How Finding Jesus Helped Me Deconvert

by Marlene Winell

I met Jesus in Golden Gate Park many years ago and he helped change my life. He sent me in a new direction – away from Christianity.

I was reminded of it on Sunday, October 25, because it was the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, celebrated with enthusiasm at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. I wandered through the crowd with my grown son, Ryan, as we pushed our bicycles, enjoying the sights and sounds – 60’s music coming from the bands,tie-dyed banners, the smell of incense and herb, and booths selling candles, New Age books and music, psychedelic art, and healthy food. The event was free, and so was the painting – on your face, cloth banners, or sheets of paper on the ground. Peace signs were all around. The folks with gray hair and fond memories were well represented, but so were young people who missed the Summer of Love. Young girls had long hair and headbands, flowers, and even wings.

When we arrived, the band played and people sang along, swaying and clapping:

C'mon people now,
Smile on your brother
Ev'rybody get together
Try and love one another right now

I was drawn to the message to “be here now” -- so different from thinking in terms of sin and salvation.
It made me smile and I joined in. I felt good, knowing the Youngbloods tune and helping my son a bit with the words. There was such optimism, joy, and warmth in many of the songs of that era.

BJ Thomas sang
"Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" with those lines: Because I’m free, Nothin’s worryin’ me

From Seals and Crofts, we got the soothing:

Summer breeze, makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine in my mind.

Then "Feelin’ Groovy" from Simon and Garfunkle was just plan fun and happy:

Slow down, you move too fast,
you've got to make the morning last
Just kickin' down the cobble-stones,
Lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy

And of course, the Beatles sang of the power of love:

All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

But the Summer of Love happened without me. Not only was I living in Taiwan, but I was taught that peace and love could only come through Christ, and that others, no matter how sincere, were deceived by Satan. When my family moved to Southern California, I found my tribe with the Jesus Freaks, who mimicked the hippie lifestyle but abstained from drugs and free love. We said we were high on Jesus.

But we were not at peace. We believed the End was nigh; it was not the Age of Aquarius. We were told the signs of Jesus’ imminent return were clear and this meant we were compelled to spread the gospel before it was too late. So, in addition to living in communes, learning macramé, sand candles, and batik, we “witnessed” on the streets and got people baptized at the beach. This included my new boyfriend.

Now picture me in San Francisco with a group called Youth With A Mission. I think I was 17 and it was spring break. We went out each day to save lost souls and warn them of the End, regrouping in the evening to get more training. I was emboldened enough by my sincere faith to speak with total strangers in the big city.

One day in the park is still with me because it was a shock to my system. I remember the trees were beautiful and the day was warm. I approached a man with long hair and asked him “Do you know Jesus?” He smiled and said, “I am Jesus.”

Well, I was unprepared for this and I was speechless. To me Jesus was spiritual and lived in our hearts after we accepted that he came to earth and died for our sins 2000 years ago. You couldn’t just BE Jesus. But I was trained to be polite and listen, plus this was interesting. “Jesus” said we were all God and just didn’t realize it. He was warm and serene. I realized I had nothing to say to that, so I hurried away.

And THANK-YOU to the song-writers who spoke to my heart and the musicians who taught me to dance.
But my head was spinning and my life was heading down a different path. Could it be that people could be happy and satisfied without being born-again Christian? I couldn’t argue with this man who looked at me with quiet wisdom in his face. Who was I to claim the one and only “truth”? I knew he wasn’t just crazy and I never discussed him with the Christian group.

So last Sunday, the festival in the park was taking me back and I said to my son, “I wonder what ever happened to Jesus?” What’s he doing now? Does he still believe? Or has he changed, like me? Christians talk about “finding Jesus,” so I guess that day the answer would have been, “He’s in the park.” And I did indeed find him.

I also wandered Haight Ashbury that week and found a lot of things. The shops had beads and crystals and Indian tapestries, pictures of gurus, and information on Eastern philosophy. This environment wasn’t nearly as evil as I was taught to expect. The freedom, the color, the creativity, the sharing, the connection with nature, all appealed to me. I was drawn to the message to “be here now” -- so different from thinking in terms of sin and salvation.

We Christians thought we had a monopoly on goodness. After all, the Bible said, “They shall know you by your love.” But I was finding out the hard way about many unloving things, both in the Bible and church history, and in my own circles. I was starting to hate the constant judgment of dividing the world into saved and unsaved.

I could see love among others in “The World,” and it seemed real enough. In fact, I thought we could learn a few things about listening and diversity and caring. I liked listening to James Taylor sing "You've Got A Friend."

In church, we were taught we could only depend on God, and we sang, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” I understand now that the brain is pretty amazing and having an adult imaginary friend is powerful. But I was coming to appreciate people and real human connection. Without know it, I was becoming a humanist.

Another song about real human love was by Simon and Garfunkle:

I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

And speaking of lying down, we were coming of age and there was the matter of sex. The hippie slogan, “Make love, not war” made sense to me, despite the Christian anxiety about anything physical. I remember Herman’s Hermits’ song sounding pretty wonderful:

There's a kind of hush all over the world tonight
All over the world you can hear the sounds of lovers in love

I discovered sensual joys for myself eventually and married the guy I got baptized with at the beach, so I needed my imaginary love affair less. He and I even made another visit to San Francisco, indulging more this time. I liked the spirit of Haight Ashbury – it was about exploration, expression, and being aware of one’s existence. The drugs made me curious, but more than that, I was intrigued by the various worldviews and perspectives on reality held by these “heathens” who didn’t seem stupid, crazy, or evil.

I loved the song by Scott McKenzie (and it still knocks me out):

If you come to San Francisco
Be sure to wear flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there

I wore flowers in my long blonde hair at my hippie Christian wedding, which was overlooking the beach and strewn with sweet-peas from my own garden. My political awareness was still undeveloped but I was listening to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Where have all the Flowers Gone,” and “Imagine.” I felt the impact of the words, “hammer of justice, bell of freedom, and song of love between my brothers and sisters.”

Even as a Christian, I was always more impressed with the “fruits of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace. . .) than “gifts of the Spirit” (tongues, prophecy, healing. . .) because that’s where our lives are really lived. And what a relief when I finally left the stifling cocoon of Christianity and began celebrating life with all of humanity.

THANK-YOU “Jesus” of Golden Gate Park! I hope you are still happy, wherever you are.

And THANK-YOU to the song-writers who spoke to my heart and the musicians who taught me to dance. I’ll end this with another favorite -- “Joy to the World” – the song by Three Dog Night, not the Christmas carol.

If I were the king of the world
Tell you what I'd do
I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you
Sing it now...

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

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