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A 'Jesus People' Reunion? They Never Really Left

Religion: The young leaders of the 1960s Christian movement have grown up--as have their churches.

April 23, 1999|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They've shorn their wild hair, shed their bell-bottoms for blazers and now shuttle children--or grandchildren--around in minivans. But the former hippies of the Jesus People movement say their fervor for Jesus hasn't mellowed in middle age.

In fact, many former young leaders of the movement from Orange County have matured into high-profile pastors at local megachurches. Among them is Chuck Smith Sr. of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa and Greg Laurie, a minister whose Harvest Crusade rallies draw more than 100,000 celebrants every summer.

"It was a unique time in American history when the whole counterculture movement was taking place," said Laurie, who credits the Jesus People experience as his inspiration for starting the Harvest Crusade 10 years ago.

Many leaders of the movement and their children and grandchildren are gathering Saturday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim in a first-of-its-kind reunion to commemorate decades of their commitment to Christ. Organizers expect a capacity crowd of 18,000 drawn from across the country.

Not just an Orange County phenomenon, the Jesus People movement gained momentum in pockets all over the country during the late 1960s and early '70s. Rebelling against the Vietnam War and the formality of established churches, counterculture outcasts welcomed the Jesus People's meld of Protestant piety and modern music. The movement started in tandem with the 1967 opening of the Living Room storefront mission in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

"A lot of kids were dropping out of society and getting into drugs," said Laurie, whose Riverside-based church Harvest Christian Fellowship now has more than 25,000 members. "Then, all of a sudden, there was this movement among young people who were turning to Jesus Christ."

The Jesus People movement featured spiritual pep rallies crammed with born-again Christians with scruffy hair--known to detractors as "Jesus freaks"--who professed to get high on Jesus Christ.

Many experts argue that although the movement lasted for only about five years, from 1969 to 1974, it has had long-term effects on Christianity in America. Casual attire in church, a conversational style of preaching, hi-fi sound systems in sanctuaries and even the megachurch phenomenon are among trends some link to the Jesus People.

"Major religious movements in our country always leave legacies," said the Rev. James P. Wind, president of the Alban Institute, an ecumenical organization that studies congregations. "The Jesus People movement had a tremendous impact on informal patterns of worship." In addition, the movement gave birth to a cottage industry of Christian book publishers with a growing new target audience. Evangelical publishing began as an outgrowth of missionary outreach organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth for Christ and the Navigators.

It was the Christian music industry, however, that exploded after the Jesus People movement.

"I think the movement had a tremendous influence in terms of using popular instruments, like a guitar or drums, in church," said Chuck Fromm, board member of Maranatha Music of San Juan Capistrano, a ministry formed by Chuck Smith Sr. in 1972 to promote the bands who played in his church. "It was a grass-roots, bottom-up faith instead of a top-down faith."

The unquestioned leader of the movement in Orange County was Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, who preached the Gospel to the young nomads from his pulpit in his trademark Hawaiian shirt.

Smith, now 72, was at least a decade older than most of the young unwashed who started to hang out and strum guitars on the stoop of his church, calling him "Papa Chuck." Smith himselfwasn't a hippie--he was as "straight as could be" and a big-time surfer.

Smith said his interest in reaching the hippies came from his wife, Kay. It was she who saw the drug-addled young people homeless and wandering on the Huntington waterfront.

"I had the feeling, 'Dirty hippies, get a bath and get a job,' " said Smith. "But she saw them as poor lost kids, searching for something."

Eventually, Smith's tiny church--with only 25 congregants in 1965--became a magnet for the disenfranchised hippies. He and his wife rented a house for the stragglers in Costa Mesa that became so packed that Smith funded a network of Jesus houses, including a hotel in Riverside where Smith baptized 65 youths in a fishpond the first two weeks it was open.

The couple trained the hippies--he calls them "the kids"--in construction work, operation of heavy equipment and cooking.

"We wanted to rehabilitate them," said Smith. "Now, many of them own their own businesses and are a real integral part of our whole society."

The adrift counterculture of Orange County had found a religious home. And Smith spawned a spiritual dynasty.

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