photo by Sarah Nichols
When I was in college, I lived one summer on the north side of Chicago in the Uptown neighborhood. Across the street from my apartment was an old high-rise building with an awning bearing the unlikely name “The Friendly Towers.”
I soon learned that the building—the old Chelsea Hotel, built in the twenties when Al Capone ruled the neighborhood—was now home to Jesus People, USA. JPUSA (lovingly pronounced jah-poo-zah by its members) is a Christian community that came out of the Jesus movement of the sixties and seventies.
The story of the acquisition of the high rise in the nineties serves as a telling anecdote about the character of the Jesus People. The elegant ten-story building with stained glass ceilings in the lobby descended into shabbiness as the neighborhood sank into poverty. In the sixties, the Chelsea was turned into privately-owned low-cost housing for seniors. In 1989, the building went into receivership after the health department cited the property owners for roach infestation, lack of hot water, and providing insufficient heat to residents.
Someone needed to buy the building out of bankruptcy, but there was a problem. The elderly residents would lose their homes. Enter the Jesus People. This Christian community, based in Chicago since 1972 and now several hundred strong, needed a building, and the price of this one was right. Plus, they had a solution for the seniors. They let them stay. JPUSA folded the elderly residents into their flock; caring for them became part of the mission. The top three floors of the building, renamed The Friendly Towers, are still occupied by low-income seniors today.
The people coming and going from JPUSA were a motley crew: dreadlocked, tattooed, overweight, or dangerously thin. Many battled addictions. Occasionally, fights broke out on the sidewalk. They were a messy, beautiful lot, idealists falling far short of any ideal, reaching out faithfully and imperfectly to the broken Uptown neighborhood.
It was with the memory of these neighbors that I eagerly picked up God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge, a compelling, readable history of the Jesus People movement.
Eskridge traces the movement back to a handful of couples in the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-sixties. The Beat lifestyle of drugs and promiscuity had taken its toll on the marriages of these proto-hippies, and they sought help from a little Baptist church in Mill Valley. No sooner had they confessed Jesus as Lord than they hit the streets as missionaries to the hippies. While hopes ran high among the youths who landed in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for the Summer of Love in ’67, by the summer’s end, disillusionment and despair set in. Even the hippies couldn’t get along. Eskridge writes, “The new Jesus People had an explanatory framework that made sense of the downward spiral of both straight and hip culture.”
Jesus offered what the hippie revolution could not—an explanation of the evil within the heart of every man along with forgiveness and freedom from bondage to it. He also brought the message of a new kingdom, one in which there would be no war and all of God’s people would live together as children.
The biggest point of friction between the early Jesus People and the established Evangelical church was the fact that the hippie converts didn’t see the need to “come out from them and be separate.” Not only did the Jesus People come to church in shaggy hair and flip-flops, many continued to use drugs. Several of the new believers had their first spiritual experience during LSD trips; they saw smoking joints and dropping acid as enhancements to their faith. In Eskridge’s words, “This was not your grandmother’s sawdust trail.”
Eventually, drug use fell out of favor among the Jesus People. Since many of them lived in community and shared a common purse, they started to question the stewardship of using their limited funds to buy drugs. As the movement’s leaders matured, they also recognized the need to avoid anything that might be a stumbling block to other believers. Likewise, the mainstream church leaders grew to accept long hair and buckskin.
The story of the Jesus People movement is a story of adaptation, both on the part of the born-again hippies and the square church leaders who found themselves challenged and changed by the rebels they baptized on the beach.