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Flocking Together

'60s 'Jesus People' Rejoin in Prayer

April 25, 1999|MICHAEL LUO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene was not unlike that of dozens of other massive Christian gatherings that have sprung up across the country in recent years. In fact, many of the cars driven into the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Saturday bore bumper stickers emblazoned with their names: Promisekeepers, Harvest Crusade, Urbana.

But this was somehow different. As the faithful came in waves, a pair of grizzled men in jeans sat next to their camper in the parking lot, one playing a banjo. Others, although carrying today's fashionably canvas-covered Bibles, wore flower-print shirts and pants of another era.

This was the first-ever Jesus People reunion--an event that would turn out to be part Woodstock, part high school reunion and part heaven.

The Jesus People movement emerged in Southern California during the late 1960s and eventually swept the country with its mix of flower power and gospel.

It all began in 1965, when a tiny church in Costa Mesa, which came to be called Calvary Chapel, became a magnet for hippies.

Hundreds of young people with long hair, bell-bottoms and old drug habits camped out in front of the church, strumming banjos and singing praise songs.

They came to hear Chuck Smith Sr., a stocky, balding pastor with curly hair and a trademark Hawaiian shirt, who would take thousands of them under his wing.

"He didn't talk like most pastors," said Steve Schumacher, 56, of Capistrano Beach as he walked into the Pond for the reunion. Known to many as Papa Chuck, Smith "kind of just loved us into the Kingdom."

Schumacher, a self-described former "weekend hippie," said he became a Christian on March 6, 1974, after hearing Smith preach.

Many who came to Anaheim on Saturday, like Schumacher, threw out dates: Easter 1978, chirped one woman; March 22, 1971, recalled another man.

Those were the dates, etched forever in their memories, that they became "saved" and joined the ranks of born-again Christians, they said.

"I became a long-haired Jesus freak," said Paul Griffo, 42, of Virginia. Griffo, who was in town for a business trip and decided to attend, said he adopted the hippie look after he became a Christian and saw others around him with the image.

"They looked like they were the disciples," he said. "I kind of equated [long hair and beards] with being spiritual."

Thirty years after its humble beginnings, more than 750 Calvary Chapels dot the country, with more than 500 overseas.

Many of the movement's young adherents have grown up to become superstars of the modern American church scene: Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, with 25,000 members; Raul Ries, pastor of Calvary Chapel Golden Springs in Diamond Bar, with 15,000 members; and Smith, whose Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa boasts 35,000 members.

Saturday, Smith--now a graying 72--took the stage first, to a roar of approval and affection from the crowd.

Flanked by a gigantic outline of a dove and a hanging banner of a raised index finger (the unofficial symbol of the Jesus People), Smith led the more than 10,000 assembled in one of the signature choruses that had been so radical then, when hymnals--not contemporary praise bands--were the norm: "Love, Love, Love. This is your Christian call . . . For God loves all."

Soon, rows of audience members had interlocked arms and begun swaying with the music, some with tears in their eyes and others with arms outstretched to the sky.

Following Smith, a long line of speakers and folksy bands, all part of the early Calvary Chapel, took the stage.

They took turns preaching, performing and reminiscing as a montage of grainy black-and-white images showing the speakers and performers 30 years ago flashed across a Jumbo-Tron and giant screens on either side of the stage.

Before and after each act, Smith trotted out to introduce his former partner in ministry and to offer a few memories.

"We had a lot of people who came out of curiosity," he recalled of the old days.

People wondered: "Can they really love the Lord and not cut their hair?" said Smith, drawing whoops from the crowd.

Jon Courson, now a pastor of a 5,000-member church in a tiny town in Oregon, told the audience how an administrator at the Southern California Bible college he attended had explicitly instructed the entering freshman not to go anywhere near the church in Costa Mesa where "people go to church wearing Levi's and T-shirts and some are even barefoot."

Courson ignored the warning and began biking two hours to the church during the week for Smith's evening Bible studies. Courson said he would sleep in a stall in a courtyard bathroom afterward and wake up the next morning for the ride back.

His experience was typical of the time, he told the crowd. "I sensed in that place packed out with kids the presence of the Lord like I'd never experienced," he said.

Many of those who came Saturday, however, had no historical connection with the Jesus People.

Helen Amirian, 20, and Tiffany McCarrick, 19, students at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, strolled the ground floor, taking pictures with friends and decked out in vintage hippie flower dresses and braided hair.

Amirian said she didn't have to have lived through the period to know the impact of the Jesus People movement: "It turned people upside-down for Jesus," she said.

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