When more than 1,000 New Age vagabonds, earth-worshippers and peace activists began setting up camp last week in a Florida forest, a scruffy band of Christians was waiting for them with hot meals, extra clothes and a message of God's love shared in the language of today's counter-culture hippie movement.
"Welcome to Jesus Camp. God loves you," evangelist Tedd Craven told the bare-footed youths as they arrived at Ocala National Forest for the annual Rainbow Family winter festival. Some hitchhiked to the event while others arrived by van, motorcycle and brightly-painted bus.
The homeless wanderers congregate in the woods for at least two weeks to enjoy tribal drumming, recreation and a bonding experience with their free-spirited comrades. They pitch tents, build campfires and share food. Police keep a watchful eye, since Rainbows also share plenty of marijuana, Ecstasy and other drugs.
Craven, 39, will stay in the forest with them until Feb. 28, praying, witnessing and meeting practical needs. This year, his 11-member team - known as the Jesus Kids - was joined by a dozen evangelists associated with Jesus Loves You, a St. Louis-based ministry. Its founder, Joshua Hanson, 29, says he was a "hippie radical" in 1998 when he became a Christian during a bus trek to another Rainbow event.
"There are such precious, awesome people here with destiny on their lives," Hanson told Charisma News Service. "They can be missionaries to Third World countries because they've already sold everything."
Rainbow gatherings rarely attract national media coverage, but they represent a thriving subculture that offers social dropouts a sense of family. Most live in tents or vehicles throughout the year, and they move from one Rainbow event to the next. They also follow counter-culture bands such as Phish and Widespread Panic.
Each evening, when Rainbows gathered for dancing and tribal drumming around a huge bonfire, Craven and his team prayed near the circle and shared the gospel with individuals. Because many of the participants at the drumming circle are followers of New Age religions, he is always prepared for spiritual resistance.
"When you mention Jesus, some people freak out," Craven said. "But God's power comes when you present the gospel. We don't try to overpower them. Sometimes they just need someone to listen."
Many Rainbows have made Christian commitments during the events, and some have even become full-time traveling evangelists. Jesse Buono, 25, said he recently decided to join Craven's team after he kicked his marijuana habit. "The Lord is calling me to follow Him all the way," Buono said.
But Craven and Hanson said most American churches don't understand their work. "I've had churches tell me they don't want to support what we are doing because they think if we feed the Rainbows we are somehow endorsing their lifestyle," Hanson said. "But we'll keep coming here."