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. Time and Life magazines 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.” [...]