If you liked Eric Metaxas’ 2013 book 7 Men, you’re probably not gonna care for my current series, 7 Broken Men, about the fragile and unlikely people God has used to glorify himself. You can find my first post in the series here.
But if you are up for it, put on your old Larry Norman or Keith Green records. It’s time to hit the beaches of Southern California in the 1960s to meet the remarkable, but ultimately tragic hippie preacher, Lonnie Frisbee.
Maybe Lonnie Frisbee could have grown up to be a cult leader or serial killer if Jesus hadn’t got hold of him. His early life pretty much mirrored that of his contemporary and fellow Californian Charles Manson.
Frisbee grew up in an unstable home where he was exposed to the dark underbelly of 1960s Californian society. He was sexually assaulted as a child, introduced to drugs in his teens, and at 15 he had his first homosexual encounter, which ultimately ushered him into the Laguna Beach gay scene.
School didn’t take much of a priority, so by the time he was 18 and heading north to San Francisco with thousands of flower children for the Summer of Love in 1967, he could barely read and write.
Lonnie Frisbee was a hippie straight out of central casting – good-looking, wide-eyed, and mystical. He talked vaguely about becoming an artist or a dancer. But he wasn’t that good at either.
He was a bearded, long-haired dreamer. People said he looked like Jesus. He preferred to describe himself as a “nudist-vegetarian-hippie”. He tried his hand at hypnotism and dabbled in the occult. He talked incessantly about UFOs.
He was pretty much unemployable.
This mattered little in California in the late 60s and early 70s. Charles Manson, Hunter S Thompson and the Weather Underground all managed to exist with no visible means of support. And so did Lonnie Frisbee.
But things took a slightly different turn when Frisbee led a group of drug-addled friends on an LSD-fuelled pilgrimage into the desert outside Palm Springs. Things could’ve got real crazy (they did for Manson, in the same desert), but for a fateful trip he took to Tahquitz Canyon. Frisbee started reading the Gospel of John to everyone and before they knew he was baptizing his cadre of stoned hippies in the Tahquitz Falls.
An evangelist had been born!
At first the gospel according to Lonnie Frisbee included getting high, talking about flying saucers and reading the Bible, but he soon fell in with other Christians who directed him to a more conventional path.
After stints in Haight-Ashbury and Novato, Frisbee landed back in Costa Mesa, where he had grown up. Here he met a young woman, got married, joined Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel, and started to straighten up and fly right. Kind of.
The thing was, Lonnie was gay. And filled with the Holy Spirit.
He would walk the beaches during the day, converting young people seemingly at will. Then he would bring them back to the nightly church services for lashings of groovy Christian folk-music and intense Bible teaching. Afterwards he would dispense the Holy Spirit, leaving the room looking like a battlefield as young people hit the floor, began to shake and speak in tongues.
He was a freak. A Jesus freak. And soon he became a leading light of the so-called Jesus People, an organic movement of converted hippies, yippies and surfers that sprang out of Calvary Chapel. He went on to exercise direct influence over people like Chuck Smith Jnr, Greg Laurie, John Wimber, Mike McIntosh, Derek Prince and Bob Mumford.
In fact, whether it’s the charismatic movement, the Vineyard, the Shepherding Movement, the contemporary Christian music scene, or Calvary Chapel itself, Lonnie’s fingerprints were all over it.
He was no ordinary hippie anymore.
But he was no ordinary Christian evangelist either.
His marriage had broken down in 1973 and he had started having sexual liaisons with men again.
Frisbee was tortured by it all. He was clearly touched by the hand of God. But he believed his sexuality was a sin. He would speak openly about the challenge of keeping his desires under check, but the dissonance between his beliefs, the evidence of the Spirit’s presence in his life, and his sexual desires caused him overwhelming stress.
He was eventually asked to not be so open in public about his struggles with same sex attraction. Later still he became estranged from the very movements he helped launch. He was marginalized from the Jesus People and later written out of the histories of that period of Southern Californian Christianity.
He contracted AIDS in the 1990s and died in 1993.
Chuck Smith, his original pastor at Calvary Chapel, preached at Lonnie’s funeral and compared him to the wild, marauding brute, Samson, a man used by God despite his sinfulness. Lonnie’s closest friends took offense. He was no brute, they said. He was a fragile flower crushed by a church that couldn’t make room for him. I’m not sure Lonnie would have seen it that way.
Today, it’s reckoned that the “Jesus revolution” of 60s and 70s surpassed even the Great Awakening as the greatest ingathering of souls in American history. And dear, fragile, weird, little Lonnie Frisbee was right there at the beginning. Unremembered and unlauded, expunged from the histories of the very movements he was used by God to launch.