There was a time, Chris Ackerman said, when "the center of my life was violence."
A fan of punk rock and speed metal, Ackerman spent many of his nights at the clubs, looking for drugs and trouble, usually finding both. He hung around with gang members and fights were part of his routine.
It was hard to imagine such a rebellious past as the 21-year-old Burbank resident sat serenely in prayer, his hands folded, his eyes closed. This was Ackerman's night for Bible study.
Ackerman is a member of Longhairs for Christ, a small group of music fans and musicians who combine the harsh and pounding sounds of heavy metal with the lyrical teachings of Scripture. Most of them, like Ackerman, say they fell into the abyss of satanism, violence and drugs before changing their lives.
"I was a cocaine abuser," said Anna Colon, 23, who found religion two years ago. "I spent the majority of my time drunk." Her husband, Marcus Colon, who plays a mean lead guitar in a religiously oriented speed-metal band called Martyr, also suffered from "hard-core cocaine addiction."
But this evening, the Colons pulled out Bibles and song sheets for a gathering of five longhairs in their modest apartment in Eagle Rock. The hardest drink available was Dr Pepper.
A large speaker sat silently in a corner. The unamplified music was religious folk. "Father, we love you," they sang as Marcus Colon strummed an acoustic guitar. "We praise you, we adore you."
Marcus Colon, 22, founded Longhairs for Christ in Burbank in 1987, an outgrowth of the Christian metal movement that arose in the early 1980s. With about 25 members from the San Fernando Valley and other parts of Los Angeles, the group once proselytized, handing out religious tracts at Hollywood clubs. Sometimes they parked outside concert halls and prayed to defeat what they said are satanic forces inspiring much of heavy metal music.
The group has dwindled to about six core members who quietly try to give each other support. If it weren't for the T-shirts, black leather jackets and long and often dirty hair, they would seem at home in a Nebraska Bible college.
Their personal stories, they said, are typical of most Christian metal fans.
Ackerman grew up in a Catholic family but never felt close to his parents' church. "I knew about God, but I never really believed it," he said. As a teen-ager he began listening to heavy metal and learned to play drums.
To be sure, that's not an automatic path to damnation. But for Ackerman, it led to a rootless and reckless life. He dabbled in witchcraft but even then did not believe in the rituals.
One day a friend invited him to a church service, and Ackerman, mainly viewing the service as a social event, agreed to attend. He watched other hard-rockers praise God and, to his surprise, was overcome with emotion.
"The next thing I knew I was standing up, crying for God to forgive me," Ackerman said. He never played the drums again. He was 17.
Later, Ackerman attended Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz for 18 months--after he pleaded with school officials to let him study. "They let me in on probation," he said. "They had never seen anybody like me before."
Marcus Colon's conversion began the day his roommates accidentally switched on a religious cable channel and Colon caught a glimpse of a Christian metal musician. He had never seen anything like it. There was someone who dressed the way he did and played his music. While his roommates were away, he switched back to the channel.
Long gone, Colon said, are the days when he would snort cocaine and drive home drunk. Sometimes he wonders why he was never killed. There was the time he and a friend almost drove their car off a hill in Griffith Park. "We were half on, half off the cliff," he said. The pipes of a sprinkler system, tangled in the undercarriage, kept the car from falling, he said.
Those days were but hazy memories on Bible study night. Fred Hood, a tall and lanky seminary student, taught the evening's lesson. Hood, 24, is a rarity in the world of Christian metal. He grew up as "your basic good kid" in a devout Christian home in La Crescenta.
Hood later learned to love Christian metal--which sounds as strident as anything played by Megadeath or Anthrax--but which carries themes of redemption.
Hood picked up his Bible. "Let's open to Jonah in the Old Testament," he said.
The Colons, Ackerman and Eddie Laing, a 14-year-old student from Tujunga, turned to the story of the prophet who was swallowed by a great fish.
The story prompted some joking which continued throughout the evening, giving a casual and definitely youthful flavor to the Bible study.
"What a way to travel," Ackerman said.
"It was a halibut," Colon said of the great fish.
Later, Hood tried to describe sackcloth. According to the Bible, the king and people of Nineveh donned the rough garment after the repentant Jonah--who had since been spat out by the fish--persuaded them to accept God.
Sackcloth was like a potato sack, Hood decided. Colon had a different idea: "It's kind of like polyester."
The jokes notwithstanding, the story of Jonah seemed appropriate. "As we all see, he was less than perfect," Hood said. God ordered Jonah to go to Nineveh but the prophet refused and tried to flee by boat. "It was pretty obvious disobedience on Jonah's part," he said.
But even in his disobedience, Jonah ended up serving God, Hood said. After the sailors threw him overboard, the sea calmed and the stunned sailors recognized the power of God.
The message, Hood said, is that "God can use anyone" to spread his message, even one who sinned like Jonah.
The Bible study was over and the participants closed their texts. Marcus Colon nodded with satisfaction as he told Hood, "An awesome study, Fred."