Star's flaxen hair glistens in the sun as she leans against the signpost at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. In a voice that nearly melts with each word, she talks about finding peace and love--prospects that the streets of San Francisco promised but have not delivered.
Like hundreds of runaways and disenfranchised young people, Star--barely 18--calls this historic haven of hippiedom home. Most days, this caricature of a flower child wanders through Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix's old stomping grounds. Most nights, she huddles in a makeshift village in nearby Golden Gate Park.
For the most part, denizens of the street, like Star, are Deadheads--nomadic followers of the music and anything-goes lifestyle of the infamous Grateful Dead rock group. When one of the post-Dead bands goes on what is called The Furthur Show, Star and hundreds like her travel across the country to see the performance. They flock to concerts by the band Phish, jazz festivals, raves and New Age Rainbow Gatherings.
But with no concerts scheduled today, the Deadhead vagabonds gather in Mecca--the legendary Haight-Ashbury district. Star, eager to talk with Charisma about her life on the street, suddenly notices a tandem of Bohemian compatriots. She displays a knowing smile as Sleepy negotiates a $10 deal to pose for a camera-clicking cluster of Japanese tourists. Tie-dye still reigns as the fashion design of choice and beads have made a serious comeback, but it is clear this is not the Summer of Love.
"Everything is about money now," Star narrates as Sleepy wanders off to spend his paycheck on a needed fix. "We talk of everyone getting along, but the drugs keep getting harder, and so does survival." Rebekah Logan, a street evangelist and one of Star's friends, gives her a meaningful hug. Not long ago, this 21-year-old shared life on the streets with Star.
"I'm thinking about getting off the streets," Star tells Rebekah. "I'm clean now." Leilah Krounbi, another 20-year-old hippie street evangelist, urges Star to make the move before the lure of drugs traps her again. "I'm thinking about it." Star's voice trails off as she turns and walks away. It would be three months before she would muster up the courage to leave the streets and join the Prodigal Project"s discipleship program.
As dusk envelopes the city by the bay, Star reappears long enough for dinner. She spoons down chili and nibbles on bread prepared by Rebekah, Leilah and their fellow Christians of the Prodigal Project. Many nights, this troop of front-line evangelists can be found feeding and befriending the homeless.
Pulling a red wagon brimming with food, Prodigal Project's Jacob Goodman and 16-year-old volunteer Carli Lowe meander up Haight Street between Ashbury and Masonic. At one stop, Jacob, a stalwart 20-year-old whose red hair almost matches the wagon, listens to a bearded and heavily tattooed Vietnam War vet unravel his story of hardship, betrayal and addiction. At another stop, Jacob, fulfilling the role of a seasoned chaplain, gives ear to the concerns of 18-year-old Lizard, whose many piercings might set a world record.
It seems everyone here uses a pseudonym--a thinly-veiled attempt to distance themselves from their birth families and stormy pasts, Rebekah says. It is in this unlikely setting that Jacob, Rebekah, Leilah and their co"workers connect with the people of a subculture that mainstream society has forgotten.
On this night, Jacob prays with two youths he encounters. Sometimes he will invite people back to Prodigal's Christian House, which is just a block off Haight, on Ashbury, where they can shower or sit in on a Bible study. Several hundred kids have made the trek; more than 100 have made commitments to Jesus. "That's 100 kids who are no longer on the streets," Rebekah says.
How the Vision Began
The Prodigal Project flourishes in a place few other Christian groups have ventured. Launched in late 1993 by advertising agency whiz kid Cathi Mooney, the nonprofit discipleship program brings love, peace and the truth of Jesus to a new generation of hippies.
The 1999 U.S. government report, Homelessness Programs and the People They Serve, estimates that 26 percent of all homeless individuals fall between the ages of 17 and 24. Melinda Peterson, development associate for Youth Industry, a Christian ministry that provides job training to at-risk youth, estimates that at any given time in San Francisco, 1,500 to 2,000 of these youth live on the streets and in shelters.
National figures vary widely, but Mooney suggests that thousands of kids come in and out of the subculture each year. Many attend one or two concerts on the road. The hard"core teens migrate to San Francisco. "This is a post-Christian generation," Mooney says. "They may have been to church as a kid, but most are hearing the gospel for the first time. It comes as a revelation to them that Jesus is God."
Prodigal"s all-volunteer ministry force submerges themselves in the hippie subculture. "I had to become one of them," Mooney says. She traded expensive business suits and salon hairstyles for tie-dye, denims and dreadlocks. She bought a creaking 1974 Dodge motor home and hit the road whenever the Deadheads went on tour.
She adopted the lingo and shifted her schedule, becoming a night person so she could be on the streets when the kids were out. "To be a hippie was the extreme opposite of all that I was," Mooney says. Now 38, Mooney grew up in Long Island, outside New York City. She never attended church as a youth and basically followed her family's agnostic belief system. Artistic and driven, she achieved a successful career in advertising.
She moved to San Francisco in her 20s and launched her own agency. Her national accounts included Federal Express and Alley & Gargano. Her campaigns were radical. "We would do anything to shock," Mooney says of the career that once earned her a six-digit annual income. "From the world's perspective, I was very successful," she recalls. "But I was unfulfilled and depressed. I wanted to kill myself." By 1990, suicide was on Mooney's to-do list.
But God had a different plan. Mooney's younger brother, who had become a Christian and worked for a ministry smuggling Bibles into Russia, invited her to a Bible study. Mooney went, only to please him. "I was so convicted by the Holy Spirit," she says. "After that, I couldn"t put down the Bible." It was not long before she asked Jesus to be her Savior. She says she was healed by God of bipolar disorder, and she started attending a womens Bible study at First Covenant Church in San Francisco--a congregation that was at the apex of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. She also began attending Sunday worship services at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which actively reached out to the city"s needy.
For four years Mooney attempted to balance her work and her growing appetite for Christ. But in 1994, she quit the agency, which meant selling her part of the ownership. Mooney landed in "the Haight" after receiving a word from the Lord through a member of a Vineyard group that focused on outreach. She hung out on street corners with ministry co-founders Murray Swanson and Wayne Phillips. After six months of talking with kids, praying and seeing a homeless youth named Matthew come to Christ, a burden had been birthed. Two more kids were saved at a coffeehouse, and Mooney was on her way.
"Ministry is tough in San Francisco," says Michael Brodeur, pastor of Promised Land Fellowship, a former Vineyard church. "Everyone told Cathi: "Nice idea, but no one will get saved. People don't come to Jesus in San Francisco." But with Brodeur's unflinching support, Mooney and the Prodigal Project have proved the critics wrong. "From the beginning, God gave us favor with the street kids," Mooney says. Along with Swanson and Phillips, she moved into the three-story Victorian house on Ashbury that would become homebase as the Prodigal ministry unfolded. They brought street youth to the Vineyard and soon had knocks on the door from those who wanted more.
Serious inquirers were invited to stay. "We knew we couldn't just lead them to Jesus and leave them," Mooney says. "We had to invite them into our lives." The rules were strict for these kids who had been defining their own boundaries: No drugs, no alcohol, a curfew, no unapproved visitors and no Grateful Dead music. Soon, former Youth With a Mission missionaries Mark and Marcia Benkert joined the team. "We were doing what the disciples did, living out the love we had received," says Mooney, who believes that once saved, youth should be out on the street witnessing as soon as possible. "That is how it was in the Jesus Movement," she adds. "It was kids leading kids to Jesus."
With success came a realization: Prodigal needed a place away from the Haight, a haven where kids could cut the ties to drugs, illicit sex and a potpourri of illegal habits, a place where they could be discipled. They needed a retreat--and not in San Francisco.
Not comfortable with standard fund-raising techniques, Mooney adopted the strategy of missionaries Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael. She and the kids prayed and fasted. God answered.
A small test came first. For the first time, Prodigal Project was $4,000 short for its monthly expenditures. Mooney had no idea where she would get the money, but then a check arrived in the mail. A man previously unknown to the ministry had sent in a donation of $4,000. That was all Mooney needed to believe God would supply a discipleship retreat.
In May 1997, The 700 Club featured Prodigal in a televised report. Watching that show was a Christian woman in Wisconsin. She and her husband had been praying about donating a bed and breakfast resort they owned in Mendocino County, California, to a ministry.
Until that moment, they had not felt any prompting on which way to go, despite considering several worthy groups. The 700 Club report did not mention Prodigal's need; nonetheless, the woman called and asked if Mooney could use another facility.
Prodigal now had their discipleship training center, free of charge--10 acres of pristine land in the lush back country of Mendocino County, 17 buildings and a restaurant that seats 45. "I see this as a hippie monastery," Mooney says. "It is exactly what we needed."
Brian Heltsley and Amy Mooney (no relation to Cathi) run the youth discipleship program. In four years, more than 100 youth, including Rebekah and Jacob, have spent one year in Mendocino. During that time, they experience an intense regimen that includes Bible study, prayer, counseling, classroom studies and physical labor working the land. After graduating from Prodigal's discipleship program, Rebekah went home to Arizona where she reconciled with old friends and some family members. Then, with a newfound zeal for God, she returned to Haight-Ashbury and moved into the Christian House.
She quickly became a vital cog in the ministry, playing guitar for worship and inviting youth to Bible studies. Rebekah spends most days on the street. But "the street" is not limited to San Francisco. Mooney and Prodigal volunteers are constantly on the road, traveling to concerts and other major tour venues to minister the love of Jesus to the subculture ignored by most Christians.
Mooney has gotten to know many tour regulars. She offers a hug and a kind word to young women, and she gives away free toothbrushes and toothpaste to kids who don"t often get them on their own. She makes tuna sandwiches, coffee and gives an ear to hear almost anything. More than 100 kids have accepted Christ at various tour venues. In 1999, Prodigal teams were on the road for more than 30 weeks. No other Christian group has a regular presence on tour. "It is cool that they are here," says 17-year-old Autumn, who occasionally attends Phish concerts. "I have never really talked to them, but I know that if I have a problem and need a place to go, I can trust them. There are not a whole lot of people you can really trust anymore."
The hippie lifestyle saw a comeback in the late 1990s. Not only do these nomadic dreamers flock to the Haight, but they travel along the old "Hippie trail." Stops include Central America, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Mooney would like to have Prodigal outposts at each place along the route, beginning with Nepal. On a fact-finding trip to Katmandu last year, she discovered hundreds of primarily Jewish youth trying to live out the Bohemian fantasy. She found that many Israelis move there for a year of partying and free-living after military service and before they start their careers.
"We want to reach the hippie travelers," Mooney says. "And there appears to be no strong opposition from the government--they seem to welcome the help getting these kids out of the drug scene." By the middle of this year, the first Prodigal workers should be on location in Katmandu, and plans are moving forward for a permanent presence. "It is a new generation of hippies," says Brodeur, who was raised in San Francisco and was a hippie before committing his life to Christ. "But they have the same needs that we did back in the "60s. And the answer is the same: Jesus. That is why this is working."