After publishing the March 4 cover story“The Passion of the Hippie: Remember the first Jesus freak because Calvary Chapel won't,” which was based on Lake Forest historian David Di Sabatino's documentary Frisbee:TheLifeandDeathofaHippiePreacher,one of the film's heroes contacted the Weekly.Late minister Lonnie Frisbee's former wife, Connie Bremer-Murray, initially wanted nothing more than extra copies of the article, but that led to an e-mail conversation, which soon included Di Sabatino, about her true feelings about the film, the cover story and Frisbee's legend.
As is to be expected, Connie's recollections of Lonnie and the story of his life have more flesh and blood than could possibly be presented on film or captured in print. She made observations she felt were important to convey, things that might get lost as the story continues to get notice. She considers it false to portray Frisbee as a “dirty hippie,” a description the story used to convey “straight” society's view of anyone, like Frisbee, with long hair and a beard in the '60s and '70s. “I was dirty because I was homeless, but Lonnie was fastidious. He was always clean,” Bremer-Murray says. She 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.”
But she later witnessed this ungroovy clown's odd behavior lead to strange and wonderful things in the name of Jesus Christ. And she champions the documentary that argues Frisbee was the spark for the huge growth of the Calvary and Vineyard church movements born in Orange County in the 1970s, yet he's at best a historical footnote because he struggled with homosexuality and died of AIDS in 1993. For that reason, she was anxious to join Di Sabatino in getting the word out about his cinematic Bible story set in 20th-century America, right here in the Orange County counterculture. It screens April 24 at the Newport Beach Film Festival and—you-know-who willing—beyond.
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ConnieBremer-Murray:I wanted to go where nobody knew my name. I didn't want to cause God any grief. I'd gotten caught up in an adulterous affair. I moved up to Meadow Vista in Placer County. I kind of went my own way. It's not that I stopped thinking about God—I was mad at him. He wasn't doing what I wanted him to do. I went off and got hired as a UPS driver. I became the first woman driver in this area, which was a blessing.
I was living my life when I ran into Lonnie one time when I was delivering packages in Nevada City. We had lunch—this was three years after I left him. From that point on, Lonnie and I stayed in touch on the phone, or he'd come up and visit me, or I'd come down and visit him. I think one time I went down there he was particularly needy, but he didn't let me know what it was.
That's one of the things that impacted me about this film. There are faces of so many people I knew and hadn't seen in years.
Bremer-Murray:He has copies of letters, personal letters between Lonnie and me, in his filing cabinet!
DavidDiSabatino:Geez, I guess that's just the nature of the beast. When I find something, it's usually because people often put it on my radar. If I'm told there is footage of something, I try to find out who shot it. I found something that said there had been a documentary by a San Francisco TV station. I queried them, and they sent some stuff. I got that and flipped; as I'm watching the video—most documentaries at that time on the Jesus People always ended with Lonnie as the quintessential hippie—there was footage of him baptizing people [off Corona del Mar]. I jumped out of my seat and said, “This is the opening of the movie!” There's a spark to this story that is well beyond my abilities. It's mystical.
Bremer-Murray:I believe it is mystical. It was three months after Lonnie died that I first met David. He was doing his thesis, and you know, David, the Lord was telling me then this is not an arbitrary person that's just going to come through. I trusted David after a while, and he rang true all along the way.
DiSabatino:It's been a long process, and it has not been without having to continually affirm my goals to these people. There is so much pain involved. All the pain is wrapped up in their lives; I see it on their faces. There's this huge responsibility that if I don't go along with them, it will be exploitation.
Bremer-Murray:Lonnie was exploited. I think I suffered a long time because Lonnie did. It's why in the picture, you don't see me with him after a certain point. I'd seen enough religious people to know I did not want to be one of those wives who share the stage. I'd have felt like a dancing bear.
DiSabatino:And God forbid you slip back into the other stuff; if you do, they'll throw you away.
Bremer-Murray:As a woman, you worry about bread. You worry about meals. I'd see all these people eating when Calvary's coffers were full. And we were poor. [Calvary founder] Chuck Smith never paid Lonnie. One day, Lonnie came home and said, “You'll never believe it: they hired somebody full-time to help pastor Chuck.” That blew him away. Chuck and Kay Smith never came by to ask if I needed food. I went to the same grocery store she did; it's just that she went through the front door, and I went to the dumpster in the back so that I could feed people. There was a disparity between what people believed to be happening and what was happening. I think Lonnie paid a huge price for that disparity. But it's not like what happened to Jesus on the cross. It's like we used to say: we haven't bled yet.
DiSabatino:I'm getting them every day.
Bremer-Murray:I showed it to my daughter, and she couldn't stop crying. She said, “It literally took my breath away, Mom. I can't believe I'm crying like this.” And she's not overly spiritual. It really affected me.
DiSabatino:I'm amazed at the ability this has to reach out to people who are not really religious.
Bremer-Murray:People would come from all over the world to sit in our living room and talk to us like we were some kind of gurus. Lonnie and I would look at each other and break out giggling. They would come all this way to hear us say love is the door you open to reach God. But how about feeding them? How about loving them? Churches lock their doors. My heart goes out to gay people. Lonnie would say he got saved from that, but when you walk out of the world of the spirit, you walk into what you were in before. But that's no more of a sin than making the children of God live on the lowest rungs. This is the thing people have to be shaken up over. I hope it happens with this film.
DiSabatino:I recently interviewed Ted Wise, who was Lonnie's mentor from the House of Acts in that first hippie Christian community, and he talked about this. He said, “I used to think, from the way I saw Christians talk and act, that Jesus was like a guard in the merchant marine. Or at the very least a Republican.” He told me many of the Christians he came into contact with were so worried about “where I stood on the issues.” Wise admitted that he never read the New Testament because of this, but when he did, he was “completely surprised.” He commented that “Jesus was so cool and totally different than I'd been told.”
Bremer-Murray:If you read the whole New Testament, you don't go back to being a slave; it sets you free.
DiSabatino:This movie grabs that authenticity of the spirit and conveys it in a way writing it down in a book never could. Somewhere along the line, every renewal movement in the history of the church gets calcified. Looking at 30 years down the line, it had the verve, but now it's something different. The arteries have started to harden. And the Bible talks about always having to open things up again.
Bremer-Murray:It's not like I stayed the true course. Lonnie never left me; I walked away. I came in line [with Christian fundamentalism]. I blocked abortion-clinic doors. It seemed so right. But after the third or fourth time, God jerked me by the collar and said, “Would I do this stuff? Would I do this anywhere?” You need to walk with him to get those messages. The enemy comes as an angel of life, appearing as good and right. Don't expect the enemy to have horns and steam coming off him. I believe the enemy will come right out of the mist of the religious-right movement.
DiSabatino:Some of us are upset that that's who people think of as Christians today. I think people [from the Christian right] are seduced by the same thing Christians are supposed to rail against: power and money. Those things have nothing to do with Jesus. What's even worse is they use fear as a motivational tool. Fear has nothing to do with faith. What scares me to death is their image of judgment. Some of these people are going to come up, say they did all these things, and God is going to say, “You're not on my team; you didn't get it.”
Bremer-Murray:When Jesus looks at the religious right-wing of this day, he's going to say they have ears attached to their heads, but they don't hear. When they say gay people are all sinners and they ought to read this passage of the Bible, they don't get it. You're supposed to read it as if it's written as a personal letter to you, not for you to impose on everyone else. There are more atrocities done in God's name—more than in Hitler's name. It's what God calls fornicating the truth. And when you mix that with lies, that's called deception. God hated that more than anything.
Bremer-Murray:I hope what happens is it makes people get comfortable about faith.
DiSabatino:I think our hope is that people will realize that God is interested in everybody. You're all invited to the table.
DiSabatino:When the church excludes anyone, it's like [Calvary pastor] Chuck [Smith] Jr. says in the film: We've got a problem. My reading of the story in the last year is God called a kid involved in the homosexual scene and Connie to bless the whole coast of California.
Bremer-Murray:One thing that is amazing: Lonnie never saw himself as being special. He saw that everybody could have what he had, and he actually promoted people.
DiSabatino:I met people, and the love they radiate for Lonnie is quite amazing. Yes, he could be tough to deal with, he could be a good friend but a prickly character. He was real. He would love people to the point where he'd encourage them in faith to step out and do great things for God. I'm not saying [Vineyard co-founder] John Wimber and Chuck Smith are not good people. They just look at things in a whole different paradigm.
Bremer-Murray:I think they personify what's happening to the church, though. That's what makes it a bigger story. There's a huge movement of people dropping out of churches and meeting as small groups in homes.
DiSabatino:There is a real dissatisfaction with organized religion, and I think the movie is hitting on that. One of the ladies in the movie says, “If I'm sick of my own sin, don't heap more scorn on me when I come to you with my problem.”
DiSabatino:I'm talking with a bunch of people. In this industry, people talk and talk. I'm trying to find something concrete. I'm trying to reach the widest audience I can. I want it to be seen by as many people as possible. I'm sensing it has some legs, but I don't know how this works. I'm hoping someone in a position of power comes along and does not jerk us around. I'd like to see it in churches, but that's my secondary target. I'd like regular people to see this thing because it's an amazing story. We're on a ride here, and I don't know where it's going, but I'm excited about the prospects.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.