keep it down. They found out I was a pastor, and so they burned Bibles in front of my house. One day, one of the cops looked at me and said, 'I'm surprised you haven't kicked these guys' asses.' I said, 'I'm a pastor!' He says, 'So what!'"

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