Rebelling Against the Rebel: The Charlene McDaniel Story

By Greg Laurie

Greg and Charlene in the Jesus Revolution film

The Jesus Revolution was a movement of America’s youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pushing against convention, eschewing tradition, and rejecting the status quo were the modus operandi of the day. I, however, have a different story. Along my own path toward a spiritual revolution, the institution I was resisting was actually my mother’s rebellion.

An Introduction to My Youth

As you will learn in the Jesus Revolution film, my mother, Charlene McDaniel (portrayed with stunning accuracy by actress Kimberly Williams Paisley), struggled with alcoholism, low self-esteem, and no spiritual direction. In the course of being on set as a co-producer, I had to relive a lot of my past. This included my early relationship and breakups with my girlfriend—later to become my wife—Cathe, which tested the bounds of my faith, as well as my own drug use and insecurities. Perhaps the most difficult was revisiting some of the deep wounds that came out of that period.

Kids commonly rebel against their parents. That’s not unusual. What kid doesn’t want a mom or dad who lets them do what they want—no curfew, no rules, no expectations? But I can tell you from experience it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There wasn’t much about my childhood that was the way I wanted.

I rebelled against the way my mom raised me. I didn’t like the drinking, partying, and inevitable hangovers the next morning. I didn’t like being uprooted in the middle of the night. I didn’t like the tempestuous relationships she subjected us to. I didn’t like the way these men who drifted in and out of our lives treated my mom or me. And I especially didn’t like the role of being her caretaker at such a young age.

Today I can see that despite her lack of education and limited financial options, Mom did the best she could to keep a roof over my head. But in my youth, I didn’t have the capacity to understand. Let me tell you a little more about the woman I’ve only come to truly know through this time of reflection.

The Classic Prodigal Daughter

My mom was a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe with her alluring platinum blonde hair, flawless skin, crystal eyes, and shapely figure. It’s one of the reasons she was a flat-out “man magnet.” Even as a little boy I remember men—total strangers—coming up to me and asking to be introduced to my stunning mother.

She was the classic prodigal daughter; she ran away from home and eloped while still a young girl. In addition to a series of husbands, Charlene had a fling with Ken—a sailor from Long Island—and within a year, she was pregnant with her first child, my half-brother, Doug. A few years later, I was conceived in 1952. It was the result of a one night stand. Charlene struggled with being a mother, and I was sent to live with her parents—a move that was ironic given the fact that she tried to get as far away as she could from them and the way she was raised.

Charlene was from a large family of nine, raised in rural Arkansas. They went to church every Sunday morning and evening, as well as midweek Bible study. The rule was that my mother and her siblings were all expected to attend. They also had missionaries and visitors over at the house nearly every night for one of my grandmother’s amazing home cooked meals that you’d never want to miss: fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and the best homemade biscuits you’d ever tasted.

Yet my mom couldn’t get out of that house fast enough. She bucked at the rules imposed on her by her parents, Charles and Stella McDaniel. These rules included never wearing pants, as they thought were not very “ladylike.” Once when she dared to wear pants, “Daddy-Charles” made her take them off and cut them into small pieces with a pair of scissors, which he flung into the fireplace. My mother hid in the dining room as this scene played out, and I’m sure it was a big log on the fire that eventually drove my mother out the door.

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At the age of eighteen, she eloped with the help of her sister Willie, who hid her suitcase under a crawl space at the church they attended. In running away from home, she was leaving behind all the rules and principles she’d learned in youth service and church. Too bad some of that discipline didn’t stick with her.

Charlene went through seven husbands in her marriage derby, and had a lot of boyfriends strung along in between. But her relationship instability was only a symptom of a bigger problem and her life spiraled downward as she became a helpless alcoholic, drinking until she passed out almost every night.

She was of the swinging Rat Pack generation of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., where men were kings; women were “broads.” And that that whole attitude and lifestyle began to disgust me. Through various times (and with various husbands), our swinging was from borderline poverty to great luxury. She was hardly a role model for marriage and definitely not emotionally equipped to be a parent.

Living a Life of Two Extremes

I realized at a young age that I was living a life of two extremes. One where I was in the dysfunctional realm of my mother, who fought, married, and divorced men, mostly in different cities and states. The other was the calm, staid life in Arkansas. There was even a short but rough stint at the Southern California Military Academy in Long Beach, California.

My mother’s on-the-run lifestyle meant we were constantly uprooted. I was constantly transferring to new schools and never settled anywhere for too long. As a very young boy, the only steady companion I had was an unseen friend I invented: Mr. Nobody, the imaginary companion I would talk to as I was preparing for bed. When the lights went out, I pulled a clean white sheet and cotton coverlet over my head and shone a flashlight to make a warm glow. And then I’d talk to Mr. Nobody for hours. As it turned out, he was very accommodating. He always listened and didn’t talk back.

As a means of survival, I retreated to my private world of cartoon adventures and longed to be a graphic artist. Even as a child, I spent many hours on barstools doodling while Charlene drank herself silly and strange men tried to pick her up. I was forced to grow up fast.

I specifically recall a hot summer night in Honolulu, Hawaii, when I was ten years old. I was alone in our apartment, waiting for my mom and latest stepfather, Eddie, to arrive home. It was well past midnight when the door finally opened. I heard the familiar tinkling of ice cubes in glasses, the murmur of conversation, the slosh of more drinks being poured.

Then, as with every night, arguing ensued. The volume started rising. He yelled. She yelled back.

An ashtray smashed against the wall, and then the crash of more broken glass. I hunched in my bed, waiting for it to end. I heard a dull thud, and my stomach started flipping. I leapt out of bed and ran into the kitchen, sensing trouble.

Charlene was lying limp on the floor, a puddle of red blood pooling under her platinum blonde hair. Eddie was standing over her, breathing hard, a heavy, blood-stained wooden statue in his hand.

“It’s just ketchup. Go back to your room . . . she’s fine,” he said as evenly as he possibly could. Even though I was ten, I knew better. I slowly walked back to his room, closed the door, quickly slipped out the window, and ran to a neighbor who called the police. The next morning, my mom acted nonchalant as though everything was fine, as if nothing had occurred the previous night. But after she healed, she traded the chaos of Honolulu for a new life in Southern California.

From Sinner to Saved

By then, the 1960s were in full swing. For teens like me, that meant an invitation to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I grew my hair long, “tuned in and turned on,” and went on a search for enlightenment. But really, I was just drifting. I was suspicious of authority and resisted any type of conformity or convention. I had become cynical at a very early age, thanks to the way I grew up and, as a teen, that only got worse. I had seen adults lie, cheat, and steal, so I had no good reason to trust them.

I had little optimism for the future. I had no expectations that I’d have stability, healthy relationships, or any sort of meaning in my life. I was longing for something that I had never seen but knew existed. I just had no clue how I could actually achieve it.

I finally came to the end of my search when I encountered a group of outspoken Christians on my high school campus. A group of about thirty of them were sitting on the grass, singing songs and listening to a guy who looked just like Jesus. I later found out his name was Lonnie Frisbee.

Lonnie read the Bible aloud, and spoke about how Jesus wasn’t some historical figure from 2,000 years ago but someone we could have a current relationship with. It was a revolutionary thought for me. Then Lonnie said that Jesus died for all my sins and had risen from the dead. That personal connection made me realize that Jesus was alive and speaking through Lonnie to reach me.

“Jesus said, ‘You’re either for Me or you’re against Me,’” Lonnie told us, grabbing my full attention. “Which side are you on? There’s no middle ground with Jesus. You’re either for Him or you’re against Him.”

I made a commitment to Christ that day, and within four years, I was preaching and starting a church of my own. Today, Harvest Christian Fellowship is getting ready to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.

The Part Left Out of Jesus Revolution

Jesus Revolution covers a lot of this ground. What it doesn’t reveal is that decades later, when I was an established pastor, and my mom was older and weaker, I felt God pulling me to talk to my mom about her spiritual state.

When I first became a Christian, I lambasted my mom about her go-go lifestyle and poor life choices. But as I began to mature in my faith, I came to realize it was the wrong approach. My mom knew the gospel—it had been drilled into her through her childhood—but she had the wrong idea that faith was about rules and regulations. She never got to experience the kindness of God’s grace. She felt that becoming a Christian meant she’d turn dull and boring.

Our dance around the gospel lasted for years. But Charlene’s lifestyle finally caught up with her, and her kidneys were failing, requiring dialysis three times a week. It was at this time God was pulling on my heartstrings to have “the talk” with my mom about her spiritual well-being, and I knew I had to see to it that she was right with God. After some serious back and forth, she assured me she was. I was left speechless. It hit me then and there that she was not the tough and cynical nonbeliever. She was someone who had run away from our Heavenly Father’s love. And the prodigal had finally come home. She was with us in church the following Sunday.

My wife once pointed out to me that Mom may have actually been a major contributor to my coming to faith. In effect, she showed me all that this world had to offer—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Though I still had to have my own experiences with it, I saw through her futile rebellion that I wanted something different, something even more rebellious: a revolution of faith that changed the trajectory of how people encounter Jesus and live out their relationship with Him.

To me, that’s better than any Hollywood ending.

Greg Laurie is an American author, film producer, and pastor who serves as the Senior Pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship with campuses in Riverside, Orange County, and Maui. Laurie came to faith at the age of 17 as the Jesus Movement was exploding in Southern California. He is also a producer on Jesus Revolution, which will be released nationwide on February 24, 2023 by Lionsgate.

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