Minister with a mohican, a motorbike and a mission.
PUBLISHED: 08:00 11 April 2011
Archant Â© 2011
He’s got tattoos, a Mohican, a Harley Davidson and a troubled past; and loves rock’n’roll, Texas – and God. ROWAN MANTELL met the man who had never been out of the USA until he rocked up to Drayton.
The first thing that caught my eye was a wall of wooden crosses, the second was the collection of Coca Cola memorabilia.
Peering through a window at symbols of God and America I was pretty sure I was in the right place.
The coke posters and plaques are actually a bit of a red herring. When Pastor Chris Lee emerges, with his wife Sabrina and daughters eight-year-old Ana and two-year-old Trinity, he admits: “We don’t drink it! We try to eat as healthily as we can and only have coke maybe once or twice a year. But it tastes great!”
However, the crosses are absolutely central to family life.
It wasn’t always like this.
Chris was an angry teenager. He struggled with depression so severe that, three times, he tried to kill himself.
“I was a perfectionist. If I didn’t do something right, the way it should be done, I thought I was a failure,” he said. “I thought my life was junk and I couldn’t do anything. I got into drinking and that didn’t help any.”
He took an overdose. He drove into a telegraph pole. “The very last time I put a knife to my wrist and I absolutely was going to end it right there,” said. “But I didn’t go through with it because I realised I was ill.”
A chemical imbalance was diagnosed and he was well enough to join the US army, straight from school, at 17.
Was he a Christian then? “Absolutely not. Far from it. I cussed, smoked and drank.”
By1998 his was ill again, and was given a year out of the army to sort himself out.
He and Sabrina married but Chris said: “A month into the marriage it fell apart. The love was gone.”
Life seemed meaningless – but Chris knew he had a marriage worth saving. “I married up! I knew I’m not getting any better than that woman!” he laughed.
Chris and Sabrina were also attending church. This was Bible-belt America where church is almost compulsory, but suddenly it began making sense. “Slowly but surely our marriage was getting better, we were learning how to talk to each other in normal, calm voices, and in November 1998 I had a big encounter with the Lord. Not verbally, but just inside,” he said.
Chris speaks of God in an easy, matter-of-fact way. He is convinced that there is regular two-way communication. Chris prays and God speaks. “It’s definitely not audible. It’s more of a knowing deep down inside,” he said.
“We were in prayer one day and God brought a question to me,” said Chris. “He said, ‘If I called you to be a missionary, would you be one?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not! I love America.”
However, the couple gradually became convinced that one day they would work in England.
They had never been out of the United States, had no passports and knew very little about their destination.
“We thought people probably walked around like this (he mimes a toffee-nosed expression and laughs.) But far from it, we have been made so welcome.”
For several years they worked at a huge church in Texas. A family from their congregation went to visit relatives in Norwich and the eight-year-old son became convinced that Chris would be the ideal leader for their Drayton church.
It was the start of a series of events that led to Chris becoming pastor of Drayton’s new Today’s Lifestyle Church (TLC.)
Multi-millionaire Norfolk businessman Graham Dacre, who is also involved in the Open Academy at Heartsease and the city centre Open venue, is part of the TLC leadership team. Eventually it is expected to move to the site of the old David Rice Hospital in Drayton. There was local opposition, but planning permission was granted earlier this month.
Mr Dacre travelled to Texas to meet Chris, who was then children’s pastor for a church with an astonishing 8,000 members.
He persuaded the couple to take their first overseas trip and Chris said: “As soon as the wheels of the plane touched the ground in America we knew we had left our hearts back here.”
Today Chris preaches to up to 150 worshippers every Sunday morning. There is also a young peoples’ service in the evening. The 31-year-old uses blogs, twitter and facebook and said: “Our main concern is to do our utmost for the people in Drayton and the surrounding area. The love of God breaks all cultural barriers and I love small churches because I can get to know people, invite them to my home, lead them to God.”
His passion is undeniable. “I don’t doubt God exists any more,” he said. “I have seen him work in my life. I have seen too many miracles to doubt.” There are tears in his eyes.
So when he felt the call to Drayton there was no hesitation.
The family arrived in Norfolk in January with a three-year visa. They were astonished at the shortness of a winter day, entranced by the concept of Sunday roast, bereft when they found no drive-through cash machines, delighted by the welcome they received.
Interestingly, this man with his troubled past and love of fast cars and bikes, had his tattoos after becoming a Christian. So far from skulls or angry messages they are expressions of his faith – on his arms he has the Greek words for “saved” and “filled with the spirit of God.”
“Right now he has a mini-Mohican rather than the full works but he still likes his music loud. And he is convinced that, thousands of miles from home, and a very long way from the messed-up person he once was, Drayton was his destination long, long before he knew it.
“When I was born my great grandmother pointed her finger at me and said, ‘That boy is going to be a pastor!’ I always used to laugh. She passed away four years before I accepted the Lord, but I think she’s up in heaven laughing at me now!” said Chris.