From Pit to Pulpit

The Story of a High-School Hippie Who Went to Church

— Editor’s note: The following article tells the Christian conversion story of Pastor Tom Camp, as told to Carla Brown.

“Oh God! Manifest yourself to us, God, if you’re really there!” My buddy Mike and I, standing on the roof of my house and high on PCP, ducked, expecting God to strike us with lightning. No lightning struck, and we lived another day.

The Early Years

I grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, the oldest of four children. My father wasn’t home a lot, and my mother wasn’t the nurturing type, so I didn’t have an ideal childhood. Not only did I witness constant fighting between my parents, but my mother could become short-tempered and sarcastic. Sometimes she took her anger out on me. Popular sitcoms of the day, such as Leave it to Beaver, actually depressed me, because my home life looked so different from what I saw portrayed on TV. 

I never liked school, either. I thought it was a waste of time, and I often felt antsy. If I were a student today, I would probably be diagnosed with ADHD—I was so hyperactive, I drove my mother half crazy! On my first day of kindergarten, she had to chase me around the school to get me inside. However, since I was strong and athletic, I became the natural leader of neighborhood football, basketball, and baseball games, and once I entered junior high, I found an outlet in team sports. I joined the baseball and football teams and soon gained the reputation of being the guy who hit the hardest when he tackled.

A Seed Planted

As far as religion went, my family usually only attended church on Christmas and Easter. But providentially, the family next door had an aunt named Melba “Meb” Bundrick. Meb was a strong Baptist, and one day when I was ten, she invited me to a church revival. That Sunday morning, I walked up the aisle, crying, and said the “sinner’s prayer.” It was so real, and I did feel different when I went forward. I attended church with her a few more times, but without encouragement from my family, church attendance fizzled, and that seed lay dormant for a season. Later Meb would remind me, “I’m praying for you.” I appreciated it, but I wasn’t ready to change my life.

By the time I got to junior high, my parents had almost divorced, and that really messed me up. Home felt empty and chaotic at times, so I looked to my little posse of friends to become my surrogate family. By age sixteen I would sometimes leave home and sleep on park benches or in the woods, scrounging up food people had left behind on picnic tables. I also started drinking and smoking marijuana.

Married at Sixteen

Once I got to high school, things didn’t improve much. My teachers accused me of not paying attention, and I would be disruptive or fall asleep in the classroom (when I wasn’t skipping school, which I did a lot). During my sophomore year, I met a girl, an 18-year-old senior. We began dating and soon she became pregnant. I thought I was in love with her, and since I felt a moral obligation to marry her, we got married, even though it meant I had to quit the football team. Then, three days after the wedding, she had a miscarriage. That freaked us both out. We began fighting all the time, and we realized we no longer wanted to be married. Eventually she found an attorney and divorced me.

Drugs, Rock & Roll, & God-Haunted

As we entered the seventies, my long-haired friends and I started partying with LSD, cocaine, and marijuana as we jammed out to groups like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. We knew people who were breaking into pharmacies and stealing drugs, and we would get our supply from them to use and resell. I was hesitant to try LSD, but my friends persuaded me, and one night I hallucinated so strongly I saw houses breathing and trees moving. It was terrifying, and I became fearful all the time after that. I knew I had damaged my psyche, and that was my last experience with LSD. One of my close friends wound up losing his mind because of LSD and is to this day schizophrenic.

Despite my lifestyle, I did still have a God-consciousness. One day my buddy Mike and I stood on the roof (because in our minds it was closer to heaven) and called out, “Oh God! Manifest yourself to us if you’re really there!” But no lightning struck, and we lived another day. I remember camping out and reading the book of Revelation while getting high. I really was trying to figure out who God was. Meanwhile, Meb was still praying for me. She used to say, “Tommy, you’re such a good-looking boy. You got all that “haar” on your head and that big old beard on your face, and you look ugly! And you need Jesus in your heart!”

In 1973, my junior year, the principal suggested I drop out, since I had missed so much school. I took his advice, but not before I noticed Teri Owen, a pretty, quiet girl in the tenth grade. She wasn’t interested in me at the time (she knew my reputation). However, a few years later, she started showing up at parties I attended, and something clicked. She even took me to her senior prom, to the chagrin of her parents. She had planned to go to Purdue University in the fall, but I talked her out of it, and soon we discovered she was pregnant.

Where’s God?

I told Teri I couldn’t marry her, because I’d never seen a good marriage, but we could live together. So, we moved into a house in November 1974, and our daughter April was born the following spring. I worked construction jobs off and on, and then began selling drugs again. As time went on, the emptiness inside started to consume me, and the alcohol and drugs weren’t helping. One night, after drinking heavily, I returned home, and Teri started quizzing me about where I’d been. I passed out on the couch, and when she tried to wake me, I slugged her and gave her two black eyes. The next morning, I was shocked to see what I had done.

Teri called her mother, who suggested we go talk to the pastor at First Assembly Church. “No,” I said, “we can do this on our own.” But my depression worsened. I started doing cocaine more often and developed paranoia. One day Teri asked if I needed to see a psychiatrist. “No,” I said, “I need to talk to a minister.” I didn’t act on it, though, and by the time December rolled around, I was really depressed.

Christmas Day 1976 found me so low, I didn’t want to come out of my room. I asked myself, Where’s God? Well, God must be in a church, I thought. So, Teri and I drove around looking for churches, and when we found one that was open, we sat in the back, hoping someone would come talk to us. No one did, and we got the impression we were unwelcome.


The next week I thought about Meb and her church, and off we went. Meb saw us and came right over and took us to her pastor. “I’m depressed; I feel empty,” I told him. He proceeded to lead me in the sinner’s prayer, then asked Teri if she wanted to pray as well. She did, but it was more obligatory than heartfelt.

Then he said, “Son, you’re going to have to get married to this girl.”

“I wanna do that!” I replied.

But he didn’t stop there. “You also need to change all your friends, and you need to change your wardrobe and cut your hair.” He gave us a King James Bible and encouraged us to read it. We agreed to all his suggestions, and I wanted to oblige him, but once we got in the car, Teri said, “I love Meb, and I’m sure this is a good place, but why don’t we try out First Assembly?”

So, we went through New Year’s Eve without drinking, and tried to read through the Bible, although the archaic language made it difficult. We decided to go to the Sunday evening service at First Assembly, but when Sunday rolled around, my buddy Mike and I had helped a friend move and later wound up getting drunk. When Teri came to pick us up and discovered we’d been drinking, she went off to church, angry, by herself.

Mike and I followed a bit later, still drunk, and proceeded to walk across the chairs to get to where Teri was slouched, embarrassed by our arrival. But when the pastor started preaching on being delivered from bondage to sin, I started to weep. At the end of the sermon the pastor gave an altar call, and the youth pastor came up to us and asked if we wanted to go forward to receive Christ.

Even though Teri and I had recently said the sinner’s prayer, Mike was all excited to go forward, so we went with him. There were about 300 people in church that night, and a huge number came down front to pray for us. They’d never seen hippies get saved before, and they were so excited, it sparked a revival in their congregation.

Teri and I got married soon afterward, and our faith deepened. As we plugged into First Assembly Church, the emphasis was no longer on our outward appearance, but rather on changed hearts and our relationship with Christ.

Calvary Chapel

Later, the church sent me to Central Bible College in Missouri. In 1982, after visiting Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, we fell in love with the teaching style of Pastor Chuck Smith. We returned to Indiana and became involved with the Calvary Chapel movement, where I served in various leadership capacities. In 1993, the Lord called me to start Harvest Chapel in my hometown of Lafayette, and I have served as senior pastor ever since.

We now have four grown children. They all attend church with us, with the exception of our son Jeremy, a multiple Dove Award-winning Christian artist, who lives in Tennessee with his family. 

Looking back over the years, it’s been amazing to see God’s faithfulness. He gets all the glory for the redeemed life of this wayward hippie, and I will be forever grateful.

This article was adapted from the upcoming book, Great Is Thy Faithfulness: The Tom and Teri Camp Story, by Carla Brown.

serves with Ratio Christi, a global campus apologetics ministry that equips students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for the Christian faith. Her husband served as a Calvary Chapel pastor until his death in 2013. She is the author of Great is Thy Faithfulness: The Tom and Teri Camp Story.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #66, Fall 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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