By Jeanine Michaels
Pastor Chuck Smith’s wife, Kay, was the force behind one of America’s greatest revivals. In the foreword to her book Pleasing God, Pastor Chuck wrote, “Kay was the first to reach out to the hippies of the ’60s. Her prayers and tears laid the foundation for our church, Calvary Chapel.” But to understand her heart for the hippies, we must start with her story’s beginning.
Kay had less than an ideal start. In 1927, at seven weeks old, she was dropped off at a foundling home after her birth mother, a Hollywood actress, made the tough decision that she could not parent her daughter. By age 14, Kay remained unaware that the couple who ran the home, Oscar and Minnie, weren’t her parents. After her cousin spilled the beans, Kay asked, “Is it true? Am I adopted?”
Minnie and Oscar finally made it legal, adopting Kay. Kay’s relationship with her adopted dad was special. However, Minnie suffered from schizophrenia, resulting in a tumultuous relationship that tended toward cruelty. Minnie never showed affection to her daughter.
At 21, Kay met Chuck, who was well-versed in the Bible, which pleased Kay. After a six-week whirlwind romance, she married Chuck, partly to escape the home where she grew up. Chuck and Kay reared four children together, Janette, Chuck Jr., Jeff, and Cheryl. Though Kay herself had trouble showing affection, she loved fiercely. She ensured that her children never felt the insecurities she had growing up.
Pastor Chuck and Kay moved in 1965 to a church in Costa Mesa called Calvary Chapel. The church grew under Chuck’s leadership, and in 1967, they outgrew their facility and rented a Lutheran church for their services. After Bible study, the church held prayer meetings, during which Kay’s heart for the hippies began to manifest itself.
Her dysfunction, insecurity, and brokenness caused her heart to ache for these lost souls. She was burdened because she recognized their pain. Soon, the church also interceded for these young people turning to drugs to mask their pain. Kay knew that God wanted to reach them, but she didn’t know how He would.
Her daughter, Janette, was dating a man who knew Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie who was sharing the love of Christ with his generation. Knowing Kay was desperate to meet a hippie, they invited Lonnie to meet Janette’s parents. Kay and Lonnie connected on a very profound level as he shared his testimony with her. His story touched a place deep inside Kay as she recognized another wounded individual. She ministered to his pain in a way few others could. As Lonnie and his wife, Connie, brought their friends to Costa Mesa, Kay would counsel them for hours, praying with and for them.
The church began a phase of explosive growth, eventually meeting in a large tent to accommodate the people. Kay started meeting with the women to help them grow as godly wives and mothers. Kay began to hold annual Pastor’s Wives retreats as the Calvary Chapel movement grew into a network of churches. She was fondly called “Mama Kay,” which is so poignant.
Kay developed early-onset dementia around the time she turned 60. For a while, she was able to manage her disease. But soon, she had to step away from her duties at the church. Her daughter, Cheryl, with her husband, Brian, returned from England to join the staff of Calvary Chapel to assist Pastor Chuck and Kay.
Chuck preceded Kay in death in 2013. In 2021, Kay died at the age of 94. Kay served alongside her husband faithfully for many years. What a special ministry she had! What Satan meant for evil in Kay’s early life, God used for good as she ministered to others out of her own pain.
3 responses to “Mama Kay: The Woman Behind the Jesus Movement”
A great article about precious Kay Smith and her compassion for the hippies.
An impressive short article about Kay Smith. I would love to hear more.
Kay had a profound influence in my life as she took time to reach out and minister to me, even though Calvary had grown to thousands at the time. I never could understand this, but was so grateful! Her heart reflected the heart of Jesus. I deeply miss her.