Last year the Forest Service estimated that 23,000 people camped in the Beaverhead National Forest near Missoula. Beaverhead County later billed the Rainbow Family $137,000 for extra law enforcement, garbage cleanup and unpaid medical bills at the county hospital. They said they didn't expect the bill to be paid, because the Rainbows have no hierarchy, no staff and no official address or headquarters.
The Rainbows cleaned out the local food bank and exhausted other social services, such as homeless shelters and free medical clinics. Communities near previous Rainbow Gatherings have reported a rise in panhandling, shoplifting and burglaries that coincided with the massive camp-out.
No one affiliated with the Rainbow Family could be reached for comment. However, the group says its gatherings are intended to be celebrations of love and peace.
Christian ministers in the Inland Northwest hope that by organizing, they can minimize the impact of the Rainbow Family as well as gain some converts.
"This thing is so big," said Dan Grether, director of Free Indeed Ministries of Spokane. "To the extent that we ignore them, we will stay the sleepy little church that we are. To the extent that we engage them, we will be changed."
Spiritually, the Rainbow Family is eclectic. There are Hare Krishnas, traditional Native American practitioners and people who believe in UFOs.
But they are all searching for the meaning of life, said Joshua Hanson, founder of the Jesus Loves You Ministry based in St. Louis. A former Rainbow, he and 10 others now drive around the country to various counterculture events, such as Phish concerts and Bikeweek, an annual gathering of motorcycle riders. They set up a large tent and provide food, clothing and counseling for teenagers and young adults at such gatherings.
Hanson dabbled in dozens of spiritual disciplines before 1997, when he became a born-again Christian while heading to a Rainbow Family gathering in the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon. He and several friends stopped at a soup kitchen in Kansas City. The volunteers took the group back to their church and treated them for lice infestation. Then they prayed.
"That was my road to Damascus," said Hanson, 28. "After that I realized I had been a false teacher. I knew I had to go back and set things right."
These days, while he feeds and clothes runaways, drifters, drug users and Deadheads, he preaches the Gospel.
His reception among the Rainbows is mixed. Once a man burned his Bible. But because Rainbows are curious about all things spiritual, they are often eager to discuss different beliefs.
Last year, by the end of the gathering, as many as 100 people were baptized in a nearby lake, said Tedd Craven, a former prison minister now dedicated to converting the Rainbows to Christianity.
Craven and Hanson led a retreat at a church camp outside of Hayden, Idaho, two weeks ago for 45 ministers and church members from the Inland Northwest. They showed videos and gave lectures about the Rainbow culture, what works and what doesn't.
"We have to be very careful not to charge in there with hellfire and damnation," said Grether of Spokane's Free Indeed Ministries. "That's what we are prone to do and that's exactly what won't work."
Instead, the ministers want to encourage Christians to approach the Rainbow Family with respect.
They hope to help supply money and volunteers to provide the encampment with fresh water, toilets, medical aid, food and transportation to and from town.
They are also lining up churches and households that will take in new converts looking for a Christian home.
"A good deal of them are people who have had a negative church experience," Grether said. "They have been rejected by the church because they don't fit in."
Several of the ministers said they hope to correct mistakes churches have made in past by rejecting people who didn't look or act like mainstream Christians.
Lawrence, of Sandpoint, said he has lived through one cultural revolution and would like the chance to do it over.
"I'm 60 years old," he said. "I see this as the chance to correct a mistake the church made 40 years ago when we frowned on all the hippies."
Conservative Christians and the Rainbow Family actually have a lot in common, Craven said. Both groups identify themselves as fighting against the dominant culture of materialism.
The Rainbows have adopted this Native American prophecy as their mantra: "When the Earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the Earth from many colors, classes, creeds, and who by their actions and deeds shall make the Earth green again. They will be known as Warriors of the Rainbow."
Many of the ministers who have dedicated their lives to making the Rainbows into Christians, believe the group is preordained by God to play an apocalyptic role in end times predicted by the Book of Revelation.
"They have an in-built expectation to be Christ's people," Grether said. "They just don't understand yet that this is their mission." • Staff writer Kelly McBride can be reached at (509) 459-5449 or by e-mail at email@example.com.