David W. Stowe: Coming Out of the Jesus Movement: A Conversation with Marsha Stevens-Pino

We welcome a guest post from David W. Stowe, author of No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. He reflects on time spent with Marsha Stevens-Pino, a controversial figure in the 1970s Jesus Movement and one of the subjects he interviewed while researching this cultural history.  He traces the growth of Christian rock and pop music from its beginnings that were influenced by mainstream music from the 1960s and 70s to present day, when the genre has become part of the mainstream and even shaped religious identity and practice.-Alex

I’ve known some historians as gregarious as . . . well, talk-show hosts. But writing history, and the research that precedes it, is a deeply sedentary and solitary occupation. We might spend years sorting through the detritus of active lives—words spoken, actions reported, letters written, books published—but rarely need to interact with live humans (apart from archivists and librarians—yes, they count).

That’s one reason why writing No Sympathy for the Devil was refreshing.  I got to track down and talk to actual people: living, breathing luminaries of the Seventies Jesus Movement.

If Larry Norman, whom I wrote about last month, could aptly be called the Bad Boy of Christian Rock, Marsha Stevens might be deemed the Problem Child—even “evangelical Christianity’s worst nightmare.” Yet it would be hard to find a figure who better reflects the continuities and contradictions of the Jesus Movement.  Stevens cut her born-again teeth at age sixteen on the beaches of Orange County just when Calvary Chapel was attracting hordes of young people (and more than a few reporters).  Like thousands of teenagers from across Southern California she was baptized in the Pacific at Corona del Mar.

Marsha, her sister Wendy, and their significant others formed Children of the Day, a classic Jesus music group that played gentle, folksy songs of faith.  One of her songs, “For Those Tears I Died,” became a movement classic.  Children of the Day created perhaps the first albums of what’s come to be called praise music, those easy-to-sing, sometimes-maligned anthems that have crowded traditional hymns out of a majority of American evangelical churches, mega- or otherwise.

Stevens-Pino talking with author

Over the course of the Seventies, Marsha went from an icon of the Jesus Movement to a pariah.  The constant demands of touring and recording took a toll on the Stevens’s marriage.  Then she announced she was in love – with a woman.  Divorce carried enough stigma in evangelical circles, but leaving one’s husband to take up with another woman—a different order of scandal altogether.

Marsha was drummed out of her old life.  People tore “For Those Tears” out of songbooks and mailed the pages to her.  She left the church for about five years, then came back and eventually founded BALM Ministries, short for Born Again Lesbian Music.

I met Marsha Stevens-Pino on a Sunday morning in early December in the small city of Vincennes, in southern Indiana.  An old friend of hers from Calvary Chapel days, Dr. Larry Taylor, had opened a storefront church in the downtown and she was in town to sing.  A statuesque woman with an easy laugh and notably wholesome, friendly manner, Marsha seemed very much at home in her skin and in the challenging life she has created.  Oasis Christian Fellowship attracted a few dozen people to the informal service I attended.

One of the memorable features of the church was a well-stocked coffee bar with a industrial grade espresso maker, staffed by the Taylors’ daughter, who displayed great talent as a barista.  The lattes were as good as I’ve had anywhere.

After worship Marsha invited me out to join a group of churchgoers at a family-style restaurant out in the country.  Over a classic Sunday dinner we talked for hours about her nearly 40 years in the Jesus Movement. She told some great stories about Chuck Smith, Lonnie Frisbee, Pat Boone, Andraé Crouch and his sister Saundra, Keith Green, Matthew Ward, all major figures in the Seventies Christian pop scene.

Marsha Stevens-Pino at Oasis Fellowship

Marsha described growing up in an extremely dysfunctional family, becoming born again at age 16, hearing her friends on the beach singing the song she had just written, “For These Tears,” as she emerged from a Pacific baptism.  She shared memories of kibbitzing and singing in the streets of Jerusalem at the 1971 prophecy conference, touring on a shoestring for Maranatha! Records, sharing a stage in Dallas at Explo ’72 with people like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, noticing commercialism beginning to creep into what had been a pristine Jesus music scene.

Marsha reflected on the premillenial end-times theology that held the Jesus Movement in its thrall, on the long strange marriage of right-wing politics and evangelical Christianity, and why her coming out as a lesbian was so much more shocking than her divorce.

She was photoshopped out of the history of contemporary Christian music: not mentioned in CCM magazine’s 25th anniversary issue; excluded from singing with Children of the Day at a six-week Calvary Chapel reenactment of the beginnings of the Jesus Movement; and publicly rebuked by Bill Gaither, organizer of the Gaither Homecoming concerts, after he had seemed to extend a welcoming embrace.

Stevens-Pino flanked by Kathy Taylor and Dr. Larry Taylor at Oasis Fellowship

But she remained upbeat throughout our conversation.  Marsha spoke of her life partner, Cindy Stevens-Pino, and her son John, who recently broke new ground by bringing his praise band from an Assemblies of God church to play at a gay pride march.  What stood out among her stories was a distinct (and surprising) lack of bitterness at being unfriended by fellow evangelicals.

Above all I sensed her deep loyalty and love for Chuck Smith, her wish to finally be accepted by the pastor who in effect became her father and saved her from her demons.  It was a striking example of filial piety not often encountered on the American scene.

Like so many Sixties Jesus people, Stevens grew up in a family deeply troubled beneath the veneer of middle-class respectability. Her pastor father, she told me, had been kicked out of one church after another for molesting female parishioners.  Along with many of her fellow Jesus children, Marsha was in good company finding a surrogate father in Calvary’s Pastor Chuck.

David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University and author of No Sympathy for the Devil:  Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (forthcoming April 2011). Read his previous post about meeting Larry Norman.