Among the Jesus Freaks
In 1967, a white Southern Baptist minister named Bob Marsh moved his family to Laurel, Mississippi, home of his new pulpit at the First Baptist Church, and of Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi Klu Klux Klan. In his new memoir The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Segregation at the Dawn of the New South, published by Basic Books, Bob Marsh’s son Charles tells the story of his father’s struggle with moral indecision and his own prejudices in the face of racist violence. The following excerpt recounts how his father, a conservative man who believed in clean-cut Christianity, found new courage on an evangelical mission to the counterculture in 1968.
I was in the garage helping my father with his workout when Tommy Lester showed up. Tommy wore a skin-tight muscle shirt, stood six foot six, and was skinny as a rail. He had grown up in the cream-brick rancher across the street and attended the First Baptist Church until he left home for college. When he graduated from Ole Miss as a premed major, he told his friends in the Baptist Student Union that he was moving to Hollywood to make it in show business.
When they called him crazy and said he didn’t know the first thing about acting, he told them he’d done some things in Laurel before coming to college, played a ghost in a Little Theater production. Besides, Hollywood needed an actor who was “tall and country and ugly.”
One night a few months later, Paul Henning, the producer and creator of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” saw Tommy in a dinner theater performance of Oklahoma. He liked what he saw, and after an audition, signed him to the role of the nitwit Eb on the sitcom, “Green Acres.”
Tommy gave my father a whack on the shoulder that would have stunned a lesser man. When he saw me, he stretched out his arms in anticipation of a bear hug, and nearly threw me into the low ceiling with the force of his embrace. Then his eyes searched out mine, shifting to serious business. He squared off in front of me and slowly extended his flexed biceps (which quivered in the air like a turkey beard). He told me to punch his arm, and I did. He howled laughing.
Then Tommy took a turn on the bench. The bar wobbled like a dove winged by birdshot, and worse. He’d forgotten to secure the lock-clamp, and when his right arm pushed ahead of the left, swaying back and forth like a gospel singer, the left-side weights unloosed themselves and cascaded to the concrete floor, and then all the weights on his right side propelled the bar and his body and finally the bench itself into a heap of iron and flesh.
“I’m gonna be in Laurel only a few more days,” he said upon resurfacing. “But before I go, Bob, I want an answer. Will you come out west in June and give us all a big dose of good ole’ gospel preaching?”
On his feet and smiling, Tommy explained how the Spirit was moving over Hollywood and Los Angeles and the whole of Southern California. “It’s outta sight, man. You’ve gotta see it yourself. The scene’s on fire.”
He promised he’d set up some really cool speaking opportunities and rap sessions with youth leaders in the L.A. area along with a a once-in-a-lifetime gig in the Sierra Nevadas at a retreat of the Haight-Ashbury Agape Fellowship. Tommy said he knew all the on-fire Christians in California and that the Haight scene was “groovy, man.” You’d never know it was run by Southern Baptists, he joked. Tommy said he’d shared his testimony at one of their meetings and it was a great experience. Several kids had given their lives to Christ, although he had to admit they were a strange bunch of people and he really felt his own gifts were better served in the Hollywood vicinity. Tommy also said he’d show us Universal Studios and the houses of the celebrities and Disneyland. We would go yachting with his girlfriend, whose father owned a bunch of Big Boy’s restaurants. We’d have a blast.
“You pray about it now. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. You can’t really say no to this, can you man?”
We prayed about it that night at dinnertime, even though we had each in our own way already sensed God’s will in favor of the trip. “Going to California might be the best thing for us,” my father said. “It’s an unbelievable mission field out there.” A midsummer revival in Shreveport would have to be rescheduled — which would not go over well since it was almost May. He’d probably be giving up his opportunity of a repeat invitation. But my father said he didn’t mind. “Right now the thought of Shreveport just makes my heart sink,” he said. “No, I think I’ll call Tommy and say yes.” Mother nodded her head solemnly in agreement. I agreed too, even though I was thinking more of movie stars and sunny beaches and the promise of a visit with the fab pig Arnold Ziffel of “Green Acres” fame.
We prepared for the journey each in our own way. My father had his secretary order some back issues of Village Voice so he could familiarize himself with the mindset of the counterculture, offer a sympathetic word to the hippies about Cage and Warhol and Huxley. He also wrote the First Baptist congregation and shared with them the burdens of his heart. “I have never in all my ministry felt such a real need for somebody to lift me to God in daily prayer. The pressure of being keenly prepared, the realization that so many are now depending on me to come through, and the overwhelming fact that before me will be hundreds of lost souls, cause me to call on you dear people to pray.”
My mother studied her Bible, as she always did daily, but now scribbling into the margins of her Philips version edifying words for the moment at hand. Alongside the story of Amos (the unlikely tender of sycamore trees God called from the backwaters to speak judgement on the nation), she wrote, “Raise up Bob, O Lord, to proclaim your precious and Holy Word.” I used my allowance to buy some reading materials for the trip west: the latest Mad magazines on sale at the Busy Bee and a book of jokes involving a little boy with a crew cut named Marvin.
As promised, in California we visited Universal Studios. You’d have thought I was their long-lost Mississippi cousin, the way the folks from Hooterville welcomed me to the set. There were Haney and Kimball, Ziffel and Drucker (whose general store also served “Petticoat Junction”), the house painter, Ralf Monroe, and Alf, his androgynous partner, and Arnold the pig. Tommy whispered in my ear (since it was common knowledge that Christians needed to be as wise as serpents in winning the pagans) that Mr. Haney had recently surrendered his life to Christ, and I whispered back, “praise the Lord.” I didn’t let on to the friendly walleyed salesman that I knew whose side he was on, but I felt my heart warm towards my new brother in the Spirit.
Early the next morning we set out for the retreat in northern California. My father was all business. He had opened up on the front seat a map of the state with the day’s destination marked in red felt-tip as well as the Los Angeles Times weather report. He had also purchased a pharmacy bag of travel provisions: vitamins, a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, Listerine, some Ayds chocolate chews, a suppository, throat lozenges, a Street and Smith’s College Football Annual, and a vial of antibiotics in case we needed them. He had personally checked the engine of the rental car — tapped his fingers against a hose running from a pipe, pulled at the air filter cover to make sure it was screwed on tight. He knew nothing about automobiles.
My mother was reading her Bible, and reminded my father to pray for the trip just as he was about to put the car in gear. So he prayed for the usual things: for traveling mercies upon us. That Christ would be edified in all our words and actions. But when he turned his thoughts to the upcoming week, his voice trembled softly as he said, “Oh God, make us instruments of your will in reaching the lost youth of America.”
We drove up Interstate 99 toward San Francisco and then west along State Highway 108 into the Stanislaus National Forest. The air was cooler in the mountains, the sky blue and clear, and the mood lightened. By the time we arrived at the camp in Jennes Park after lunch, my father was telling funny stories about himself. Like the one about scoring the winning basket for the opposing team in high school, or the three-hundred-pound man who slipped during a baptismal service and sent waves of water crashing over the protective glass into the choir.
The colorful hand-painted Spiritbuses from the Haight-Ashbury Fellowship had already arrived, bringing several hundred college and high school students to the mountain retreat. I had seen hippies of the Southern variety lounging around Jackson Square in New Orleans, and I’d heard many a cautionary word about the devilish counterculture brewing in the Bay Area. But this was the real thing, baby. The epicenter of world hippiedom, temporarily relocated two hundred miles east.
We entered a strange world, beginning with the youth leader who greeted us outside the cafeteria with his index finger pointed in the “one-way Jesus” sign. The man — to whom was introduced to us as Kent — looked a lot like the Savior himself, the Warner Sallman version at least, long brown hair falling to his shoulders, the eyes gently expectant, the beard, and the poncho. No doubt if he had shown up in Laurel looking like this, someone would have called Sheriff Merle and had him brought in for questioning. But Kent was an evangelist under the employ of the Southern Baptist Convention and was turning acidheads on to Jesus and baptizing them in record numbers. The suits who ran the Home Mission Board in Nashville didn’t care much for longhairs — or evangelistic innovation in general — but they loved the stats Kent was putting up. He welcomed us with open arms and rapid-fire “praise Jesuses,” “right ons,” and “hallelujahs.” He offered me a soul-slap, raised up his hand, palm side down — “give me some skin, brother,” and I stuck out my hand and smiled.
Our home for the week was a forest-green cabin beside a stream, equipped with a hot plate and a fridge in the kitchen, woodstove, and toilet. If we wanted a bath, we could use the mountain waters. There was a double bed in the main room next to the woodstove, and a single roll-out tucked into a nook alongside the kitchen. I told my parents there was no way I was going to sleep back there, and rolled the bed into the main room next to theirs.
The retreat began in the late afternoon. A large canvas tent was pitched in a recently mowed field to serve as the common meeting place. The field was surrounded by meadows and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The students slept in cabins built on the periphery, with a cafeteria, recreation building, tennis courts, and softball diamond a short walk away.
Our days had little structure apart from the evening worship service. The daily events happened spontaneously, we were told, according to the moving of the Spirit. We were “resisting the sterility of organized religion,” Kent explained. Throughout the week, there were pray-ins, sing-ins, be-ins, hug-ins, and rap sessions. Sometimes staffers and students sat alone in the fields, picking wildflowers and leaves of grass, or staring into the starry skies at night, encouraged “to spend a little personal time with God.”
The girls flocked to my mother, made her an honorary hippie, and told her the details of their psychedelic and erotic escapades, and she listened patiently and non-judgmentally as usual. A girl named Daisy gave her a Guatemalan blouse and a headband of flowers. Daisy had a black boyfriend and had taken LSD seventeen times, my mother learned. And she’d found God during one recent hallucination — the most beautiful experience of her life, serene, full of peace, like a meadow of flowers. Daisy said that she’d decided to come to the retreat when she saw the fliers in a coffee shop and fell in love with a photograph of the campgrounds. My mother had never heard a testimony quite like hers, but she didn’t immediately refuse Daisy’s claims. She spoke of faith as a pilgrimage, a “providential tapestry” woven together in Christ, and surmised that even an epiphany as strange as Daisy’s might still “be used by God to accomplish his purposes.” My mother was working hard “to relate,” “to make faith relevant,” as Kent had asked of my parents, but the simple message of purity and peril didn’t seem to be getting through, and I think my mother knew it.
My father couldn’t find anyone who shared an interest in Southeastern Conference football, but he made his mark just the same. He stopped shaving for the week, initially due to a lack of hot water. At home he was a two-a-day man, but in California, he let it go for good. He liked the way the beard linked him to the prevailing spirit of dissent and how it was appreciated by all, including my mother. I told him if he didn’t shave it by the time he got home, he’d get fired, and he looked me straight in the eye and laughed. He’d also read enough about Camus and Sartre in seminary to keep up with most Berkeley dropouts. He attracted a group of guys who wore army fatigues and smoked cigarettes, and they huddled together and talked about “dialectic” and “resistance” and “the pursuit of an alternative consciousness.” Still, when I found my father leading a rap session one afternoon on the music of the Rolling Stones (“meeting the kids where they’re at,” he explained later ), pausing occasionally to play a cut from “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” I thought I was hallucinating.
My father had always seemed so far removed from things like pop music and offbeat ideas and from just hanging out and shooting the bull. And it always seemed he had to be right — like when he preached a sermon, you couldn’t disagree with him about anything without making him angry or nervous. But the hippies were disagreeing with him, sometimes shaking their heads in frustration, like when he told them that “we’ll all be a thousand light-years from home until we open our hearts to God,” or “Give Mick Jagger credit for admitting that he doesn’t know wrong from right, because it takes a heart cleansed by the blood of Jesus to wash our consciences clean.” When the hippies objected that Jesus was just a crutch or a myth, or maybe a prophet but not God, he came right back. “If we don’t search for truth with a capital T, we’re all going to end up like Brian Jones.” Not a bad call, since the Stones’ guitarist wouldn’t be dead for a year. (My father was thinking of the recent nine-month prison sentence for drug charges.) The man was on a roll.
Rock music soared from the loudspeakers nailed into telephone poles around the central field. At Lake Forest Ranch, the youth camp in northern Mississippi and site of most of my father’s prior guest appearances, the only music you’d hear was Tennessee Ernie Ford — and that only to wake us up in the morning. But in California, a hippie named Mark invited me to the meadow where his friends stood in anticipation and pointed to the speakers, beckoning silence with his finger. As a Hammond organ laid down a hypnotic beat, followed by guitars, drums, and bass, Mark and I were joined by more campers coming from other points of the fields, from the cabins, the cafeteria, the footpaths along the hillside. We were soon dancing to the drowsy rhythms of “In-a-Gadda-da-Vita,” and didn’t stop until the last bar of the seventeen-minute song had come to an end.
Kent insisted that we also listen to some songs by a friend of his named Larry Norman. Norman was a puckish songwriter with long blond hair and an acned face. He would be known to many in the Bay Area for his columns in Right On! — the Berkeley free paper published by the World Liberation Front, a Christian alternative for disillusioned members of the secular Left (as the WLF claimed). By the end of the 1960s, Norman would appear regularly as the star attraction in the “Jesus-rock” fests that were created to rival Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, emerging as the most influential singer of the Jesus movement. But for now, he was still just hanging out with his younger sister and her friends at Richard’s Christian Halfway House, or at the Living Room, or at any of the other Jesus-freak coffee shops and hostels in the Bay Area. He was working with a rock band called People, writing songs and recording them in his basement, not quite sure where he was going to end up, but yet certain he wanted to be called a Jesus freak. Norman believed in the teachings of Christ he had found the missing piece of the counterculture, the hidden source of its dreams and hopes, God made rebel flesh, divinity at the margins. He was writing pamphlets criticizing the pop music industry — stars like Clapton, Jagger, and Paige who exploited black musical genius, ripping off any musical form at the expense of religious depth. He was also scolding the mainline evangelical church for its complicity in racism, ecological decay, Vietnam, and all-around bourgeois smugness. Norman combined a quirky evangelical piety with radical politics and unleashed his sneering anger at old-time believers like some born-again Sid Vicious, offending both left and right along the way.
I was born and raised an orphan
In a land that once was free
In a land that poured its love out on the moon.
And I grew up in the shadows
Of your silos filled with grain,
But you never helped to fill my empty spoon.
You killed a black man at midnight
Just for talking to you daughter,
Then you made his wife your mistress
And you leave her without water.
And the sheet you wear upon your face
Is the sheet your children sleep on
And at every meal you say a prayer
You don’t believe but still you keep on.
And your money says “In God We Trust”
But it’s against the law to pray in school
You say we beat the Russians to the moon
And I say you starved your children to do it.
You say all men are equal, all men are brothers
Then why are the rich more equal than others
Don’t ask me for the answers, I’ve only got one,
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son.
This was a long way from “Rock of ages cleft for me / let me hide myself in thee.” Mark and his friends dug it, and so did I.
A Mexican family named Garcia lived in one of the staff houses on the hillside behind the cafeteria. Jorge, the father, was an ordained Baptist minister who’d pastored a biracial church in Pasadena before taking a job at the camp. One evening we ate a meal on card tables at their home, the Garcias and their five children, Kent and his wife, and my family. Jorge grilled chickens and served them with a platter of tortillas and enchiladas. We drank fruit punch from tall plastic cups. I listened as the family sang the blessings in Spanish.
After supper, the children and I played basketball in a nearby field. I told the Garcia kids I liked their mom’s cooking. I usually didn’t like Mexican food. I’d eaten it once in a TV dinner and gotten a stomachache. But I liked eating with them. The chicken reminded me of Dixie League barbecues, so tender it just fell off the bone. I told them they should come visit me in Mississippi. We could go eat chicken at the baseball park. We could play on the same team, too.
One of the older kids laughed out loud.
“You think we could go to a baseball game with you?” he asked
“Sure,” I replied, and laughed with him. “There’s a great swimming hole I know up at Walkway Springs, and they’ve got a high dive and the coldest water you’ve ever felt.”
“We’re Mexicans, haven’t you noticed?” he said.
“I know that. We could grill chickens up there. They have some barbecue pits you can use.”
“Do you know what that means? We’re niggers!” he said before I could answer.
“No you’re not,” I said, taken by his words.
“The big fat sheriff would lock us up in jail. He’d beat us with his billy club. He’d chain us to a tree and make a bonfire.”
“No he wouldn’t,” I said. “That’s not right. Don’t say that.”
His words saddened me. I felt confused and afraid. But the children were smiling, waiting for more.
“The KKK would stand around the bonfire in the white sheets and sing KKK songs. ‘We’ve caught us some niggers. We’re grilling us some niggers. The Mexican kind. A little bit spicy.'”
The other Garcias were laughing now.
“Stop it,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You shouldn’t say that.”
“Well, you will soon enough,” the brother said. And with that said, he held up a baseball and tossed it softly toward me. I reached out and caught it my glove.
When the sun had set on the field and forest, we walked up the hillside back to the house. The brother put his hand around my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry I scared you a little back there. I’ve never seen a Mississippi boy before. You’re going to be okay, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
“Just don’t forget about us Garcias,” he said.
“I won’t,” I said, and we raced the distance to the porch.
Inside the house, Jorge was playing his guitar. His wife stood next to him shaking a tambourine. In the middle of the living room, my mother was dancing with my father. I’d never seen her dance before. Dancing was the devil’s business — Baptists didn’t make love standing up, the joke went, because it might lead to dancing — and here was my mother, red-faced, nearly ecstatic, swinging between my mother and Kent in syncopated rhythm.
I stood at the doorway and watched. It was no joking matter. I had always abstained from dancing at school parties. Honoring my body as the “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” was right up there at the top of the list of my Man of God Essentials. I would stand near the snack table with a few other pure souls and look disdainfully on the whole wretched scene before me. When my grandmother Lilly told me one day that my mother had danced in high school, I confronted her with the shocking discovery, nearly reducing her to tears when she realized the full extent of my feelings — anger, betrayal, disappointment. She’d told me she was sorry and tried to persuade me that her social dancing preceded her commitment to Christ — but I didn’t believe her for a second, which only fueled my anger.
But that was then. Now, in California, my mother wasn’t apologizing for anything. She was winking her eye at me instead, just before spinning around into my father’s arms and shouting “Ole!” “Ole, my foot!” It was as if she’d been doing this kind of thing for years, and I blushed with embarrassment at the sight.
The last afternoon my father and I spent relaxing on the banks of the mountain stream that ran beneath our cabin. The air was dry, and the sunlight poured through the fir trees in clean lines on the surface of the water.
I had taken off my T-shirt, letting the sunshine warm my skin. We were talking about the week that was nearly over. My father had asked my impressions about the friends I had made, the new adventures, and the new ideas. He asked about the areas of my life that had been touched or convicted or changed. Had I grown in the Lord?
I told him I really wanted to get the Larry Norman album when it came out.
“I like him a lot,” I said. “We should think about getting him to Laurel. I bet the kids in the church would like him too. I bet he could fire everybody up.” I liked having my father next to me on the smooth ground.
“Let’s pray about that,” he said, looking at me with a smile.
“Where can you get Larry Norman albums in Mississippi?” I asked, blowing a cluster of dandelions into a soft breeze.
“Now that’s a good question,” he said. “I guess Mrs. Moates at the Baptist Book Store could order them.
“Or we could get Kent to send us some in the mail,” he added after a pause.
“You think I could start a rock band in Laurel, a Christian rock band? We could play at ‘Saturdays in the Park’ and at youth revivals. Johnny Helveston could play bass. And Joey could play drums. I know his momma would like that. She’d be glad to hear him play something besides ‘Wipeout.'”
“What instrument would you play?” my father asked.
“I could sing, or play the guitar like Brother Garcia, something like that.”
“That’s an interesting idea. Let’s pray about that, too.” He closed his eyes and leaned back in the grass. His body was still.
“Dad, I’ve been thinking about Mississippi, you know, going home, what it’s going to be like. I kind of like it out here. Maybe we could come back sometime and stay longer.”
“I’ve been thinking about Mississippi, too,” he said. “Feels like a long way away, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. I don’t really miss it.” I was surprised by my boldness.
“You know what, son? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t miss it either.”
He started laughing, and I laughed too.
“Hey, Brother Bob. Up here!” The voice came from the hillside above us. The hippie Mark and his girlfriend waved from the hiking trail across the stream.
We waved back and smiled.
“You know what I’m doing, preacher?” Mark shouted.
“Looks like you’re taking a hike,” my father said.
“Guess again. What do you think I’m doing?”
My father threw up his hands.
“You’re communing with nature,” he said.
“I’m walking the Jesus path!” Mark shouted.
With his long curly hair tied back in a red bandana, you could see his face light up in a smile.
When my father tried to answer, his voice broke. He offered Mark a simple “one-way” sign in response, and the hikers disappeared over the hill.
My father turned to me, started to speak, then stopped himself. After a moment of silence, he said, “I love you, son.”
“Me, too,” I said, reaching forward and plunging my hand into the cold stream, splashing water across his bearded face.
We packed up the rental car the next morning, and as we were headed down the dirt road to the main highway for the drive to the San Francisco airport, I watched the tall trees blur into a blue-green streak across the bright sky. I told my parents I hoped this hadn’t all been a dream. But by the silence that descended and remained with us for long stretches of time on the trip home, I could tell none of us was sure.
Still none of us would ever be the same. That was for sure. The notion that God could use hippies, freaks, and radicals “to accomplish his purposes” seemed as unexpected to my parents as it did to me. We never thought you might hear the voice of God talking among outsiders and outcasts. More than once during the week, my father had recalled his encounter with Marcus Cooley and decided it was high time he started listening. My mother wrote in her Bible that she’d learned to trust God in “fresh and exciting ways,” to “turn over her fears to the Almighty Father, our refuge from danger.”
I figured that if God could use Mark and Daisy, he could use anybody, or anything. “You’ve got to get out of your save haven and make your witness count, you gotta make it on street level,” Mark had told me as we were saying our farewells. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. But the words together somehow in my mind in the form of a big wide-open space. And it was as if God suddenly filled that space, and the thought seared its way into irrevocable memory and imagination, so that every time thereafter when I thought of God, I thought of great expanses of light and freedom, and I thought of California.
Charles Marsh teaches religious studies at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, 2014). He thinks he may have borrowed enough courage from friends and therapists to finally write a memoir of his evangelical anxiety, a condition related to rapture panic and lust, and not yet identified by the DSM.