That time I became a Jesus freak.

Jesus sculpture

I’ll always associate Jesus with popcorn and hot chocolate. I smelled that as we entered the one room coffeehouse.

A guy a few years older than us with long brown hair, wire-frame glasses, baggy corduroys and scuffed earth shoes met my girlfriends Julie, Karen and me at the door. He had warm, coffee-colored eyes, a dimpled smile, and spoke in a voice that sounded like a bleating goat. “Welcome to Maranatha! My name’s Paul Schenck.”

The Maranatha Coffeehouse was created in 1975 as an outreach to youth on Grand Island by a group of teenage and adult born-again Christians. They were from the Methodist Church, Catholic Charismatic movement, and the Salvation Army. In the 60’s and 70’s, Jesus Freaks were the religious faction of the hippie movement. They were peace-loving folks of no particular political leaning, who embraced charity, and tried to practice radical aspects of Jesus’ teachings, like evangelizing the unfaithful, and welcoming sinners of all stripes.

Maranatha was inviting, with eclectic, cast-off chairs, spider plants in hand-thrown pottery, and a Formica bar along the back wall with a popcorn maker, coffee pot and selection of herbal teas. For all its makeshift tackiness, it was welcoming—a clubhouse for misfits. To the right of the room was a small, raised platform. Warm stage lights illuminated a 20-something guy with kinky brown hair, a bushy mustache and guitar. The man was artlessly but enthusiastically strumming and singing the Kris Kristofferson tune, “Why Me Lord?” in an intense, rusty voice.

Everyone was listening closely, swaying to the music with raised hands, and met our entrance with smiles, waves and quiet hellos. There were about 15 people scattered around, some sitting on pillows on the floor, others at small café tables. My girlfriends and I sat as close to the door as possible, where I pulled my arms into my sides, trying to disappear.

Two or three other performers sang that night. Darcy was one of them. She had long, thick, sun-streaked hair, wore a large, prairie-styled dress, and Dr. Scholl’s sandals on her dusty, cracked feet. The beat-up guitar she played looked small against her tall padded body. Her voice was soft and perfectly pitched, and when she sang, everyone joined in. “Maranatha, Maranatha, the Lord is coming back. We must be filled with love to truly greet him.” I didn’t know what it meant, but the words and minor-key melody soothed me.

Then, the hippie-haired, bespectacled Paul got on stage and read from the New Testament. He told us the story of the shepherd with 100 sheep, and the one that went missing—how Jesus, just like that shepherd, left his flock to find the lost little lamb. My scalp prickled. I wondered if everyone was looking at me, knowing how much I felt like that wayward lamb. No one was. They were all listening to the message. Calls of “Amen” and “Praise Jesus” punctuated Paul’s words. He wrapped up his talk with the clincher “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. You must be born again,” he explained.

The room rang with calls of “Yes, Lord, yes!” and “Amen!” while Paul invited us to pray. We stood and held hands in a circle with our eyes closed, while Paul and the others rocked back and forth on their feet, chanting soft and rhythmically: “Jesus, Jesus, Lord of Lords,” “Praise you Lord,” “Hallelujah.” Then, this: “Kholeo-lambah-kheahtanda.” “Shalalakeanda-motanda-danda.” Others joined in this strange language, which evolved into atonal singing that swooped up and down in volume and pitch like a flock of sparrows. I later learned they were speaking in tongues and singing in the Spirit.

A bible passage from the book of Mark in the New Testament depicts this strange practice. “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Disregard the snakes and poison part, and you get the picture.

I opened my eyes a crack and caught Karen peeking too. We gave each other the quizzical raised eyebrow look. This was getting strange. The nonsense singing seemed to crest, then recede with exclamations of “Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord,” “Thank you Jesus!” and a final benediction of “Amen and amen,” accompanied by tears, smiles and hugs—a spiritual orgasm. I didn’t understand any of it, but oddly, felt peaceful and happy.

In the next few days, Julie, Karen and I attended Bible studies with Paul and his identical twin brother, Rob, in a nearby ramshackle farmhouse. The Schenck brothers had been brought up as non-observant, cultural Jews, but had converted simultaneously at age 15 to Christianity. They called themselves Messianic Jews. Rob and Paul, with a rag-tag team of Pentecostal Christians had founded Maranatha, and were rapidly becoming respected teachers.

My two friends and I read from the King James Version of the Bible, stumbling and laughing over the “thee’s” and “thou’s,” while the brothers explained the necessity of “accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and personal savior.” They stressed that while we’d been born once physically, we “must be born again” to be saved from eternal damnation.

That first night of Bible study, Julie and Karen folded like cheap beach chairs, accepting Jesus into their hearts right away. I had doubts. One night at the coffeehouse, I cornered Paul and shared with him my misgivings. He and I were only three years apart, but Paul seemed very wise—like a kindly uncle I could trust. I confessed the shameful way I’d lost my virginity in eighth grade, and that I’d smoked pot and drank. “How can Jesus forgive me after what I’ve done?” I howled, tears rolling down my face.

Paul laughed and patted my shoulder. “You’ve heard of the adulteress from the Bible haven’t you?” As a Catholic, I had. “The Pharisees wanted Jesus to agree to stoning her, but he turned it around on them, saying, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.’ That shut them down,” he smiled. “Don’t you see, Mari? Everyone’s a sinner, but through Jesus you have complete and total forgiveness—no matter what you’ve done. All you have to do is accept him in your heart. As it says in Isaiah, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” It was like disappearing ink. Considering the wreck I thought I’d made of my life, the choice was easy.

I didn’t care if these people wove baskets, sold flowers on street corners or stood on their heads. They were attentive, sober adults and I found sweet refuge with them. I was a broken toy, but they accepted me, answered my questions, gave me rides and occasionally fed me. I was not accosted, molested or berated. I could have done much worse than this group (and had done so). I was grateful to them. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt safe—cared for. Relieved. With no idea as to the eventual cost of conversion, I surrendered, said, “yes,” and three weeks before high school began, I became a born-again Christian. Not a moment too soon.