(RNS) — One of the most captivating and distinctive personalities in the upcoming biopic “Jesus Revolution” is Lonnie Frisbee, whose memory is being revived through a brilliant portrayal by actor Jonathan Roumie.
Lonnie was the face and a catalyzing force of the Jesus movement that rippled through the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time, Lonnie had a profound impact on my life, and for a short time, he was a spiritual mentor to me as well.
Despite his freewheeling and rebellious lifestyle, Lonnie was deeply concerned with matters regarding life and death, even remembering the teachings he learned in church as a child. When he had an encounter with God — in the desert, no less — it was intense.
He said Christ told him he would use Lonnie as a “light to thousands of other people.” He described a vision he received where thousands of young people were lined up along the coast, waiting to be baptized.
From that point on, Lonnie drifted between Orange County and San Francisco, hitchhiking and telling others what Christ had done for him. One night in 1968, he had the opportunity to share this message with Chuck and Kay Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa.
Chuck grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II. He was a “salt of the earth” kind of man, practical and hard-working.
So, when a skinny hippie in sandals, a loose linen shirt and bell-bottom jeans with bells landed on his doorstep, Chuck questioned what God was trying to do through him. They had nothing in common, but when Lonnie crossed Chuck and Kay’s threshold, something big happened that only God could orchestrate.
Chuck opened his pulpit for Lonnie to preach at a Wednesday night service, and droves of barefoot hippies, reeking of patchouli and sporting their bohemian style, began filling up the church, raising eyebrows and eliciting gasps from some of Chuck’s older, conservative congregation.
Soon Calvary’s three Sunday morning services in the little chapel couldn’t handle the overflow.
In June 1971, Time magazine and other national news outlets dubbed it the “Jesus Revolution,” publishing images of the two baptizing hundreds at a time in the Pacific Ocean — the realization of Lonnie’s vision in the desert.
I was one of those baptized in the ocean. Lonnie came to my school and read from the New Testament, speaking about how Jesus wasn’t some far-off, far-out historical figure. He was real, and he could be known personally. Then Lonnie said something that struck my heart: “Jesus said, ‘You are either for me, or you are against me.’ There’s no middle ground with Jesus. You’re either for him or against him. Which side are you on?”
That day I decided I was definitely for Jesus.
After a few years, the dynamic pair split. Chuck stayed to nurture his flock in Costa Mesa, while Lonnie spent a short stay in Florida and later joined Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
After his tenure with Vineyard, Lonnie attached himself to different ministries here and there. For a time, he walked away from his relationship with God, using drugs and living immorally.
When I learned Lonnie was in hospice care in Newport Beach, my friend Mike Macintosh and I visited him. Though Lonnie was frail and fading, he grinned and greeted us warmly. He spoke with gusto of how he would be miraculously healed and continue his preaching ministry worldwide. He did express sadness and regrets for the course his life had taken and some of the choices he’d made.
At the end of our visit, Mike and I hugged him, told him we loved him, and then we prayed together. God used Lonnie powerfully at one time in my life, and I told him so. I never saw Lonnie again. He was 43 when he passed in March 1993.
Fittingly, Chuck Smith preached at Lonnie’s services. He told those in attendance that Lonnie was a “Samson figure” who was powerfully anointed by God but whose broken childhood often contributed to his struggles and temptations. Some felt Chuck suggested that Lonnie never reached his full potential. But don’t we all fall short of what God can do through us? The Bible is filled with personalities ranging from Samson to Noah, who were used powerfully by God but had a disappointing end.
Lonnie’s latter years were an unfortunate episode in an otherwise truly remarkable life that has too long been disregarded by the church. It is time to recognize Lonnie Frisbee for who he was — a flawed man who passionately sought the will of God and shared that passion with seekers, a man who sinned and made mistakes but made such a difference in the lives of countless young people in an era when the youth of this country desperately needed a way back to God. Lonnie might have gone into the wilderness for a period, but he knew how to get home again and returned to the Lord.
And now, with “Jesus Revolution,” a new generation will discover the profound and lasting impact of Lonnie Frisbee.