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?

John Wimber, a former Quaker, boozer and chain-smoker, led the tiny Calvary Chapel of Yorba Linda. He met Frisbee at a pastor conference, and both men shared a sense of the possibilities of the Pentecostal movement. Frisbee also viewed the older, teddy bear of man as another father figure. At the Mother's Day 1980 church service, Frisbee ordered everyone 21 and under to come to the front of the stage. Witnesses claim that as soon as the kids got next to Frisbee, they fell to the floor, whipped into frenzy in the presence of the spirit of the Lord. Some churchgoers marched out in disgust over the spectacle. But Wimber had been praying to see God's presence. The next day, he appeared before church elders to explain what happened. Before he could finish his defense, Frisbee burst into the room, walked straight to the angriest elder and screamed, "You need to have the experience of God!" The elder shook uncontrollably, fell to the floor and rolled around.

Wimber left Calvary and, with founder Kenn Gulliksen, expanded Vineyard Church. Wimber parlayed his experiences with Frisbee into a new philosophy, "Signs and Wonders" or the public spreading of miracles. Smith later mocked "Signs and Wonders" in a book titled Charismavs.Charismania.But Wimber and Frisbee were in demand worldwide. Vineyards sprouted everywhere. Everyone wanted to know when Frisbee would preach.

But his Vineyard stay was short. It's unclear how long Wimber, who died in 1997, had been on to Frisbee's secret. Chuck Smith Jr. says he was having lunch with Wimber one day when he asked how the pastor reconciled working with a known homosexual like Frisbee. Wimber asked how the younger Smith knew this. Smith said he'd received a call from a pastor who'd just heard a young man confess to having been in a six-month relationship with Frisbee. Wimber called Smith the next day to say he'd confronted Frisbee, who openly admitted to the affair and agreed to leave. But there are indications Wimber was already having Frisbee tailed before the lunch with Smith.

Frisbee sported a preacher's collar in the later years. He still had the power to draw crowds, but his sermons had turned bitter. "I need to tell you I moved in big circles," he told one audience, "with big Bozos."

Bitterness they could take. But when AIDS was cited as the cause of Frisbee's death in 1993, these men of God turned on the machinery of hate. There were too many witnesses, too many preachers around the world who'd credited Frisbee with setting them on their ministerial paths to simply discount his gift. Stories spread that he'd hypnotized people all along. He was trashed in a 1997 book titled CounterfeitRevival.Evangelicals knew better than anyone how easily the public would accept Frisbee as just another disgraced preacher. It even gave birth to a new philosophy that deemed any "sexual problem" like Frisbee's as the worst sin of all, worse even than murder.

Now comes Di Sabatino's one-hour, 45-minute documentary—filled with rare footage, an amazing soundtrack and more revelations than you can fit in, well, the Book of Revelations—to set the record straight. Frisbee should be remembered not as the ultimate sinner, the filmmaker believes, but rather the modern-day equivalent of flawed biblical figures such as Samson, King David or John the Baptist. Or Robert Duvall's preacher in TheApostle.

Frisbee:TheLifeandDeathofaHippiePreachershows a nationally recognized theologian admitting that—without a doubt—Frisbee was at the root of the mammoth growth of two of the largest evangelical Christian denominations to emerge in the past 30 years. Gulliksen, the Vineyard co-founder, and other insiders appear onscreen to confirm that Frisbee has been unjustly written out of Calvary's and Vineyard's church histories.

"I think when we go to heaven, Lonnie won't be the one who was held to account," says David Owen, pastor of Malibu Christian Center. "We are going to be held to account for the way we treated a brother."

But the unlikeliest hero to emerge in the film is Chuck Smith Jr.

"Lonnie's misfortune is he got caught," says Junior, Capo Beach Calvary Church's pastor, "because there are a lot of charismatic homosexual ministers—right now. We need to find a way in the body of Christ to find and love these people and minister."

And on Frisbee's bitterness: "I think he was entitled to it. I think my dad and John [Wimber] were like father figures, but fathers who rejected him. That had to be very painful for him, and I think it is part of the tragedy of his life. . . . My dad says these hippies had nowhere to go. You can say that about drug-dealing, free-sex, rock-&-roll hippies but not say that about homosexuals?If the church says to anyone, 'You can't come here,' where are they supposed to go to find Jesus?"

Smith Jr.'s frankness did not surprise Di Sabatino. "He is one of the bright lights of that movement," he said. "He knows his dad is a good man who has done a lot of good things. In this instance, he knows his dad has to come to the fore and say, 'I failed Lonnie in some respects.' So does Greg Laurie. So do they all."

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