Working in a bar by day and hitting the dance floor at night, Robyne Ferri had left home in Tasmania for Los Angeles, the city of angels, but by her own account was being helped by evil forces.
She was so angry at God after her mother’s death from cancer that she decided she wanted nothing to do with being a Christian.
She embraced a drug-fuelled party lifestyle in Hollywood while trying to launch a career in dance or film.
But her attempt to “punish God” came to an abrupt end one Sunday afternoon in the back pew of a nondescript Catholic Church located at the city’s famous Venice Beach.
It had been two years since she’d last been to church, and not knowing that she should go to confession first, she caught a bus to the beachside Sunday evening Mass and received Communion. Returning to the pew, she knelt to pray.
“I can’t remember whether it was the voice I heard first or whether it was the physical experience,” she said, describing what happened next.
“I heard a voice and it resonated throughout my whole body and I knew instantly that it was God. I heard it so clearly in my being, it felt like it would have been audible throughout the church. Full of mercy and love and tenderness, it said, ‘This is your home Robyne, this is where you belong. Come back home.’”
“At the same time I had a feeling of something like a waterfall of mercy and love gushing onto me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.
“And I heard the voice again say the same words and I knew that I did not deserve that unconditional love but that it was being offered to me absolutely.”
The memory still brings tears to her eyes many years later.
“Needless to say, I started sobbing my eyes out,” she smiled, reaching for a handkerchief.
“It was a very blessed, grace-filled moment. I didn’t want it to end.”
Walking back for nearly an hour to the apartment she stayed in, she talked to God all the way home.
“I said I have tried everything, I’ve tried drugs, relationships, different careers, different countries and nothing has worked or given me anything like what I’ve experienced in the church just now.
“It’s a process of elimination; God—now I’m going to try you.”
Robyne was 19 when her mother died, a Catholic who befriended the town’s outcasts and invited them to spend Christmas Day in their home.
“She didn’t have the best Catholic formation but she was a practicing Catholic and she wanted to do literally what Jesus said in the Bible,” said Robyne.
“When she passed away I said to God, if you can let that happen to a woman who was a saint, then I want nothing to do with being Christian.”
Robyne plunged into a lifestyle of drug and alcohol use, dressing immodestly and flirting with boys in nightclubs.
In her early 20s she won first prize in a state-wide nightclub dance competition and used the cash to move to LA and try to get a break in either dance or film in Hollywood.
The lively, dark-eyed Italian Aussie quickly made an impression, making VIP lists of trendy nightclubs and appearing as a dancer on a top 90s dating show on MTV called Singled Out.
“There would be these long queues for the nightclubs the celebrities went to and they’d go ‘Oh Robyne, come through!’ and I’d flick my hair and go in,” she said.
“I was making all these connections and doors were opening up for me which was all very exciting in a worldly way, but I see it as being helped by evil forces,” she said.
“I was introduced to a [drug] dealer and I would call him up but strangely there were occasions when something would just stop him.
“One day he rings up and says, ‘Robyne, I have not one flat tyre, I have three flat tyres,’ and I hung the phone up and looked up and said, ‘I know that’s you God.’ I was so angry.”
When she returned to Australia it was clear that something big had changed in her as she devoured everything she could on Catholicism, joined parish ministry and developed a strong daily prayer life.
“My older sister said ‘What happened to Robyne? She went overseas and Mother Teresa came back,’” she laughed.
Now she is evangelisation and formation coordinator at St Aloysius of Gonzaga in Cronulla and a co-founder of Anima, a Melbourne Catholic women’s network.
Robyne has also ministered in parishes and schools as a member of the Youth Mission Team, studied Catholic theology, given talks and organised retreats for adults.
She’s writing a book drawing on her own experiences, has launched a website offering “faith life coaching” and hopes to help others to deepen their relationship with God.
“There’s so much work to do, so many millions of people who need God, and I want to spend my life bringing people to the Lord.
“For me there’s no greater joy than doing that,” she said.