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A Cool Crusader : You may not know the name (Greg Laurie), but he's the guy behind the Harvest Crusade. His humor and MTV-style spin on Christianity draw in thousands.

July 10, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has a Harley in his garage, LSD in his past and a "liveskunk" he occasionally holds in his lap aboard airplanes.

He talks up Jesus at stadiums and on surfboards.

And he gets letters threatening his life.

Greg Laurie, the man behind all those Harvest Crusade bumper stickers, has carved out an unusual niche among evangelists. With his goofy humor and penchant for quoting Madonna (the singer, not the one at the manger), he has put a hip spin on conservative Christianity and led thousands to declare their faith in Jesus.

He has been called the MTV-savvy minister, the baby boomers' Bible answer man. Or even--in some circles--the next Billy Graham.

For all of that, however, he remains surprisingly unknown.

*

Greg Laurie's spiritual journey began on the lawn of Newport-Harbor High School in 1970. At that time, Laurie says, he was a rebellious, cynical 17-year-old searching for "meaning and purpose in life."

The product of a troubled home--his mother divorced and remarried five times--he had been in and out of a military academy, lived in half a dozen cities across the country and grown up surrounded by adults who seemed to drink a lot.

"My real question . . . was not so much, 'Is there life after death' but 'Is there life during life?' " he remembers.

When friends promised that drugs would expand his awareness, Laurie dropped some acid and smoked a lot of pot. Sure enough, he says, "I did become more aware--of how empty I was." But Laurie steered clear of religion because "in high school, it was social suicide to walk around talking about God." Whenever he went to the beach and saw Christians prowling the sands, "hunting for sinners," he ran into the surf: "I knew they wouldn't come into the water because they didn't want to get their Bibles wet."

Then one day, eating lunch on the grass at high school, Laurie listened in on a meeting of the campus Christian club. Someone quoted the Bible passage where Jesus says, "You are either for me or against me," and Laurie froze: "I wondered: 'Could I really be against him?'

"The next thing I knew, I was up there praying with these people (asking Jesus into my life), and it was almost like I could feel a weight being lifted off me. . . . It wasn't a physical sensation or an emotional one. It was spiritual."

Laurie adopted the long hair and beard that was de rigueur at his new home--Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, a stronghold of a fundamentalist, Armageddon-is-near brand of Christianity that attracted legions of hippies and young people during the early 1970s.

He also put his drawing skills to use--at that point, he wanted to become a newspaper cartoonist--creating a comic-strip pamphlet designed to reach "other people like me, people who were not religious and were maybe a little cynical."

Calvary Pastor Chuck Smith remembers meeting Laurie later and seeing the tract. "I saw he had a talent for (presenting the Christian message) in a very attractive way. I had him redraw it . . . and we took it down to PIP printers and had 10,000 copies made up.

"The first night that we put them out for the kids, all 10,000 were gone. Ultimately, we printed over 1 million."

Laurie soon became such a fixture at Calvary that in 1972, Smith asked him to take over a small youth Bible study at an Episcopal church in Riverside.

The 30-person class mushroomed to 300 members in less than a year. Laurie, only 19 and with no college or formal training, had to educate himself with books, tapes and lessons from other Bible studies to keep up.

By 1974, the Bible group was bigger than the church's congregation--and Smith, to the dismay of the Episcopalians, bought Laurie an abandoned Baptist church in Riverside, gave him a certificate of ordination and had him start his own Calvary-affiliated flock.

Smith also played another critical role in Laurie's early Christian experience. The two were at a retreat when Laurie, still in his teens, asked Smith for a cup of punch: "I'm standing there, sort of awe-struck, and he's pouring, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, what a man of God,' and he's still pouring, and I'm still standing there, and then suddenly my cup starts overflowing and punch is running down my arm. And he just starts laughing."

Laurie, a veteran prankster who thought he would have to drop his high jinks now that he was a believer, learned a lesson that guides him to this day: "Being a Christian doesn't mean you have to give up your sense of humor."

By the time Laurie starts ironing his shirt in the private, cowhide-furnished lounge where he camps out every Sunday, a line has already formed for the first of four regularly scheduled services at his Riverside church.

The Baptist chapel that he started in 20 years ago has long since been retired in favor of a department store-sized sanctuary built atop a nearby granite pit. And the congregation, Harvest Christian Fellowship, has grown into one of the 10 largest Protestant churches in the country, with an estimated 12,000 members.

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