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How Quirky was Berkeley? Religion on Telegraph Avenue

Holy Hubert at Sproul Plaza.  Photo (1968) courts of Bible Truth, https://rickroehm.wordpress.com.
“Holy Hubert” Lindsey at Sproul Plaza. Photo (1968) courtesy Bible Truth

Berkeley, especially Berkeley of the 1960s, enjoys a reputation as a predominantly secular city. We may be less religious than the United States as a whole, but religion plays a strong and important role in Berkeley today. More relevantly for our purposes here, religious figures were fixtures on Telegraph Avenue in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Photo: Blue and Gold (1966)
“Holy Hubert” Lindsey. Photo: Blue and Gold (1966)

Hubert “Holy Hubert” Lindsey was an old-school fire and brimstone Christian preacher who was a fixture in upper Sproul Plaza for years. Born in Georgia, he was in his 50s when he started up in Berkeley. It is said that he fought the Hare Krishna’s for Sproul Plaza rights. Fought, as in fight, as in fisticuffs. He was an advocate of confrontational evangelism.

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Hubert had a circus barker quality to him, and was probably far more successful as an entertainer than he was at converting souls to Christ. His favorite line was “Bless your dirty heart,” which he used for the title of a book about his years as a street preacher.

The Left tolerated Hubert, even admiring him for his outsider status, as seen in this article from the Barb.


Berkeley Barb, October 4, 1968
Berkeley Barb, Oct. 4, 1968

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a Christian revival of sorts among the counter culture, far gentler and kinder than Hubert’s hell and damnation theology. Mainstream revivalists were a fixture on Telegraph.

Jack Sparks. Photo couresy of the Earthen Vessel Online Christian Journal.
Jack Sparks. Photo: courtesy Earthen Vessel Online Christian Journal

Most prominent was the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF). The CWLF was an offshoot of the Campus Crusade for Christ, and it targeted “the radical forces of darkness” in Berkeley and on Telegraph. It was grounded in the Christian counterculture movement which most remember as the “Jesus Movement” or “Jesus People.”  The CWLF contextualized Christian dogma and evangelism for radical students; the organization’s name itself was a challenge to the revolutionary Berkeley Liberation Movement. Using the language of radical politics, the CWLF preached a “relevant” brand of Christianity.

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The CWLF jumped onto the underground newspaper bandwagon, publishing Right On as the official organ of the group.  The CWLF had five objectives: “1. Determine the real social problems; try to right them. 2. Relate Christ to the important issues and speak out. 3. Befriend those to be reached. Identify with them. 4. Publish mountains of literature. 5. Get the people together once a week.”

It was led by Jack Sparks. After several years of street evangelism, in the 1970s Sparks and the CWLF started an assault on “spiritual counterfeits.”

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He eventually joined the eastern orthodox movement, specifically the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. In the early 1970s his followers were part of the Telegraph Avenue landscape.


Photo in the public domain Donated to the Graduate Theological Union by Richard York.
Photo in the public domain. Donated to the Graduate Theological Union by Richard York

Much farther to the left was Richard “The Hippie Priest” York (standing in the center of the photo with the frizzy hair), an Episcopalian minister, and the Berkeley Free Church. York and the church ministered to the needs of Telegraph’s young street-people/hippies/runaways/prematurely homeless. The church was originally sponsored by Berkeley merchants as the South Campus Christian Ministry.

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Over the years it operated on Haste Street, the Lutheran Church, Parker Street, Oregon Street, and Scenic Avenue.

Free-Church

York’s first major public event was the Festival of the Virgin Mary on Haste Street on August 12, 1967. During the celebration (a religious be-in), York washed the feet of 12 hippies. He later wrote, “Then we started washing hippies’ feet with big buckets of warm soap water and towels, in all these big vestments. It just blew these freaks’ minds. Cause, here were all these clergy washing their feet – which is just what it was all about.”

York and the Free Church practiced without much preaching, a radical, liberation Christianity. In contrast to Hubert’s evangelical book, theirs was The covenant of peace : a liberation prayer book by the Free Church of Berkeley compiled by John Pairman Brown and Richard L. York.

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York was not alone in running the Free Church, although he was its most visible leader. John Pairman Brown was active, and his book The Liberated Zone conveys the radical, oppositional nature of the Free Church’s Christianity.


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The Free Church used the language of the counterculture organically and without forcing the issue.

As Telegraph Avenue’s counterculture burned out, so did York. The demographics and aspirations of the transient youth on Telegraph changed, and years of arrests, police beatings, and constant, acute controversy, especially controversy when the issue was not the issue, took its toll.

Berkeley-Free-Church-Closed-1971

Richard York took a year off in 1972 and that was it. The Free Church of Berkeley was done, 1967-1972.

While Holy Hubert and the CWLF and the Free Choice came and went, Hare Krishna’s are the one religious group still regularly seen on Telegraph. The care beliefs of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) are drawn from traditional Hindu scriptures, especially the Bhagavad-gita.

Lorrie Tussman described the Hare Krishna presence on Telegraph as well as it can be described: “The rhythmic sound of chanting and cymbals rises above the chaotic rupturing noise of the street. An exotic parade-within-a-parade of singing, dancing, devotees to Krishna approaches. A reek of incense. They clap their hands, leap into the air, twirl and nod their heads back and forth hypnotically in ascetic delirium. Orange, Hindu garments flap about their bodies. Young Anglo-Saxon, rosy-cheeked Protestant faces are masked with powder. The chaste braids of the women and the limp tufts of hair on the shaven heads of the men flop up and down frenetically. A black youth, in a wild jungle dance, out leaps, out-twirls the others.”

Hare Krishna on Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Kim Cranney.
Hare Krishna on Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Kim Cranney

They were on the Avenue by 1968.

Hare Krishna's on Telegraph Avenue. Screenshot from Youtube video "Berkeley's Hippies" by calstud4life (1868).
Hare Krishna’s on Telegraph Avenue. Screenshot from YouTube video “Berkeley’s Hippies” by calstud4life

And are still here today.

The wild mix of people and culture that have defined the blocks of Telegraph Avenue just south of the University has included its share of religious figures. Today there is the occasional street preacher, but none with the tenacity and showmanship of Holy Hubert. There is the occasional Campus Crusade for Christ card table, but not with the devotion and success of Jack Spark and the Christian World Liberation Front. We see religious leaders in protests on Telegraph, but none with the absolute commitment and willingness to immerse completely in the street culture as Dick York and the Berkeley Free Church.

A longer version of this post may be found at Quirky Berkeley.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.

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