David Di Sabatino’s documentary Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher is set against the Jesus People movement of the early 1970s. Lonnie Frisbee was, by all accounts, the prime mover and central focus of at least two major church movements, Calvary Chapel and The Vineyard. With Lonnie Frisbee’s charismatic preaching and youth outreach, these churches grew from tiny congregations with just a few dozen members to vast organizations with thousands of churches worldwide. Both are strongly anti-gay and pushed hard to get California’s Proposition 8 passed.
Lonnie Frisbee–the hippie preacher whose unique ministry propelled the growth of modern evangelism–has been written out of church history. “They wanted the goodies,” Lonnie told a friend, “But they hated me.”
Lonnie Frisbee was gay. And once that was discovered, he was cast out from the congregations he created.
In the Christian paradigm, God saw fit to anoint Lonnie Frisbee, giving him gifts of the spirit, considered to be “proof, nomitive [sic], Biblical proof” of God’s existence and blessing, baffling evangelicals. Why did God’s blessing rest on Lonnie who “shouldn’t have had it,” as one pastor claims? And why did “God place his spirit on a homosexual, the same thing any of us ask God?” wonders another.
The film—compiled from interviews, documentary footage from the 1970s and photographs, with a soundtrack that draws on Christian rock from the period—opens with Frisbee, replete with long hair and beard, waist deep in the ocean, baptizing surfers, straights, and beach bunnies as thousands stand on the shore, arms outstretched.
It’s 1971, and Frisbee is fulfilling a vision he saw when God filled him with the Holy Spirit. “I felt it to the tips of my toes,” he explained later of his conversion experience that occurred in 1967. When he was 17, Lonnie had dropped LSD, and asked God to reveal himself. According to Lonnie, God blessed him that day with a vision. And so began the street level ministry of Lonnie Frisbee a suburban kid turned hippie preacher.
After a time living in Haight Ashbury, Lonnie returned to his home in Southern California and met Pastor Chuck Smith, Sr. of Calvary Chapel who had read about these Jesus-loving hippies up north. Smith wanted to create a ministry which would reach out to “the long hairs who were against the establishment, who are threat to the establishment.”
The two hit it off and Lonnie began to speak at Calvary. By 1971 membership had grown from 200 to 2,000. Soon the Jesus People movement was known around the world, Lonnie was featured in Time, Life and Look Magazines. But there were tensions–due in part to Lonnie’s ability to speak in tongues and prophesize–which prompted what became a permanent break from Calvary.
Lonnie found a home with one of Calvary’s offshoots, The Vineyard, founded by John Wimber in 1980. Strongly rooted in Pentecostalism and the idea of “signs and wonders,” The Vineyard, which saw their membership grow and flourish with Frisbee, was the perfect place for Lonnie. Until his homosexuality was revealed.
Expelled from The Vineyard, Frisbee was denounced from the pulpits of conservative congregations, and overlooked when the histories of Calvary and The Vineyard were discussed. He found work with Set Free Ministry and died in 1993 of AIDS.
Di Sabatino allows us to draw our own conclusions about the nature of conversion, faith, miracles, and God’s will. And he leaves an important question for conservative Christian churches. Why are the churches which welcomed barefoot hippies and drug dealers in the past so hostile to homosexuals? And brings up an important point for the conservative congregations, raised by Chuck Smith, Jr: “If we turn them away…then where are they supposed to go to find Jesus?”