Revisiting the Haight-Ashbury

The Summer of Love

Early in 1963, when I was in the early phases of becoming a Christian, one of the many things I tried was a heavy-duty experiment with high-test LSD and full-strength mescaline. That legal, medical experiment changed my life forever, no doubt about that. (See What LSD Did for Me). But as usual, God turned that disastrous bad choice into an opportunity for me to know and help a whole generation of dropouts, street people, acid-heads and hippie freaks. I found it was easy to identify with the experiences of young people who were on mind-altering drugs, and with those in the anti-Establishment cultural wars of those days. To this day I'd say I am more at home around the poor and disenfranchised than any other group.

It was natural for me to want to get involved with the hipper movement, first, during The Summer of Love (1967) in San Francisco The Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco runs into the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. It was a convenient place for the vast crowds from out of town to gather in '67. Summer days in the City can be very pleasant as well The droves of young people who came to San Francisco "with a flower in their hair," were able to sleep in the park, scrounge food from the "Free Store" and enjoy some weeks of continuous partying--with the help of booze, pot, and acid--quite a bit of it free or easy to get.

I remember those days as if they were yesterday. My former secretary and her new husband, newly married, had rented a big three story Victorian house in the Haight in order to help people in that part of town with housing and spiritual help. In the fall of 1967 when the weather turned cool, the huge summer crowds left for home in Iowa or Nebraska. The long hair got cut of, the flowered shirts vanished, and droves of summer drops outs from society went home to get a job or go back to school so mom and dad would feed them.

The Jesus Movement followed in short order after the main wave of the Hippie Movement--but the latter movement did not last very long. Ted and Liz Wise were very active is those days. Calvary Chapel was born. Body Life flourished at PBC. Rock Bands sprang into existence out of nowhere. Art and fashion changed radically. Recreational drug came in to stay. At the time some of us thought a great revival might be underway, among the Jesus People--but it is surprising how few lasting converts to Christ stayed on with the Lord after the initial momentum of those days died away. When us old-time "hippie-Christians" get together to talk we have many fond memories though none of us applauds the downward spiral of American culture since World War II.

In 1983 I got acquainted with a wonderful street evangelism group in San Francisco, SOS Ministries (still going strong). Larry Rosenbaum founded this outstanding street-Christian work in 1970 and has been at it ever since. What out-of-town visitors may not know about San Francisco is that there are virtually zero of the mainline churches in San Francisco still faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in any way, shape or form. Many very small churches (quite weak and ineffective) are scattered through San Francisco, but the real life, I believe, is in the street Christians.

During the day, the streets of San Francisco are filled with nicely dressed white collar workers who occupy luxury offices in the city's many high rise office towers. At night these high-income people disappear into the suburbs where living is easy.

This means that San Francisco at night is far different than San Francisco by day. The city has a large community of poor Hispanics--whole extended families living in a single apartment. The black community is large and generally also a very low income group living in sub-standard housing for the most part. The Chinese community in SF is also very large, though generally more thriving and industrious--as it has been since the Gold Rush days. The City and County of San Francisco does not have room for more people so the population has stayed fixed for many years at around three-quarters of a million people. The surrounding suburbs add up to over 5 million people. (But, church attendance in the entire Bay Area is under 1%).

A person with spiritual discernment who enters San Francisco will soon sense that the unseen angels who rule the City from behind the scenes are a very different group from their fellow angels resident in the heavenly places outside of San Francisco. Big churches are found in the suburbs, as well as lots of affluence, and a more traditional American culture, in general all very liberal politically. The Bay Area big suburban churches are mostly country clubs and cultural ghettos so they don't add up to much influence on the overall society of the Bay Area, the state, the nation, or the world.

San Francisco has a huge gay population--thought to number 100,000 or more. The members of this community were not (mostly) born in San Francisco. They have moved here from the Midwest. San Francisco goes out of its way to be tolerant and does nothing that might drive away the tourists or further alienate the minorities. It's a mecca for all manner of outcasts. Of course the large fraction of gays in the City has helped build up a strong gay political caucus with lots of clout across the country, well out of proportion to their overall numbers in the country as a whole.

San Francisco has a huge homeless population which no visitor to the City can overlook any longer. There was very big homeless group visible on the streets in 1983, the last time I really did any (Bible teaching) work in San Francisco.

So, I was very excited earlier this year to be invited back to the Haight-Ashbury!

Right down on old Haight Street there now exists a fantastic community of street-Christians who call themselves The Prodigal Project. After nearly two decades of being mostly out of touch with the Haight-Ashbury I was suddenly back in a culture that had hardly changed since the '60s. The quaint shops and eating places are still there. The homeless are still there--but now they are everywhere--and the majority of these are very young. This is the heart-breaking part about getting involved in San Francisco as it really is. Kids on the street are everywhere. No homes, no families, no jobs and not much hope. Virtual orphans waiting to be adopted by friend or foe.

Out of this generation of street Christians some wonderful men women and kids are discovering Jesus Christ and his eternal family.

Having now seen first hand the quality of Christian living at the Prodigal Project, I can say that I would trade any one of those former ex-homeless new followers of Christ for a hundred apathetic, indifferent church-goers from down on the Peninsula where I live. My new Christian friends in the city are full of God's love. Their worship is genuine and spontaneous--all day long. They have nothing the world considers valuable but the quality of their lives is unmistakable. Most of all they eager to learn all they can from the Bible. At first I felt like an outsider on my initial visit there. (I was dressed a bit differently for instance). After an hour and a half together in Romans they said I could come back. What an honor that is!

Back home in Santa Clara, a mere 40 miles from the Haight, I find myself back in the illusory world of staid Peninsula living, longing for life in the city with Jesus on the streets--just like one sees in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A big part of me wants to move to the Haight and rent a room with my new friends there. Were I tad bit younger I probably would do just that.

My wonderful friends who took me back to the Haight Ashbury have sent me the following short diary of our grand adventure there.

Our First Visit: Thursday, February 5, 2004

It was dark by the time we arrived in San Francisco. With little hope of finding a spot on Haight Street, we parked near Kezar Stadium. The four of us strolled through the last 100 yards of Golden Gate Park on foot. We made our way gradually with Lambert, now almost 72 and attended by his faithful companion Arthur Itis. The park birthed us at the intersection where Haight Street begins. Here a stone patio bulged into the grassy park where a ragtag party of about 25 people and four or five dogs loitered, some standing in groups and some sitting in circles on the cement and grass. Two dogs were barking at each other. A homeless-looking youth yelled at one dog to stop. The crowd looked to be mostly in their early twenties, some wearing black leather and bracelets with spiky silver studs, others sporting long dread locks and wearing bright Jamaican colors. Their talking, laughing, and jeering mixed prominently with the din of city traffic. Puffs of smoke arose from the gathering and the smell of marijuana seemed to drift along with us as we started down the Haight. Lambert chuckled and made a joke, implying his remembrance of events decades past when he had worked in this scene before.

Lambert came alive as we maneuvered through the mob on our way up Haight street, a nightly circus of obscene tattoos, insanity, spikes and leather. A filthy, swollen-faced man slept bundled in a sleeping bag along the walkway. Several young hippie-looking "swinger kids" eyed us as we passed by, screening for undercover cops and scoping for customers to buy pot and an assortment of other illegal narcotics. Puffy-eyed heroine addicts sat slumped against the wall, human trophies displaying the skillful work of the deceptive one who seeks only to steal, kill, and destroy. In the midst of such darkness the light brighter shines, and Lambert was more than happy to invade. In Santa Clara where he lived it seemed just foggy all the time, with neither light nor darkness manifesting itself too clearly.

A block up Haight Street and we were at our destination: an inconspicuous flat above Rockin'Java Cafe neighboring Amoeba Records. We turned down an alley covered in bright graffiti murals and ascended a steep staircase leading us through the back entrance into a vastly different world from the street below. Here we were met with hugs and great sighs of joy, delight, and reunion. Dreadlocks and piercings abounded, yet the peaceful smiles and bright eyes made clear they were not of this world. This was the flat occupied by the Prodigal Project.

We had come for a Thursday night staff Bible study which Lambert was to teach, starting in Romans 1. This community of believers lived here for the sake of Christ's love which compelled them to shine in this dark corner of Haight Street. Some of them had once wandered that very street themselves, lost and plummeting the downward spiral of rebellion and deception and addiction. The Prodigal Project has had a presence in the Haight/Ashbury scene for over 10 years. Through sharing the gospel, their home, and their lives with wandering seekers from the street, they have seen many lives gloriously transformed. After several years of discipleship and training, a number of these young people are now back at the flat on Haight Street with a passion to share the good news which has been their saving grace.

The Prodigal Project's mission is simple: to reach every nomadic traveler in the world with the truth of Jesus' love, to watch God transform their lives, and to see them turn and freely give the same good news to others. First Thessalonians 2:8 holds the key to their method: "We were delighted to share with you not only the gospel but also our very lives, because you had become so dear to us." They build relationships through spending time on the streets getting to know their people whom they love. A bountiful red wagon greets the Haight several times each weak offering a warm meal, home-made cookies, eternal hope, and a listening ear. The flat is often open for worship and Bible study and Spirit-led hospitality.

The hippie culture for which the Haight/Ashbury district is famous has now expanded its influence and woven itself through many other scenes and locations throughout the world. In North America, the Prodigal Project engages the new age community, university students, and "house hippies" by establishing Christian communities in key cities and attending environmental conferences, major concerts, festivals and rainbow gatherings. Beyond North America, there is a growing scene of global travelers and spiritual explorers seeking their own experiences within the world's cultures and religions. To engage these wandering seekers, the Prodigal Project births nomadic communities bringing the good news throughout Israel, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Central and South America. The Prodigal Project is passionately driven to see the Biblical gospel communicated clearly, powerfully, creatively, and globally in both word and deed...

After a tasty meal of lentil soup and sweet fellowship with the "family", we nestled into couches in the living room where the meeting opened with prayer and worship. African and Nepali drums kept rhythm while the guitar and a chorus of passionate voices sang praises. Lambert held a captive audience and brought home the first chapter of Romans with much humor and storytelling. The meeting ended again with prayer and worship, the life-line of this vibrant, evangelistic community. Spontaneous songs and heart-felt prayers rose as incense, and intercession tolled for the city and the nation.

None of us wanted to leave, but the long drive back to Lambert's house beckoned us to bid farewell to our beloved brothers and sisters. We descended the staircase toward the chaos below, strengthened by joy. God is at work within us and the darkness.

May the light of God continue to dawn on the Haight.

Christine Huff, Christy Kiefer, Ian Brown and Lambert Dolphin

Posted March 8, 2004.