The First Jesus Freak
Lonnie Frisbee put the freak in Jesus freak.With his long brown hair, long craggily beard, dusty clothing, scent of Mary Jane and glint of his last LSD trip in his eyes, he showed up out of nowhere, at the height of the '60s, literally on Chuck Smith's doorstep.
Smith was just another conservative Orange County pastor. He'd moved from a small church in Corona to an even smaller one in Costa Mesa, yet had impressively boosted membership from three people to more than 200.
According to a scratchy recording of Smith's voice in a new documentary, the pastor would look at "dirty hippies" and wonder, "Why don't you take a bath?" But his front-porch meeting with Frisbee in 1968 was awash in the wonderful coincidences Christians point to as proof of God working in mysterious ways. The hippie was fresh off an LSD-juiced vision in which God told him he'd turn hordes of young people on to Christ. Smith's wife, Kay, had just had a vision of her own: that her husband's church would reach out to those damn (but not necessarily damned) dirty hippies. "I turned and saw the tears streaming down her face," Smith says on the recording, "and I could see she was praying." So he asked his daughter's boyfriend to pull a random hippie off the street, bring him to the pastor's home and let him get inside the Flower Child mindset. Along Fair Drive in Costa Mesa, the boyfriend picked up a hitchhiker with flowing brown hair, flowing scraggily beard and a Bible clutched against his dusty shirt. The random hippie was Lonnie Frisbee.
Before long, the two men bonded. Despite his misgivings about hippie hygiene, Smith was always fascinated by the peace-and-love rhetoric. And this kid's Bible knowledge impressed him. Frisbee saw in Smith a much-desired father figure. They went on to stand side by side off Little Corona beach, dunking thousands of young people in the chilly waters for the most informal and joyous of baptisms. At his Calvary Chapel, Smith taught about the End Times on Monday nights and Frisbee packed in the hippies on Wednesday nights. Church membership skyrocketed. Young people around the land heard about "the hippie preacher in Costa Mesa" who was goofy, brusque and looked as if he's just walked out of the Bible. "People say I look like Jesus," he once said, "and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather look like."
He peppered his testimonies with "far out" and "we're blowing people's minds." Witnesses say Frisbee blew their minds by walking into large crowds, yelling, "Jesus" and suddenly being surrounded by strangers. He'd stop random people on the street and engage them in gentle conversation; pretty soon, they were having long one-on-ones about God. A conservative-Christian intellectual swears that when he was a young man, he saw Lonnie—like Jesus—actually make a blind man see. They call that being "anointed" by God.
His ministries enrolled thousands of kids. Some were so turned on they'd soon set out to become preachers themselves; many today are evangelical pastors at churches around the world. Timeand Lifemagazines ran cover stories in 1971 on the so-called Jesus People—known in less polite circles as Jesus Freaks; words and images of Frisbee figured prominently in both. People would yell out his name when he walked the streets of Denmark, South Africa and Great Britain.
Lonnie left after about four years as Calvary's unofficial youth pastor and, after a brief time in the Shepherding movement, wound up at the soon-to-become Vineyard Church of Yorba Linda. Same thing happened there: his presence sparked a worldwide movement. Calvary and Vineyard have each propagated about 1,000 churches across the planet. Along for the ride in the early years was Greg Laurie, who was so taken by his mentor Lonnie that he'd dress in the same David Crosby-style faded leather jacket with fringe hanging off the arms. Laurie is more conservatively attired these days as he leads Riverside's Harvest Church, whose annual Harvest Crusades pack stadiums nationwide like mainstream rock tours.
But if you were to take a look at the written histories of Calvary, Vineyard and Harvest, you'd find barely any—if any—mention of Lonnie Frisbee. Vineyard doesn't even cite him by name, referring only to "the young man." Three local Christians I've asked about the original hippie preacher at Calvary assumed I was referring to Smith, as if the bald-headed Christian firebrand had been the preacher with the flowing brown mane in those old news photos. Mentioning Lonnie to Laurie is said to be verboten.
Besides inciting excitement, Frisbee could be volatile, argumentative and disrespectful toward authority. But that is not what has made him the invisible man of God. Turns out he was a special kind of sinner. Christians could overlook his past drug use, but at age 17—the year he accepted Christ—Lonnie was already immersed in Laguna Beach's gay scene. He succumbed to AIDS in 1993 at age 43.
"It's like John the Baptist walked through Southern California," says Lake Forest historian David Di Sabatino, "and nobody wants to talk about him because he died of AIDS."
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.
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."
Smith Sr. did come forward to give a eulogy at Frisbee's March 17, 1993, funeral at Crystal Cathedral. It's a gripping moment in the film. Leaning stiffly against the podium, his body language suggesting smugness to some, the pastor says that when his wife told him of Lonnie's death, the first thing out of his mouth was "Samson—a man who knew the powerful anointing of God's light. What could have been . . . a man who never experienced the ultimate of the potential. I often wondered what could have been."
The film then cuts to Lonnie's ex, Connie, who says she had to be restrained. "I couldn't believe someone could be so arrogant and misunderstand Lonnie so completely," she says of Smith Sr. "It was almost like Chuck Smith's opportunity to give Lonnie one last slam."
Di Sabatino has received confirmation that Chuck and Kay Smith have seen Frisbee and responded favorably. But others around the Calvary leader have blasted the film that Di Sabatino—who swears he's "not anti-Calvary or anti-Vineyard"—poured $20,000 of his life savings in to making. One pastor has accused the filmmaker of glorifying homosexuality, while another is spreading rumors that Di Sabatino is gay ("I am not gay," he informs. "I wish I dressed that well, though"). He finds it ironic that so-called Christians are giving him the same type of un-Christian business they heaped on Frisbee. "People seem to forget that the underlying biblical message is that we're all bastards," Di Sabatino says, "but God loves us anyway."
Meanwhile, some of Lonnie's friends and family wish the filmmaker had cut out the gay stuff altogether. That's not the Lonnie they knew: they insist he never had gay sex after converting to Christianity, and they are especially upset the film includes comments from evangelical-author-turned-gay-Christian activist Mel White and Metropolitan Community Church founder Bishop Troy Perry. The last thing Frisbee would have wanted, these friends say, was to be propped up as a gay Christian martyr.
But Di Sabatino, who at this writing has screened Frisbeeonly three times, including a Feb. 10 showing to 450 people at an Anaheim biker church, has been pleasantly surprised the overall feedback has been positive. "My phone has been ringing off the hook," he said. "People are really moved by it." He says someone claiming to be from Hollywood approached him about turning Frisbee's life story into a feature film. ThePassionoftheHippie,anyone?
"People go away reeling," Di Sabatino says. "They are blown away by Lonnie. The sexual stuff, if you can get over that lump, you just see a human being who God used. God uses anybody who steps up to the table, and Lonnie was a man open to God working through him. That's why he's a hero."