The First Jesus Freak

A pot-smokin, LSD-droppin seeker turned Calvary Chapel into a household name. So why is Lonnie Frisbee missing from church history?

Connie and Lonnie Frisbee
Thirty-eight-year-old Di Sabatino never met the hippie preacher but kept hearing Lonnie Frisbee's name while doing research on the Jesus People movement for a planned book. As the author dug deeper into the many complex layers of Frisbee's life, he realized his story deserved something bigger than just another religious book "that'd be read by 100 to 200 people, including my parents." After 10 years of "sitting on the story" to make sure he'd nailed it, Di Sabatino recently unveiled an excellent new documentary, Frisbee:TheLifeandDeathofaHippiePreacher.

Frisbee was born and raised in Costa Mesa. His father ran off with a neighborhood woman when Lonnie was young. His brother claims Lonnie was molested by a baby sitter at age eight. He was always an excellent artist and something of a cut-up. He'd show up at Corona del Mar High School dances with his face painted half-black, half-white. He popped up in 1966 amid the dancers on TV's Shebang,Casey Kasem's West Coast version of Dick Clark's AmericanBandstand.

His mother eventually remarried a man with children of his own, but Lonnie did not get along with his stepfather or his blended family. He ran away from home at 15—the same year he and a buddy entered into the underground gay scene in Laguna Beach.

Frisbee was a natural-born leader who'd take small caravans of friends to Tahquitz Canyon outside Palm Springs, where everyone would smoke weed, get naked and drop acid. Like a lot of kids searching for meaning, Lonnie tried mysticism and the occult but found them unfulfilling. That led him to the Bible. During one Tahquitz Canyon excursion, after the usual turn-on/tune-in/drop-out ritual, Frisbee whipped out the Good Book and started reading the Gospel of John, the one about God not sending his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. By the time Frisbee was done, everyone was in tears. Lonnie led the tribe to Tahquitz Falls and baptized them.

He migrated to San Francisco and soon met up with a merry band of hippie Christians. They started their own street ministry out of a small Haight-Ashbury storefront. Pedestrians would pass through a gauntlet of freaks pushing drugs, Christ and Krishna. Frisbee's roommates say no matter how many seekers came through their door, they'd all eventually wind up huddled around Lonnie. One day, Frisbee decided he wanted to go back to Orange County, find a girl he knew and bring her back up to the Bay Area.

Like Lonnie, Connie Bremer had a troubled upbringing; to this day, she blames her mother for making her feel worthless. Bremer dabbled in drugs and prostitution to numb the pain. She appreciated that Lonnie made her feel special, wanted—although she says she never had romantic feelings toward him. They lived together for a year in a big house the hippie Christians shared in the Frisco suburb Novato, but she can't remember ever so much as holding his hand. She does remember one oddball she talked to for four straight days: Charlie Manson.

Despite their lack of physical intimacy, Frisbee told everyone he was going to marry Bremer. She rejected him first. She was among the very few people who knew of Lonnie's gay dalliances. Fuming at the rebuke, Frisbee stayed away from her. Bremer didn't think "I could be loved," but also did not want to feel rejection again, so she married Frisbee despite her misgivings.

Older members of the hippie Christ community tutored Frisbee, but he was drawn on his own to the Pentecostal philosophy, which is big on water baptisms and speaking in tongues as the first indicator the Holy Spirit is present. Frisbee came to believe that a deer-skin coat on which he'd painted Jesus' face could summon the Holy Spirit to heal and convert. He'd drape it over kids while assuring them he possessed "the Holy Ghost down to my toes."

Lonnie and Connie moved back to Orange County, and that fateful meeting with Smith came not long after. During his first testimony at Calvary, Frisbee mentioned he'd rejected the homosexual lifestyle. A star was born again.

The happenings that were
the Little Corona baptisms

As Lonnie's star rose, Connie's dimmed. She became lonelier than ever. She rarely saw her husband and felt like a slave. She was about ready to pack her bags when she confided in Smith. He told her that for someone with a gift like Frisbee's, God must come first, the ministry second and his family third—and that she'd just have to deal with it. But when Frisbee informed Florida pastor Bob Mumford about his marital problems, Mumford told him Smith had it all wrong, that Frisbee needed to get his house in order. The leader of the Shepherding movement, a Pentecostal offshoot that holds a central authority figure should decide what is right and wrong for their flock, Mumford offered Frisbee a job—but only if he would spend his first year on sabbatical "knitting" his relationship with Bremer. Frisbee gave his year. Then he moved back to California. Alone.

The Calvary folks felt betrayed by Frisbee's departure, and Smith had always had a problem with the whole Pentecostal thing. But he agreed over the phone to hire Frisbee back—in a reduced capacity. The former hippie preacher showed up to work looking totally different, with a styled haircut, a closely cropped beard and a three-piece suit. It didn't work. Frisbee decided to move on.

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