By Mark Ellis —
Lonnie Frisbee could barely read and write. Abandoned by his father, raped as a child, he tripped out on LSD as a teen and indulged in gay sex. Yet God chose him to be the key evangelist at the heart of the Jesus movement in the 1970s.
God used Lonnie to help ignite and propel the rapid growth of two major movements – Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard.
“When we got saved and started reading the Bible we just believed everything we read,” said Connie Frisbee, who separated from Lonnie in 1973.
Both Lonnie and Connie had rocky pasts – making them more than qualified to be the sort of “cracked vessels” God delights in using to emit His glorious light.
Lonnie was sexually abused by a male babysitter at the age of eight-years-old, while his mother worked. He dreaded every day she left for work and faced abuse almost daily for at least a year, according to Connie.
Lonnie’s father ran off with another woman and that woman’s jilted husband tracked down Lonnie’s mother and the two wounded spouses found solace in one another — and married. Lonnie’s new stepdad was a “classic 50s tough guy and rode a motorcycle.”
By contrast, Lonnie had a clubfoot, was un-athletic, and grew to love cooking and artistic pursuits such as painting. By his late teens, he had become a self-described “nudist vegetarian hippie.”
Connie was also drawn to the lifestyle of the flower children of the Sixties. “I didn’t become a hippie because I thought that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I became a hippie because I was in juvenile hall and I was in a home where my father was very violent and my mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict.
“My mother beat me naked in front of my stepfather at 13. It was horrendous the kind of stuff I went through. So I would run away from home because literally my mother was trying to kill me.”
When the beatings or “torture” intensified, she ran. “From 13 on I was in some pretty harrowing situations. I was riding with motorcycle gangs and then I would be in juvenile hall and then I would be back at home with this woman who was completely out of her mind.”
At the time she met Lonnie, Connie lived in a commune in Silverado Canyon, California with a group called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. What started as a commune with several homes in the area morphed into a major drug distribution channel for LSD and hashish.
“They dealt LSD for Timothy Leary,” Connie recounts. “They were the main people bringing hashish into Southern California from Afghanistan.”
While still in high school, Lonnie came to the commune where Connie lived to buy marijuana and LSD. “Everybody thought Lonnie was really a square…goofy,” she recalls.
One time Lonnie joined her group on an excursion to Tahquitz Falls, near Palm Springs. “We would leave Silverado Canyon and drive out to Palm Springs at maybe one or two o’clock in the morning. We would hike to the first 70-foot waterfall in the dark.”
As they hiked, Lonnie lagged behind the others. “Finally he caught up to me and he had this Army duffel bag over his shoulder. He had a small frame so the duffel bag was almost as big as him.”
“What have you got in there?” someone asked.
“I have a couple bottles of wine and some French bread…and a microscope,” he said.
Finally they arrived at the foot of the waterfall. “We would unroll our sleeping bags, drop our LSD, wait until we woke up, and then we would just be on for a new day.”
In the morning, they climbed to the top of the 70-foot waterfall and then used ropes to drop down to the other side, where “it was just one waterfall after another.”
On one of these excursions, Lonnie packed a Bible –rather than one of the mystical books he often carried — and began reading from the Book of John.
The power of the Word stirred his soul and he cried out, “God if you’re really real, reveal yourself to me!”
Years later, in 1980, Lonnie described what happened next: “The whole atmosphere of this canyon that I was in started to tingle and get light and started to change and I’m going, “Uh oh…I didn’t want to be here.”
Then the Lord spoke to his heart: “I am Jesus. I build nations and I tear them down. It is better for a nation never to have known me than to have known me and turn their back from me.”
Initially, Lonnie couldn’t fully comprehend what that meant.
Then Jesus continued: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No man comes unto the Father but by me. I am the Door of the sheepfold. If any man enters in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber and the Gatekeeper will not open unto him.”
Prior to this, Lonnie had subscribed to the popular notion that there are many pathways to God. “I always thought all roads led to Rome, but He explained to me that He was the only way to know God.”
The power of the Word and the Spirit broke through his drug-fueled haze. He accepted Jesus as his Savior and Lord and was born again.
Then the Lord impressed on Lonnie’s heart: “I’m going to send you to the people.”
“And I saw a vision of thousands of people and they were wandering around in a maze of gray darkness, bumping into one other, with no direction or purpose for their lives. Then the Lord showed me that there was a light on me that he was placing on my life and it was Jesus Christ and I was going to go bear the word of the Lord.”
After Lonnie graduated from high school, he went north to attend the San Francisco Academy of Art. The timing of his educational sojourn to the Bay Area coincided with the Summer of Love, when as many as 100,000 young people converged on the city’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood.
As a new convert full of zeal, but not well-grounded in the Scripture, Lonnie began preaching on the streets of Haight Ashbury, where he bumped into the leaders of a Christian commune known as The Living Room.
“They found Lonnie talking about Jesus in Haight Ashbury and he was mixing flying saucers into the Gospel and stuff like that,” Connie recounts. “They ministered to Lonnie and he saw the ability to be in service all the time so he moved in with them.”
Some believe the Jesus movement began in this communal house known as The Living Room, located in Novato, a suburb of San Francisco. Within the large house were four couples that had banded together apart from the organized church. They had committed themselves to live like the Book of Acts.
“I find this story about these four couples as big as the story about Lonnie, because these people were in their thirties and they had jobs. They had lives that were already moving in a direction,” Connie notes.
They quit their jobs, sold and gave away their possessions, and kept only what they needed to function as a unit at enormous sacrifice.
The couples were Ted and Elizabeth Wise, Steve and Sandy Heefner, Jim and Judy Dopp, and Danny and Sandy Sands. They devoted themselves to prayer, the study of the Word, and bold outreach to the city.
The families also had seven children between them. The wives made a giant pot of soup every day. “It would be made for the men to take to the city the next day for their lunch. They would invite people to partake with them. They would take three cars into the city and would bring as many people back as they could.” In the evenings, they poured over the Scripture, answering questions that arose.
“There was a basket and in this basket was all the bills these married couples had. And in the basket was all the money for the household.” The men picked up tent-making jobs on the side to support their ministry activities.
Even though Lonnie and Connie had lost touch with each other, God brought them together on the streets of Haight Ashbury. Connie had parted ways with the Brotherhood and moved in with a group involved in white witchcraft.
When Lonnie recognized her in the streets he called out: “Connie, where are you going?”
“We’re hitchhiking to Southern California, going up to Joshua Tree.”
“Well I’m going too,” he replied.
It had taken Connie and her friends three weeks to hitchhike from Big Sur to San Francisco. “But as soon as Lonnie got in the car we got one ride after another and in no time we were dropped off on his mother’s front lawn in Costa Mesa,” she recalls.
They rolled out sleeping bags, slept on the lawn, and Lonnie invited them in and made breakfast the next morning. Then they hitchhiked to Palm Springs and made their way to Tahquitz Falls.
As a new believer, Lonnie was still rough around the edges, straddling his nascent faith with his “roper doper,” drug-filled past.
“We dropped acid out there and Lonnie led me to the Lord. When I got saved I was under the influence of LSD and I was naked,” Connie admits. Lonnie and the other two men were also unclothed.
“I knew what LSD felt like and this was different. It had to be or my life wouldn’t have changed.
“When Lonnie led me to the Lord my experience was so over the top. I was crying. I had a vision. He baptized me in water and I came up out of the water and got baptized in the Holy Spirit. I could not stop crying for the first 24 hours.”
“Everything changed that day. The way I perceived the world changed. I didn’t see one ugly person from that moment on. I perceived people differently. Everything was different.
“Had it not been for God saving me I’m sure I would have died with a needle in my arm on the Sunset Strip being a prostitute,” she says.
Neither one of Connie’s fellow travelers got saved, but they hitchhiked on to Joshua Tree and Lonnie left to go back up to The Living Room in Novato.
It seems a group Connie lived with at Mt. Shasta in a teepee had decided to winter in Joshua Tree. When Connie and her friends reached them, a woman greeted them at the door with a surprising question: “Every day we’ve been throwing the I Ching and every day it comes up you have a message for us, Connie…What is the message?”
(I Ching is a form of ancient Chinese divination, consisting of sixty-four hexagrams and commentary based on the symbols. By randomly generating the six lines through various methods and then reading the commentary associated with the resulting hexagram, the participants supposedly receive an oracle.)
Surprised by the rather abrupt inquiry, Connie paused for a moment and said: “God is real and He did have a Son and you can be saved through Him and live eternally.”
That shocked her friends! The next day they began to pepper her with questions, far beyond her understanding as a new creature in Christ. When she was hit with a tough question, she looked down at her toes, closed her eyes, and asked God for the answers.
“When I opened my mouth to speak the answer would be given. I would hear the answer for myself because I didn’t know either. Out of that group I got my first convert.”
Her bold witness invited pushback from the evil one. “After some days, the animosity, hate, and real dislike (manifested).”
Connie left with the new convert and went to stay with a woman who had a bottle farm – an acre and a half full of bottles. “After a while the Lord told me this woman was poor and we were making her much poorer by having to feed us and so I told my convert we were going to have to leave.”
She returned to her parents’ house for the first time after a long absence and discovered a surprise. “There was a note that Lonnie ‘miraculously’ left word for me on the same day I arrived. I hadn’t been there for a year and a half!”
Lonnie left his new family of believers in The Living Room with an unusual message – he told them he was going to find the girl he would marry. When he left, he wasn’t even sure of Connie’s exact location.
When they re-connected, “he came and picked me up right away and took me up to Novato.”
Connie didn’t know about Lonnie’s romantic intentions. She saw him as more of a friend at this stage of their relationship.
“He was attracted to me spiritually and I became attracted to Lonnie spiritually. I began to see him in a completely different light after I was able to see through my spiritual eyes,” she notes.
When Connie arrived at the commune in Novato, everything she owned was in a small backpack, a backpack she found on a rock in Big Sur. The clothes had been discarded by kids from all over the U.S. When they arrived in the hippie Never Never Land, they dropped their old clothes in a huge pile in Big Sur.
Connie and Lonnie slept in sleeping bags in the living room of the large house in Novato. The group also operated a storefront coffeehouse in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood.
“There were some magazine articles being written about us at that time,” Connie recalls. Because the men didn’t shave their beards and cut their hair or dress conservatively, they had some friction with a Christian outreach in Haight Ashbury operated by Dave Wilkerson.
“We were…preaching the gospel on the streets and preaching in Golden Gate Park. Sometimes we went down to Market Street and even hit the dirty bookstores at that end of town.”
“We had runaways. People would send us pictures of their kids from all over the country. There were on a wall in the basement — all these kids’ pictures.
“Once in a while God would send us one of these kids and we would recognize them and we would ask them to call their parents. We would usually be able to get them to do that. Most of them went back home…these were kids that were under 18 from Nebraska or New York and ended up in the Haight. This was 1967 and 68, at the very peak of the hippie movement.”
Connie remembers how hard the women worked in the commune. “Although I was single at the time I quit going into the city almost completely to stay home and watch the children, to help cook and clean, to lighten the burden.
“We had bulgar wheat for breakfast. Most of the time God provided very well for us. We had a huge long table that would feed almost 20 people in the big house. Every night there was a meal laid out of homemade breads and chicken enchiladas and vegetables we grew.
“We brought as many people to the house as we could and witnessed to them. We had all kinds of characters come through there. We would sit around and play conga drums, beat on books or maracas and worship the Lord that way. There wasn’t a set pattern. It wasn’t like every Sunday we do this. It was really moving in the Sprit. We saw so many miracles…We just knew God was doing stuff in our lives all the time. All of us have continued to live our lives that way.”
After several months on the floor in sleeping bags, Connie and Lonnie’s romantic feelings for one another grew and they decided to marry. “I was 19 and he was 18 when we got married. “Neither of us really realized how much our past would play into our relationship,” she said.
“We never had a honeymoon. We had a honeymoon in a tent in his parents’ backyard.”
Connie knew there was abuse and homosexual activity in Lonnie’s past. “Lonnie never looked at himself as being a homosexual. He did answer all my questions because I had questions. He thought he was saved out of that. In speaking to me about it, he said that because homosexuals can’t procreate, they have to recruit other people to be homosexuals. That’s what he told me, that he was recruited.”
“His whole perception of when he got saved…he fell so in love with God. So did I. That’s why Lonnie came back to marry me.”
Next: The explosion of the Jesus movement at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa