His unusual yearning to live in a country he would later call his home and make music on a scale greater than he ever imagined, brought the 30-year-old former Cleveland resident full circle with his dreams and his reality Down Under.
Music and a mystique surrounding Australia have been part of Dodson’s life since childhood. How the two would finally come together to fulfill his life became a constant source of joy and a personal blessing, according to the 2000 Bradley Central High School graduate.
Dodson said he first played the piano at New Friendship Baptist Church on Chatata Valley Rd. at the age of 6. “I played ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ To this day it is still my favorite hymn,” he said. “I grew up at New Friendship Baptist Church. I learned how to read notes out of the hymnal. Patti Kuhns was my music teacher for years as I was growing up.
“From there I learned music basics — scales, note reading. I remember throwing my lesson books across the room, shouting, ‘I hate music! I hate the piano!’ My parents, Tom and Judy, pushed me to stay in music lessons. I didn’t enjoy it then, but now I’m grateful they persisted.”
Dodson said Kuhns wanted to teach him how to play the blues, jazz and all the standard music.
“I remember telling her all I want to do is learn how to play for my church. Obviously, she wanted me to be a well-rounded musician. But I didn’t want to. All I wanted to do is learn how to read the music out of the hymnal,” he said. “So she taught me how to read notes off the page and then I started to play for New Friendship when I was 12.”
During this time, Dodson said he remembers watching Disney’s “The Rescuers Down Under” and saying to himself, “‘Australia — I want to go there someday.’ I don’t remember learning — even in school — anything particular about the country or knowing anything other than it was a land far, far away. But I’ve always had a bit of a draw to that country,” he said.
Around his mid-teens Dodson said he started going to Mount Olive Ministries, where he describes the music style there as “quite different from the Baptist style I grew up with. But being a musician, I was really drawn toward that more contemporary praise-and-worship style of music.”
Within a few weeks Dodson said he was playing the piano for the main church services, had joined the youth choir and gotten involved with the youth band.
“I was radically on fire for God in a very new way,” he said. “Pastor Gary Sears was absolutely key. He saw potential in a little country boy. I served there for eight years. It was one of the most defining seasons of my life.”
The mixture of faith-based music with his longing for Australia ignited when Dodson said he was given the responsibility to organize the music in the CD department of Cleveland’s White Wing Christian Book Store at the age of 15.
“I remember finding these live worship CDs from this church in Sydney called Hillsong Church,” he recalled. “It was contemporary style music and it was Australian! So I was like, ‘Wow!’ I remember watching a VHS tape in the back of that book store. I remember sitting on the floor in tears, saying, ‘One day I will go there. That’s where I need to be! I just knew it. I couldn’t see anything else except how do I get to where that sound of music and the sound of worship was coming out of that church. I felt absolutely compelled.”
Being so passionate about music for the church and yearning for a lifestyle Down Under, Dodson said he researched Hillsong Church on the Internet and discovered it has a Bible college — Hillsong International Leadership College.
“I remember being about 15 or 16 and getting a package from that college about how to enroll in Bible college,” he said. “You go there and study about whether you want to be a youth pastor, worship pastor or music director — I knew that was me. I thought, ‘This is how I can go!’ But I was only 16.”
After graduating from Bradley Central, Dodson said he was “sidetracked” by enrolling in Lee University.
“I did one year of pre-med at Lee. I didn’t finish. It was a bit of a compromise. I knew when I was 15 I wanted to go to Bible college in Sydney. But Lee was convenient because it was just down the road. My dream was fading.”
Not ready to give up, Dodson decided to visit Australia alone. In 2004 he attended the Hillsong Conference in a 25,000 seat auditorium. The message he heard was so personal and profound it changed his life.
“I was weeping. I said to myself I know I have to come back here. But I had bought a three-bedroom house in Cleveland. It was fully furnished. I was working at Cleveland Community Hospital for about five years. I had a car to sell and personal credit card bills. I had a lot of things happening.
“But that conference changed everything. I was praying to God about how do I get out of the mess I’m in — because I know that is where I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Although Dodson was accepted to Hillsong College that year, it would take him two more years to get there. He said he knew he was in a state of transition and wanted to “finish strong” at Mount Olive.
“Even though my mind and heart had turned elsewhere, my first strategy was to stay committed to what I was doing until my season was up,” Dodson said. “So I served at Mount Olive until the day I flew out. I worked at the hospital until the day before I left. I put my house on the market. I sold my car, moved into my dad’s basement and packed up my whole life.”
Dodson, who was part of Cleveland Emmaus, said numerous people joined in and sponsored him financially to help make his dream a reality.
“I went on a one-way plane ticket to Sydney on Jan. 16, 2006,” he said. “The college organized housing for all the new students.” Dodson said he has never regretted his decision. Although he is living his dream, he admits there were cultural differences he had to adjust to — all of which he happily embraced.
“I was fascinated by the cultural differences,” he said. “I wasn’t turned off by it. I went with a real open mind and open heart because I knew I was home. I was in a foreign country and didn’t know anyone, but I knew in my heart I was home.”
Dodson, who was born in Athens, said he did not isolate himself but planted himself in his church, making new friends and becoming part of a spiritual family.
“I met Katie, my wife, at Bible college in Sydney,” Dodson said. “It’s funny because she’s from Savannah, Ga. Her story is almost the same as mine. Our passion and conviction to go to that college came about in a very similar way. She just finished her master’s degree.”
Dodson admits, “the biggest adjustment was being away from family” who are 26 to 28 hours away by plane. He recently returned to Cleveland to visit family and friends.
“Until I flew in, I had not seen my family in nearly three years,” he said. “I had not seen them since my wedding day. That has been the hardest part. The way I adjust to that is that my wife, Katie, and I are part of an outstanding church family. We have people there we genuinely love the same as we do our actual families.”
As far as having any plans of returning to the States, Dodson confessed, “I don’t have a plan past Sydney. Katie and I are absolutely confident that we are in the middle of what we believe to be God’s will for us. Two years ago Katie and I were asked to come on staff with Hillsong Church full time.
“She is now coordinating the worship stream at the college and I am one of the music pastors working as project manager for Hillsong Music. I oversee the making of our worship CDs, DVDs and albums, which is what got me here in the first place!”
To date, all Hillsong live worship albums have achieved gold status in Australia, selling more than 12 million albums worldwide.
“I consider myself blessed to do what I do,” Dodson said. “I still play the piano for church at Hillsong every weekend and my wife is one of the worship leaders and lead vocals.”
Sporting an Australian accent and outback style, the former Clevelander said “I’ve learned that you become a product of your environment. I’ve lived there for six years. This is where I wanted to live. This is what I wanted to do. This is home.”
Sydney is Australia’s oldest and largest city with an international population of more than 4.6 million people.