Original Publication: California Living Magazine, March 28, 1971
“I took my first acid trip in the seventh grade. By the tenth grade, I was stoned pretty much of the time. Then I got scared because I thought I was losing my sanity. Now I get high on Jesus, just reading the word with my fellow saints.”
The shiny-eyed teenager with the shoulder-length hair looks like other hip kids at San Marin High School: bell bottom jeans, blue work-shirt, cowboy boots, a carefully stylized look that sets him apart from his more closely cropped “team” classmates. (Highschoolers today divide themselves into “hip” and “team.”)
This teenager is hip and cool – but instead of saying “Hey man,” he says, “Bless you,” and along with his French book he carries a well worn Bible, with passages underlined in three colors and notes written all over the margins of the pages.
He walks over to a group of maybe ten or fifteen other long-hairs, boys and girls, sitting at their corner meeting place on the campus of their futuristic suburban high school – with carpeted classrooms and muzak in the principal’s office. All of them have Bibles, some pearl-encrusted with hand embroidered covers.
Earlier that morning, this same group of kids had gathered behind a church across the street from the school. The church used to have dances, but they were discontinued, perhaps because of all the talk that it was the biggest place in town for dealing. While some students were in the church parking lot furtively lighting up their first marijuana cigarette of the day, this group clasped hands in a circle and prayed.
“Jesus freaks” are what the other kids in school call these teenagers – who in a recent nationwide burst of ecstatic old time religion have come off drugs and spurned conventional churches to embrace “the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and to walk with Father.”
Their faces glow, their speech is filled with the fervor of their commitment. They looks as high on the Lord as they once were on drugs.
“It was like before I had a big black hole inside me,” one boy says. “Like I was searching for the truth, searching for some meaning. I thought drugs would fill me up, but they didn’t. Now I’m whole. I just trust in Father and He provides for my every want.”
A pretty, soft spoken girl adds, “I was a juvenile delinquent really. I got expelled from a Catholic school. I was into drugs and a lot of other stuff. They I went with a girlfriend to a meeting. Nobody tried to push me, or come down on me or put rules on me. I started listening to the Word and really digging it.” Shaw looks up in wonder, whispering incredulously, “I never knew Jesus before!”
In an age when playing it cool has reigned supreme, a bunch of kids who plan their day around their Bibles and the Lord seems hard to believe, but they are multiplying almost as fast as loaves and fishes.
Virtually all the “saintly” time is given over to a demanding schedule of “thanking Father” in prayer, “witnessing” to non-believers at school, on the street, at rock concerts, or attending one of the five weekly night meetings in somebody’s home – for there are no formal services. The saints take for granted speaking in tongues and ministering (faith healing).
At one meeting in Novato some thirty young people sprawled on the living room floor, Bibles open, in an affluent suburban tract home. A blond boy, solemnly reading verse after verse in the Old and New Testament, explained the meaning of passages containing the phrase “fervent in the spirit.”
“Fervent in the spirit is really a heavy phrase once it starts clicking in your head man.”
After about an hour, his audience still intent, he got to the study of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three early believes who passed through a fiery furnace unscathed. “Dig it!” he says. “These three cats just put their faith right on the line, man, and they didn’t get burned. That just blows my mind! Your fervor should be boiling hot!”
Then everybody took a break – for brownies.
In the Bay Area the largest religious trek of these young people – apparently all white and middle class – are members of The Way, a non-denominational, strongly fundamentalist group base in Knoxville, Ohio, and headed by Dr. V.P. Wierwille, a former officer of the Disciples of Christ Church.
The Way’s teenage believers speak rhapsodically of Dr. Wierwille’s thirty-six hours on film, The Course for Abundant Living – most thoroughly explain the Word. The filmed lectures are seemingly the motivating force behind most young believers’ deep spiritual commitment. “Ninety percent of any questions about the Bible are answered . . . if not a hundred percent!” one of Dr. Wierwille’s flock insists.
While most conventional churches are hard put to attract young members in the Bay Area, The Way is thriving – as hundreds of young followers, mostly aged fifteen to twenty, congregate in San Jose, San Mateo, Alameda, Fremont, San Francisco and throughout Marin.
No one in The Way is embarrassed to “bear witness.” Inevitable, they ask, “What about you? Do you believe in Jesus?”
The Alameda believers contain a rock band called “Cookin’ Mama” who play around the Bay Area and are seeking a record contract to get their lyrics – all about the Lord – before a wide audience.
Throughout the Western states, The Way’s leader is Jim Dopp, age thirty-three. Formerly minister of the Haight Ashbury Mission, a one-time nightclub performer, Dopp is handsome, intent and fervent in the spirit.
“The church has failed to teach its people how to be strong. It has not fed its people,” Dopp declares.
“God’s people are destroyed for knowledge, technical knowledge about His word.” The enormous blue eyes bore into the listeners. “We have no hierarchies, no churches, no building. We keep the groups small enough to meet in people’s homes. We teach, ‘What you reap you sow.’ We never point fingers.”
Not pointing fingers is important when one listens to some of the young believers, who say things such as:
“There is no sin, you just fall off from your walk with God . . .”
“Once you have ever believed in Jesus and accepted Him as your Savior, you are saved forever” . . .
What about smoking or drinking?
“You don’t do it. You get so high on the Lord,” there was a little pause – “well maybe a little grass sometimes . . .”
What about sex?
“The Word teaches that you only have intercourse with the one you marry.”
Do you follow that?
“Well, I think of the one I’m with as the one I’m married to.”
Dopp, with years of experience dealing with kids on drugs, thinks he knows why drugs – and now the Lord – are so popular among youth.
“The drug scene kids have no self-confidence. The Beatles said it in one of their songs, ‘I’m a Loser.’ Kids take drugs not just for kicks but because they’re searching for what they don’t get from parents who mostly know material things.”
School counselors tend to agree.
“Behind every fouled-up kid you find at least one fouled-up parent,” said one high school vice principal. “No matter how liberated we think we are, the basic social unit is still the family.
“Eighty percent of the problem kids I see do not eat dinner with their parents. A kid with a drug problem usually has some home problem.
“The Way is the best thing I’ve seen for getting kids off drugs. They get the Bibles. They stop getting stoned. Their grades go up. We don’t have many problems with those kids.
“It’s interesting though,” he continues. “Their commitment can go one of two ways; either they become imbued with the Christian spirit, or they become arrogant and self-righteous. I mean, what do you say to a kid you catch doing something wrong and he says, ‘The devil made me do it’?”
Some teachers ignore Bible reading in class much the way they ignore kids who are stoned. Said a young English teacher, “If they thing reading the Bible’s more important than the assignment, I let them.”
Another teacher doesn’t allow Bible reading on class time. “I chart a two-year course on these fads. Last year it was astrology, coming hot on the heels of the flower children. This year it’s the Bible.”
The saints, however, don’t see themselves as a fad. One believer, in his first year studying film at the Art Institute said, “I was a Zen Buddhist in the ninth grade, a Hindu in the tenth. I just smoked dope in the eleventh grade, then I became a vegetarian. But now, I’ve found The Way.”
Fellow students steadily “witnessed” to by the saints, usually are polite and tolerant, although no few “team” kids think “It’s really weird, you know, going around saying ‘Bless You’ all the time.” But a girl at one high school said, “I think we are listening to them more and more, though, because we’re searching for truth too, and really want to believe in something.”
“I can dig it,” a weary faced boy of fifteen said. “I’ve been through so much.”
The Way believers maintain a tightly-knit group and usually give up old friends who are not “walking with Father.” On the other hand, some former saints have dropped out.
“It’s turned into a big money trip,” one girl complained. “That Course for Abundant Living used to be twenty-five dollars, now it’s forty-five.”
Said another dropout, I learned a lot about the Bible. But after that it’s just the same old stories from the Bible.”
Parents express mixed emotions concerning their children reading the Bible six hours a day.
“I just count my blessings,” said one mother. “Michael could be into lots worse things. Of course we still make him go to Mass. The Way isn’t a religion, you know. Michael leads The Way at his school. He has spent two summers with Dr. Wierwille in Ohio and wants to be a full time minister.
His mother continues, “I can’t see how he can make a living out of this. I mean it can’t supply him with a future.”
Another mother, her daughter once involved with hard drugs, said, “Whatever The Way does is all right with me. We have our old Susie back again. We didn’t know about the drugs until she told us. Now she does things with the family again.”
An articulate father, himself a high school teacher, remains skeptical: “Allan now has this marvelously permissive religion, salvation plus all the worldly pleasures. But I see no changes in his value system. He is as seduced by materialism as the next American, drooling to drive my sportscar for example. He still won’t wash a dish or make his bed without prodding. He paid forty-five dollars for the first course before God gave him the revelation that now he needs $250 for the advanced course so now he’s going into debt to me – on the installment plan. I just don’t buy his beliefs, but The Way gives Allan a tremendous amount of support. He thinks about God all day much the same way he used to withdraw with drugs. I think this religion is another way of copping out of reality. Ultimately reality will come in.”
The reality of pollution, poverty, racism, war, themes which youth usually feel strongly about, do not necessarily get special attention from those who make this profound spiritual commitment.
“All pollution tells me, says Steve, is that Christ has got to come back sooner. Father says, ‘Believe in Me and I will take care of all your needs.’ I don’t have to worry about all that stuff. God will provide for me.”
Other heads nod solemnly in agreement.
“We are not of this world,” they say.
It’s as if the pressing needs of society are too complex, too over-powering and too sinister for some kids to handle. Perhaps the very affluence, mobility and plastic surroundings of much of present day suburban life are the prime reasons for the spiritual search, whether with drugs or with Jesus.
The following “Letter from Judi,” excerpted here, appeared in The Way newspaper: “To all saints: I love you! And hallelujah! Isn’t life gorgeous? We know Jesus Christ and Our Lord is the Lord. He’ll straighten out everything.
“In this age where everything is mechanized, psychologized, and legalized when the stock market, the inflation/depression and the latest ecological survey is the bustling center of the people of the world, how beautiful we have an out! We needn’t hassle with the problems, changes or hang-ups involved. For we have a God who can see everything . . . We need never gamble, never worry and never be depressed . . . Hallelujah.”
Many of these youthful believers have grown up in a society where most values are uncertain or at best relative. These young people are adamant in rejecting many old values or at least the old styles of religious ideas. They appear to be searching genuinely for new ones.
In their ethic, going to church with parents is a drag – even if parents go to church. It’s a lot groovier to rap on the Word with your fellow saints.
At the same time the Word also promises ecstasy, provides joy, friendship, a total sense of security and a feeling of belonging, all with the ultimate reward of eternal salvation.
God becomes an “out,” a “high,” an experience. God as an “upper” has replaced dope as a “downer.” The important thing, these self-styled young saints keep telling you, “is to feel high.”
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.