By Jay Rogers
Published April 4, 2008
“The day after I gave my life to Jesus Christ, I realized that I had just put out a contract on a man to have his legs broken, and now I had to do something to stop this from happening!”
Johnny Cammarata grew up in the North End of Boston, the city’s Italian section. “Everybody was poor,” Johnny remembers. “In those days, every kid did something to raise a dollar – shining shoes, selling newspapers, or selling orange crates to guys playing dice games. When you got the money you gave it to your family. Everybody did something in order to help the family survive.”
In the North End of Boston, organized crime was a part of the life of the Sicilian community. Johnny, along with every other young person in the neighborhood, looked to those higher up in the Mafia organization with respect.
“We used the term ‘don’ for the leaders of the community,” explains Johnny. “There were many figureheads in the neighborhood and they were respected. If you live in an atmosphere filled with gangsters, that’s what you want to be a part of when you grow up – to have money and drive fancy cars – and have power. The respect that they had came from fear. With one word they could break your legs or even have you killed. I wanted to have that power and be feared because I grew up in that environment.”
Most people are familiar with the Mafia through movies like The Godfather which was compiled from different stories about different “dons” around the country. According to Johnny Cammarata, this is an accurate picture of what the Mafia was like.
“But that’s big stuff,” Johnny says, “That was about the heads of the Mafia families. What we were into down here was the bottom part of the families. The word ‘Mafia’ describes one family. Gangsters, bank robbers, racketeers and guys who were robbing trucks were not a part of the Mafia – but at the same time there was a lot of truth in that movie.”
Today most of the heads of these families are in jail. Johnny realizes that he escaped this fate by the miraculous grace of God. “They got so powerful, they got so rich, they got everything they wanted, and the rest of their life they spend in a jail,” comments Johnny on some of the people who grew up in his neighborhood.
Johnny knew everybody in the North End’s Mafia and was involved with bookmaking, dealing stolen goods, and many other small time rackets operating out of his barber shop on Hanover Street. One time he even received money from a man who wanted someone’s legs broken. A father in the community was furious with a man who was living with his daughter and who had insulted his family. Johnny arranged to have two men from South Boston break this man’s legs with a baseball bat.
It was during this time that God drastically intervened in this situation changing both Johnny’s life and the life of the North End community forever.
Johnny and his friend, Tony Manupelli, had been hungry to know about God and had been meeting with a Catholic priest in Johnny’s basement once a week to discuss salvation history.
“But we got nothing out of it,” says Johnny. “He would talk to us and we would just sit there and listen. But we had another friend, Tony Sarni, who had moved out to the suburbs and had become a Christian. He had told us about Jesus before, but we weren’t ready to make a decision. About four years later, however, he came back and what he said sounded interesting, so I invited him over for coffee that night.”
The night of January 3rd, 1979, Johnny Cammarata, Tony Manupelli, their wives, and some other friends listened to Tony Sarni and his wife, Michelle, tell them about a personal relationship with Jesus.
Tony Manupelli remembers this night well, “This woman, Michelle Sarni, had such a glow in her face that we didn’t know what was going to happen. When she opened her mouth she spoke – we know now – the Word of God.”
“And we just sat there,” adds Johnny, “with our mouths open, looking at this woman with a glow on her face telling us about Jesus. Our ears were opened for the first time. The Holy Spirit filled the room that night and we both got hit. It was unbelievable! It was our turn – it was our day to get zapped. We accepted Jesus Christ in our lives and we were changed – our whole minds, our thoughts – everything about us was like a new creation.”
Michelle had told the group that they should all get Bibles and begin to read the Word of God. Having never owned a Bible before, Johnny suggested that they should get a few of the small pocket Bibles he had seen nuns carry. “That way I could read the Bible when I had nothing to do in the barber shop and when someone came in I could put it away. All the people in the North End knew what I was involved in – ‘And now you’re reading a Bible! – Come on! – You’ve flipped out! – You’re crazy! – You’re soft! – That guy snapped! – He hit the wall!’ So I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
The next day, God confirmed what had happened the night before by providing Johnny with a sign. Early in the morning, as Johnny was cutting hair in his barber shop, a drunk walked in and asked, “Hey, where’s Johnny?” Johnny turned around to see a bum – a Scollay Square drunk.
“I’m Johnny,” he said.
This man, who looked like he’d been sleeping in the gutter, reached out his hand and said, “I’ve got something for you.” He handed Johnny three little black Bibles like the ones he had described to Tony.
Chills came all over Johnny and he asked, “Wait a minute – did Tony send you here?”
The man said, “No,” and walked out into the street muttering something about finding a drink.
Johnny had never seen this man before and he never saw him again, but this incident was beyond a mere coincidence. Johnny called Tony on the telephone and said, “Tony, I got the Bibles and you’re never going to believe how I got them!”
This was just the first proof of many that showed Johnny and Tony that Jesus was alive. “We were thick-headed Sicilians,” Johnny explains. “You couldn’t just tell me that there was a God unless I had a personal touch. You had to show me.”
After this incident, Johnny suddenly remembered a disturbing fact. Just a few days before he had paid 500 dollars to have a man’s legs broken. He called Tony Sarni and told him what he had done. Tony told him, “Pray on it.”
“This was the first time I had ever heard this expression – ‘Pray on it,’” says Johnny. “But I prayed: ‘Please God don’t let this happen.’”
When Johnny called the man who paid the money and told him that he was a born-again Christian and had to stop what they were doing, the man said, “Please Johnny – just this once – I’ll even double the money. I’ll give you a thousand dollars!”
For about two weeks, Johnny tried desperately to stop the men he had paid. Finally, one of the men came to him saying, “Johnny, here’s your 500 dollars! You don’t know what’s going on here!” For about two weeks these men had repeatedly tried to break this man’s legs but to no avail.
The first time they waited at the man’s house for him, but at the right moment a police car drove up. Another time a garbage truck came by – another time a girl walked by. There were so many interruptions that it took two weeks until they finally had a perfect opportunity. When they finally had the man cornered in an alley, the younger partner went to attack with a baseball bat, but fell to the ground crying, “My heart!” He thought he was having a heart attack!
Every time for two weeks when they had an opportunity to break this man’s legs, there was a strange interruption of some kind. Johnny told the man what was happening. “I became a Christian and I’ve been praying for God to stop this.”
Johnny gave the girl’s father his money back and this time they prayed for the girl. The situation worked out well when the girl moved back home and was reconciled with her family. Her father was convinced of the reality of Jesus Christ as well and prayed with Johnny to accept Jesus as Lord.
“After this experience the Lord began to clean up my life,” remembers Johnny. “But it’s funny how the devil works. As soon as I got born-again, he threw everything he had at me. I started to get furs coming into my house – minks and diamonds. I had to refuse some things I could have made some serious money on. But God began to clean up my life one thing at a time. That’s the way the Lord works – ‘Come to me the way you are’ – and he cleaned up my whole life.”
In the meantime, Tony and Michelle Sarni had been testifying to their church, Natick Assembly of God, about everything that had been happening in the North End. This greatly pleased many of them since there were a group of Italians in that church who had been praying for the North End for many years. The church agreed to let Michelle go out to the North End each week to hold meetings in Johnny Cammarata’s basement cellar.
She began to come out every week as they held “cellar meetings” and the group began to grow one or two people at a time. This went on for two years until the group grew to 30-40 people. They began to become known in the community as the “cellar people” and soon began to attract attention. Johnny’s cellar soon became too small to hold the growing group and they had to move to another cellar. People were added and they grew to 50-60 people as Michelle taught them how to praise and worship God and taught them the Word of God.
The First Miracles
When the word got out that there was a group of Christians in the North End who prayed for the sick to be healed and believed the Bible, Johnny began to be approached by many people. “This was the first time this ever happened to me,” Johnny remembers. “Formerly, I had people come into the barber shop to have legs broken and to buy hot stuff. Now I had people come in to ask for prayer!”
A Catholic priest named Father Robert sent a man into Johnny’s barber shop to ask the cellar group to pray for his wife who was about to have an operation to remove a cancerous tumor. Soon after they prayed, this man’s daughter called Johnny on the telephone in tears: “They sent my mother home from the hospital. There’s nothing wrong with her!”
This was the first miracle that the cellar group had witnessed and it sparked their fervency into a hotter flame. Soon they began praying up a storm as people began to be healed of sicknesses and they witnessed several miracles. Every week, Michelle testified to her church in Natick of more works that Jesus had done through this group in the North End.
The greatest miracle they witnessed concerned a boy named Teddy who was dying of leukemia. Teddy had been undergoing chemotherapy and had sores all over his hands and was losing all his hair. He had been to many doctors and the diagnosis was the same -it was just a matter of time for Teddy.
In desperation, the boy’s father came to Johnny, “I’ve been to many doctors. I’ve prayed to Saint Luke and I’ve prayed to Saint Anthony – I’ve tried everything!”
Johnny told him, “Well, we have a Jesus who can save your son.”
Johnny told him to bring Teddy down to the cellar and they would pray for him. The boy’s father was willing to try anything and he brought his son back each week to hear the Word of God and to be prayed for. Teddy was drained from the radiation treatment; he would shake during the meetings. He couldn’t talk; all he could do was come and sit and listen. The cellar group baptized Teddy and slowly, over a period of time, the sores on his hands disappeared and his hair grew back as the leukemia went into a stage of remission.
“Today I give him haircuts,” says Johnny; and Tony adds, “Here’s the punchline – he was supposed to be sterile from the chemotherapy, but today he is alive and well. He was totally healed from leukemia and is married and has three kids!”
The cellar group learned that miracles are for today. Many of them had been brought up to believe that miracles were a major thing – not for little people. Many of them had believed that not all the stories in the Bible were true. But as they prayed and believed, miracles came to pass. They learned that the whole Bible was true – if they read something in the Bible, they believed it and expected the same thing to happen to them.
After a few years of meeting in the cellar, they had had Catholic priests and Protestant pastors come down into the meetings either to check them out or to try to steal from the flock. Michelle had protected them from this, having discerned wrong intentions on the part of a few people who visited their meetings.
They decided to leave the cellar and start meeting in St. Stephens church in the North End, which is one of the historic Congregational meeting houses in the city of Boston. The building was now owned by the Catholic Church, but they were allowed to meet there under the supervision of Father Robert.
“Here we were – Christians going into a Catholic church to conduct our ‘Protestant’ services,” says Tony. “Father Robert would say a short Catholic Mass and we would conduct a service.”
By holding meetings in a church building on Hanover Street, the group experienced another surge of growth. Every Thursday night for two years, they met in St. Stephens church attracting crowds of 200-300 people.
“We got so big,” remembers Johnny, “that we had more people in a night service than that church had in over a month of services. Many people were coming in and being touched by God.”
“After a while, there was no Mass any more,” says Tony, “because the priest that started it didn’t want to be a part of it any more. They still allowed us in the church for a while, but when we started to have guest speakers come in – Pentecostal speakers – with no priests around, we were asked to leave. Now we were on our own.”
They met briefly in another Catholic church on Hanover Street and again were abruptly asked to leave. “The mystery part of it,” explains Johnny, “was how we used those Catholic churches to conduct our services to begin with. And we grew so big that it bothered them.”
The group moved to a cafeteria, then to the basement of Christopher Columbus High School, then to a building on the waterfront called The Bath House. During this time the group had dwindled down to a core of about 50 people. Some people who were attracted to the Catholic Charismatic movement left when the group stopped saying Masses. Others left and became a part of the several Pentecostal and Charismatic churches which were being formed in the Boston area at that time.
Catholic or Protestant?
Johnny Cammarata remembers a question of great concern for many North End Italians who were experiencing a new life in Jesus Christ. “Now we weren’t Catholic … but we weren’t Protestant either. We would just say, ‘I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.’ Down deep inside it was like giving up your family to say that you weren’t Catholic anymore. It was a hard, hard thing.”
Tony Manupelli remembers this conflict also: “That was a big stand to take when you finally had to come out and say, ‘Hey wait a minute, I’m not Catholic.’ You just didn’t do that in the North End.”
“We didn’t want a label,” says Johnny. “We just knew that Christ was alive; Christ was healing; Christ changed our whole life. I don’t want to stand under a banner. I don’t want to be labelled as Catholic, Protestant, Assembly of God, or Nazarene … that’s what turned me off to religion in the first place. When I was growing up, I had to go along with whatever the Catholic Church said … whether it was right or wrong. So we stood as Christians.”
For years the group had been praying that God would send them a pastor. Now the need was more apparent than ever. They recognized that they should have their own church. Although there were several leaders, including Michelle, who had emerged in the last four years from a solid core group, they now began to feel that God wanted them to have a pastor.
The search for a pastor continued as the group began to interview many people. They no longer looked to Michelle as a leader although she became a valuable resource as they began to look into her denomination, the Assemblies of God, for a pastor. Michelle was able to set up a meeting between her pastor, Jack Mitchell; the District Superintendent of Southern New England, Hugh Corey; and Johnny and Tony. About seven or eight of the leaders of the group, now known as “Hesed,” went out to the meeting.
“We were about a half hour late,” remembers Tony. “They told us about a pastor from Missouri who had expressed a desire to come to Boston. The only stipulation was that we would be required to find housing for him and to pay for his moving expenses. This was all new to us – ‘Pay his ticket?!’ – We just rejected the whole idea. We came across as prideful and then we left.”
Hugh Corey and Pastor Jack just looked at each other and decided after talking that these people weren’t ready for a pastor. Michelle was hurt by the terrible way that the group had presented themselves. They were supposed to be open to anything that was offered to them. Instead, Tony told Michelle, “Look – if the Lord wants this guy to come up from Missouri – whoever he is – then the Lord will make a way.”
Meanwhile, Tom Hinton, the pastor from Missouri who had the burden for the city of Boston, began to raise his own support. After several months, he sold his home, packed up his belongings and moved his family to Boston. He found an apartment through a realtor which happened to be in the North End just a few blocks away from Johnny’s barber shop.
Tom began to walk the streets of Boston while praying for the city. He opened himself to the Holy Spirit’s leading and one day he walked into a barber shop for a hair cut. There are probably between 10-15 barber shops in the North End, yet Tom came straight to Johnny Cammarata and sat in his chair.
As the two introduced themselves, Johnny began to cut Tom’s hair. As they talked, Tom noticed a picture of Jesus hanging on Johnny’s wall next to the mirror.
“Are you a Christian?” Tom asked.
“Yeah,” replied Johnny.
“Well I’m a pastor,” explained Tom. “I just moved here from Missouri and I have a burden for this city. I’ve been thinking about pioneering – I want to plant a church right here in the heart of Boston.”
“Really?” asked Johnny, and then he thought for a moment. “Wait a minute – You’re from Missouri and you have a burden for Boston?”
“Do you know Pastor Jack Mitchell and Hugh Corey?”
“Yes,” replied Tom.
“You’ve got to be kidding me – Did Hugh Corey ever tell you about a group of Christians in Boston who were looking for a pastor?”
“Yes,” said Tom, “Something like that a while ago, but that fell through.”
“I don’t believe it! … You’re the same guy! … We’re the same people Hugh Corey told you about!”
Johnny was soon on the telephone, “Tony! You’re never going to believe it! Guess who the Lord sent into my barber shop?!”
That night, Hesed was having a Bible study at Tony’s house. It was apparent to most of them that Tom Hinton was the answer to their prayers. After much discussion they decided to dissolve the group, Hesed, and become a part of Tom’s new church.
The Boston Worship Center
Today there is a thriving spirit-filled church in the heart of Boston. Tom Hinton started a church in the Marriott hotel on Boston’s waterfront. The favor that Tom had with Hesed came from the fact that they believed that God had sent him to Boston. God had used Tom to build His church.
“When I look back and see the plan of God,” explains Johnny, “it gives me chills just seeing how God had a hand in all of this – from the first day in that cellar, all the way up to The Boston Worship Center. I can’t wait 10 years from now to see how far we have come.”
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” explains Tony. “Ten years ago there was nothing. Now you look at a church of over a hundred people right in the heart of the community.”
Eventually the church moved into a building on Salutation Street called the Children’s Haven, a Baptist mission for children. Ann Kiemel Anderson, the author of several inspirational books, had a burden for inner city children and used the earnings from her books to renovate the Children’s Haven and pay the staff’s salary.
Ann Kiemel Anderson was another instrument used of God to build this church. She was able to raise a lot of money for the building that the Boston Worship Center eventually bought and now meet in. Today, people come from all over the city to meet and worship God. Many people have been saved in this church and have been sent out to be instruments of God and further advance His kingdom in other places.
“Every time people come,” says Johnny, “they say the same thing: ‘I feel a warmth here – I feel love – I feel beautiful here.’ Every time we’ve had services, we’ve always had that warmth. From the first time we saw the glow on Michelle’s face until today there has always been that feeling of love. The church’s motto became, ‘The Church with a Heart.’”
“It’s an awesome thing to see God’s plan for the North End,” Johnny reflects, “and to see how he uses guys like Tony and I. But this is a plan that God has made and it’s beautiful, beautiful thing to be a part of this plan.”
Johnny freely admits: “If I wasn’t born-again I’d be in jail today. Considering the things I was involved in and the ambitions I had to be a part of organized crime, I would surely be in jail. The leaders of the Mafia in the North End are all in jail today. They got so big and so powerful, but where did they end up? If you stay alive, you end up in jail. What kind of a human being do you become? You go behind bars and live like an animal.”
Today, in the North End there are no more Mafia dons. Gangsters are a thing of the past. But Johnny Cammarata’s life is evidence that God can touch one person and then use him to raise up a church and change a community.
See also: The Boston Awakening
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