Start the Jesus Revolution Without Me
by Matt Coker
As a newspaper journalist covering the early days of the Newport Beach Film Festival, whose 24th annual run kicks off on Oct. 12, I got to pre-screen Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. I was so blown away by the incredible story of Costa Mesa native Lonnie Frisbee, who was a catalyst for the born-again Christian movement of the late 1960s-early ‘70s, and yet had been scrubbed from prominent church histories, that I contacted the documentary’s filmmaker, David Di Sabatino, and arranged and conducted several interviews that would lead to an award-winning, 2005 cover story in the OC Weekly, “The First Jesus Freak.”
Besides looking something like European artists’ depiction of Jesus Christ, baptizing hippies off the Corona del Mar coast with the late Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa pastor Chuck Smith and apparently being the preacher who first saved Harvest Ministries of Riverside pastor Greg Laurie, Frisbee had sex with men and suffered a much-too-soon death from AIDS at age 43. That’s the part of the Lonnie Frisbee story that explains his erasure from church history, and it’s a part of the Lonnie Frisbee story that I kept waiting for while recently watching Jesus Revolution on Netflix.
Alas, the full Frisbee is also missing from the narrative feature film based on the book Jesus Revolution by Laurie and Ellen Vaughn.
To be clear, Lonnie is a huge part of the movie, and Jonathan Roumie, the actor playing him, delivers arguably the best performance, although Kelsey Grammer is no slouch as Pastor Chuck. As the conservative Smith himself has said of the young people with flowers in their long hair, “My feeling was they were dirty hippies. Why don’t they take a bath?”
But Smith’s wife, Kay (played in the film by Julia Campbell), tearfully urges her husband to get through to these poor, lost young souls. The pastor counters that he needs to meet and get to know a hippie first. Voila! Knock-knock-knock, it’s Lonnie at the door, not at the direction of the Almighty, but an amused Janette (Ally Ioannides), the Smiths’ rebellious daughter.
In real life, it was Kay who wanted to meet a hippie so she could find out what made them tick. Janette’s then-boyfriend, who’d recently been saved, brought Frisbee over to meet the pastor, who called his unscheduled guest “a real honest to goodness hippie.”
The movie, totally set in Orange County, is almost entirely filmed in Mobile, Alabama. Three shots filmed in OC were at El Moro Beach: on the sand near the tunnel, on the now-paved bike path near Pelican Point (Sammy's) and at the historic Pirate’s Cove in Corona del Mar.
We see Smith and Frisbee get off to a rocky start, but before you can say, “Deliver thyself to Act III,” the pair have bonded, brought so many new young people into the pastor’s tiny church that the congregation moved into large tents and garnered a Time magazine cover for that whole dipping hippies in the beach thing. But Lonnie’s ego, TV evangelist-worthy faith healing and disagreements over Calvary’s future cause an irreparable split with Pastor Chuck.
This is where Jesus Revolution shifts from a film that had mostly been about the Chuck-Lonnie dynamic and more about, I assume, the original intended plot: to show how Laurie (played rather blandly by Joel Courtney) came from a troubled past, hit rock bottom, found God, and made his way into what would become a worldwide ministry.
Di Sabatino recently offered an interesting postscript via Facebook about the movie’s Laurie narrative. Under an image of a crude flier that shows Frisbee preaching, the documentarian writes that it is the original invitation urging young seekers to come to Riverside. “In the movie The Jesus Revolution, they tell the founding of this church very differently, that Lonnie refused to go out to Riverside, and Greg Laurie then selflessly said, ‘I’ll go.’ Did not happen that way,” reports Di Sabatino, who then clarifies that Frisbee and fellow worship leader Deborah Kerner spent the next year building the congregation to about 300 young followers “before Greg even came on the scene.”
I have no proof that the filmmakers argued with themselves over whether the focus should be on Smith and Frisbee rather than Laurie. It may be telling that Jon Gunn was tapped by then-producer Laurie to write and direct the film in 2018, but the final version had a script by Gunn and Jon Erwin, who co-directed with Brent McCorkle. Erwin and Gunn are among the producers, but Laurie is not, although he and Vaughn get “based on the book by” writer credits.
Viewers learn in the film’s postscripts that Frisbee died in 1993 and Smith departed in 2013, without any mention of causes of death for either. (Lung cancer took Pastor Chuck.) I had pretty much avoided Jesus Revolution and media coverage of it before writing this story, so I did a Google search to see if anyone else reviewing or writing about the film picked up on the huge detail from Lonnie’s life missing from the movie. Christ on a bike, everyone did, from the mainstream media to the Christian Fucking Post.
My Googling took me to an interview with McCorkle, who says he was brought in to help Erwin, who is more known for making Christian-themed films, get Jesus Revolution to the finish line. McCorkle claimed all involved made what they knew would be a controversial decision to keep Frisbee’s relationships with men out of the picture because no one, including Laurie and Smith, knew about them during the years when most of the action on screen takes place, the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s. That’s rather curious since I wrote in “The First Jesus Freak” that, during Frisbee’s initial testimony at Calvary, he mentioned he’d rejected the homosexual lifestyle he first plunged into at age seventeen in Laguna Beach.
McCorkle says viewers do get inferences to Frisbee’s inner struggles as there are scenes that show his turbulent relationship with his wife, Connie. (They divorced in 1973.) McCorkle also points to a line in the film where Frisbee tells Smith of his hippie days in the Bay Area, “Man, we did everything and maybe everyone.”
To McCorkle’s credit, he did also say in the interview, “There have been people, Christian people, because of his background, that have gone to great lengths to erase him out of their history … and we were upset about them.” He adds that the production team tried “to bring forth the most accurate, honest Lonnie, that had massive giftings. They are undeniable and [we] put him out there in the world and reinstated him back into the story in the way that we felt was honoring to him and also told the true story of what was going on in his life.”
My Google rabbit hole also took me to video on YouTube of Frisbee’s funeral service in the Crystal Cathedral, then under the control of televangelist Robert Schuller, who decades later would lose the Garden Grove property in bankruptcy proceedings. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange later plucked and rebranded it Christ Cathedral.
From the pulpit, Smith said Frisbee was “unfortunately a man who never experienced the ultimate of his potential. I often wonder just what he could have been,” and “He lived his life in such a way that we have all been impacted. What God can do with one who will surrender and yield himself to God. Even as weak a vessel as he might have been, what a person can do if they just yield themselves to God.”
Frisbee’s ex-wife, Connie Bremer-Murray, told me years later that she nearly jumped out of her Crystal Cathedral seat over Smith’s words. “I couldn't believe someone could be so arrogant and misunderstand Lonnie so completely,” she said. “It was almost like Chuck Smith’s opportunity to give Lonnie one last slam.”
She also considers it false to portray Frisbee as a “dirty hippie,” a description she says is more accurate about her. “I was dirty because I was homeless, but Lonnie was fastidious. He was always clean,” said Bremer-Murray, who first got to know Frisbee while selling him pot and LSD at a Silverado Canyon commune called the Brotherhood. “He was kind of the clown to us,” she recalls. “He was not groovy.”
You know who else was un-groovy? Chuck Smith. Before his death, he was criticized for drawing connections between disasters such as earthquakes, the September 11 attacks, and divine wrath against homosexuality and abortion.
During the 1980s, as an AIDS epidemic exploded, Chuck Smith’s son Chuck Smith Jr. embraced members of the gay community in Laguna Beach as he headed a Calvary Chapel in South Orange County.
As his father was calling homosexuality “the final affront against God,” Junior told the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Goffard, “I met homosexuals who were trying to live celibate lives or be heterosexual, and I heard all about their struggles, and I never wanted to exacerbate that. My heart went out to them. Listening convinced me that homosexual orientation is not something people chose.”
Smith Jr. was kicked out of the Calvary ministry in 2006—at the behest of his father.
If you dare to speak out against any sin in today’s world, someone will brand you as "something-phobic." Well, so be it. I will admit to being a sinaphobic. And here is what God says about sinners not entering His kingdom: "Don’t you know that those who do wrong will have no share in the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, who are idol worshipers, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusers, and swindlers—none of these will have a share in the Kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9–10 NLT).
Someone else will counter, "But aren’t gay people born that way?" I don’t accept that. I believe that all people are born sinners, and every one of us came from the womb with a sinful nature. As sinners, some of us are drawn to certain temptations and some are drawn to others. The fact is, some may be attracted to those of the same sex. But that doesn’t mean that a person should act on those temptations any more than a person who is tempted to steal, lie, lust, or murder.
Harvest Ministries, at Laurie’s urging, became a member of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2017. Since 1992, the national convention has excommunicated various churches that support LGBTQ inclusion. The District of Columbia Baptist Convention was excommunicated for that very reason a year after Harvest joined SoBapt.
Perhaps the real reason we don’t get the full Lonnie Frisbee in Jesus Revolution is because that narrative does not fit who Chuck Smith was and Greg Laurie is.
Former OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first thirteen years of his journalism career at daily newspapers before “graduating” to the Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor. He is now the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology’s Social Media Manager.