“Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher,” a documentary directed and produced by indie filmmaker David Di Sabatino, isn’t easy to categorize. Its opening credits probably say it best: This film is “A Bible Story by David Di Sabatino.”
Lonnie Frisbee’s life certainly sounds like that of a Bible character. He had a radical conversion experience, is credited with performing miracles and helped to spark two renewal movements that have impacted millions.
Di Sabatino’s account of Frisbee’s brief but significant life isn’t distilled and sanitized; it’s told warts and all. But the contradictions the film exposes are what make the story of Lonnie Frisbee most believable—and biblical.
Charismatic, enigmatic, prophetic, eccentric, tragic.
You could use those words to describe Samson, David, Ezekiel, Elijah, John the Baptist—or Lonnie Frisbee. For the people who knew him, those are the kinds of words they use throughout the film as they recount various vignettes from Frisbee’s life. But maybe the best way to describe Lonnie Frisbee would simply be “forgotten.”
Born in 1949, Frisbee left home at the age of 15 and was soon immersed in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Shortly after his conversion at 17, he came under the tutelage of evangelical pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Though they came from different ends of the cultural spectrum, the two found a spiritual synergy. Within six months Calvary Chapel’s attendance grew from 200 to 2,000. The nascent Jesus People Movement, the melding of the counterculture with evangelical Christianity, was jump-started and soon featured in Look, Life and Time magazines.
Today Calvary Chapel has over 1,000 affiliated congregations. Yet there is no mention of Lonnie Frisbee in the official history of the denomination.
After a falling out with Smith in the early 1970s, Frisbee eventually teamed up with John Wember, pastor of a Calvary affiliated congregation in California. Wember’s congregation had been seeking a fuller expression of the Pentecostal theology they subscribed to, but had not witnessed the visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit they sought.
On Mother’s Day 1980, Wember opened the pulpit to Frisbee. During the service there were reports of miraculous healings, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of the Spirit that Wember and his flock had been praying for. Within a few months Wember’s congregation also had experienced phenomenal growth, severed its ties with Calvary Chapel and eventually changed its name to The Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Wember became the leading proponent of what came to be known as the “Signs and Wonders Theology.” By 1983 Wember had dismissed Frisbee from the church.
Today there are over 1,000 churches worldwide affiliated with the Vineyard movement. As with Calvary Chapel, there is no mention of Lonnie Frisbee in the official history of the Vineyard movement.
When Frisbee first began giving his testimony at Calvary Chapel in the late 1960s, he was very open about the fact that he had been a dope-smoking, acid-dropping, free-loving hippie before he became a Christian. He also admitted to having been involved in the Laguna Beach gay scene before his conversion. He was soon advised to edit out any mention of homosexuality when giving future testimonies.
The people who knew Frisbee best are split as to whether he was gay, bisexual or straight. Regardless of his actual sexual orientation, Lonnie Frisbee died of AIDS in 1993. Although during his last few months he was able to let go of the bitterness that had dominated his spirit for the last few years of his life, Frisbee knew the very churches he helped build had forsaken him.
Normally, when a film raises the issue of homosexuality in the church, it’s easy to predict which side a person will take based on denomination or theological leanings. “Frisbee”raises the stakes in this debate because the subject of this documentary was not only reported to have been involved in homosexual activity, he was also reported to have performed miracles.
Liberal Christians that openly accept gay clergy in the name of inclusiveness and diversity might hesitate to accept a gay minister who speaks in tongues, claims to have given sight to the blind or made the lame to walk. Conservative Christians might find themselves drawn to a mighty prayer warrior brave enough to walk in faith and claim the promises of scripture, but cast him aside if they found out he was involved in a same-sex relationship.
Regardless of which side you might come down on, no can deny that God’s hand was on Lonnie Frisbee. God used an obviously flawed and broken vessel to bring thousands of people into the kingdom—just like he did in the Bible.
Tim Adams is a freelance writer and former pastor who lives in San Antonio, Texas.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated.
Producer-Director: David Di Sabatino
The movie’s official Web site is here.