Tony Cummings spoke at length to the Dublin-born Pentecostal country gospel singer REVEREND KELLY LEE
I don't often get to interview artists who wear a dog collar. The occasional minister/singer who visits us at Cross Rhythms Towers tend to prefer a more informal mode of dress. And I can't remember ever having interviewed a lady in a dog collar. But then, everything about Reverend Kelly Lee is unusual. There can't be many church ministers who in middle age after years of effective church ministry would suddenly decide to release their debut album. But that is what Pentecostal minister Rev Lee has done and her country gospel album 'Reverend Kelly Lee' issued on Famous Records is in the shops now. I began by asking this extraordinary lady about her attire. "The dog collar is part of my uniform. You see, I'm out in the prisons, working with people in crisis on the streets, encountering the police. It can be an advantage if I'm out late at night on the streets and maybe go rescue somebody and there's drugs there and stuff. If the Services came and saw me with just normal clothes on I would likely go in the police van with the rest of them."
Kelly Lee was born in Dublin. Times were hard for many families there. But there was music around the house when she was growing up; her mother and two sisters would sing at every opportunity while Kelly's father was a talented ballroom dancer. Her experience of the Roman Catholic Church was not good. Kelly recalled, "In those days the priest was in total control of everything. But you cannot control a human being. You've got to show love. You'll never get anywhere by controlling them. You have to walk in love and show that love. And yet in the church we went to there was a lot of ridicule. If we didn't have nice clothes on on Sunday the priest spoke about it from the pulpit. It damages people. So many people I deal with now have been hurt by bad religion. It breaks my heart but I can associate with hurt people because I can turn round and say I understand."
At the tender age of three the precocious Kelly had announced that she was going to work for "Baby Jesus and be a priest." She was walloped for her presumption. Remembered Kelly, "The priest said put her away somewhere, she'll soon get rid of that notion. At the time nobody said to me it's ok, you'll be ok. I thought everything was over and done with. So I think that's probably why I turned to music for release. Most people turn to the Guinness and stuff like that. I turned to music. I began to realize at the time that people liked me singing so I started thinking if I sing people will like me a bit more. And that's what I wanted to do; I wanted to be a singer." By the early '80s Kelly was getting her wish. Her work in cabaret led her to engagements in the Middle East where she sang in high-class hotels. She remembered, "I was in the Diplomat Hotel in Bahrain, that was the first hotel I went to and while I was there we'd get invitations to go down to the naval base and do concerts. I've sung in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Sri Lanka. And then I got an opportunity while I was out there to record a segment for television and I sang 'Silver Bells'."
In 1984 Kelly recorded two singles, "All I Want To Do In Life" and "Making Believe". She said, "I remember walking down town one day to get a coffee and I could hear the song blaring out. It was weird. It was all I'd ever wanted to do in life. After that, when I came back, I made another single - well a double sided one - 'Something To Hold On To' and 'Tears Of Yesterday', which I had written. They were country songs."
But back in Britain Kelly found herself in crisis. She explained, "I had hurt my shoulder many moons previously and they missed the fracture so there were complications. It meant that I was taking lots of medication but not getting anywhere. And it was pretty bad. I allowed an orthopedic surgeon to experiment on it and it went very wrong. So when I was in the Middle East it was very difficult to play guitar at the time, it still is. I got friendly with an orthopedic surgeon out there, a very close friend, and he said, 'I notice you do this when you're playing. Can I take a look at that shoulder?' I said yes. He said, 'Not good.' So he said if I arranged with my doctor he would come over and reconstruct, etc, blah, blah. That never happened.
"Then I went and stayed with a friend in Newcastle. I was going through a dark time with all this. She told me, 'I think my pastor should talk to you'. So David Williams of Silverdale Elim Church came to visit. I talked to him and we fought like cat and dog - I was even kicking him. He told me 'You need Jesus', I said 'I'm Catholic'. He said, 'I don't care what you are, you need Jesus.' When it suited me, I would say I was Catholic and of course that man saw through everything. By the end of the day I realised I needed more than I had. I kept looking in his eyes and I saw nothing but peace and love, the love of Jesus and I thought I'd better stop kicking this man. I knew within an hour [that I would accept the Lord] but I thought I'll make him wait. But he knew what I was up to. So in the end I finally succumbed and I said, 'Look, it's not because of your influence, I do need a radical change here.' Within half an hour of that this had been sorted."
Continued Kelly, "He didn't even know about my shoulder. But after our payer I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I filled the kettle then thought what have I done? I took the kettle and emptied it and filled it again and thought I couldn't do that before. Everything was too painful. So my true conversion was 18th March 1985. I was born again; within two or three weeks I was speaking in tongues, baptized in the Holy Spirit. At first I tried to become a good Catholic. What people don't realise when you become born again it's only your spirit that's regenerated. You're still carrying all the baggage. I mean, we're justified and we're in the process of sanctification but because of the sinful nature we're still struggling with the flesh. So, I think it was a guilt thing because when I was growing up it was always guilt. If you don't do this, God won't like you. God won't love you. Well, that's wrong. God accepts us and loves us anyway. But because I didn't have that pastoral care when I was totally born again you can go off the rails. I went off the rails quite a few times. Gradually though, as I got into the word of God I understood there's more to it than all of that. But there's me, saying, 'I'll be a good Catholic.' Somebody said 'Why? You've never bothered before.' And I said it must be the right way to go. But you see, God had a plan. It's been tough, it's been hard. And you know yourself from biblical knowledge that it took Moses 40 years to come out of Egypt and then it took God another 40 years to get Egypt out of him. And this is what's happening. We're in the process."
Eventually, Kelly joined a Pentecostal church. "I started to tell people I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I'm born again, Spirit-filled. I was baptized at Penkull - you know, the full immersion, because I knew how important that was. See, you have to have the right people around you."
Still keeping up a few singing engagements, Kelly noted that country music was growing in popularity in the wake of the line dancing craze and decided to open a shop specialising in western wear. The shop in Ashton-under-Lyne was an instant success. Said Kelly, "Very quickly I had two shops. I remember sitting in the back of the shop just before I opened asking God, will you bless this? And yes, he did, it prospered very quickly. But during that time I had moved house. I don't have a sense of smell and I wouldn't have known the difference but I'd had some work done in the house and the engineers had omitted to clear the flues. At that time I decided to get myself a rescue dog and we used to go home at night from work - have a meal, sit down and maybe the next morning I'd be still sitting there and the dog would be gasping. I'd sat in front of the fire and behind me there was a window open. Maybe I'd wake up in the middle of the night and crawl up the stairs. I'd get up to go to work and would feel grotty. The neighbours used to think the dog was drunk as well because that was the way we were. When I'd get to the shop, fresh air, take some headache tablets, get going, it wouldn't be too bad. But it got to the point that the pharmacist began to notice I was buying a lot of headache tablets. I didn't know that I was being exposed to very low levels of carbon monoxide. Things were getting worse and worse and I still didn't know what was the matter. That went on for 18 months.
"They did verify at the time that my personality had changed, I became very aggressive. There was memory loss, shouting, forgetting things and I had no idea what was causing it because in those days the medical profession. . . when I finally did end up in hospital they treated me for everything neurological except the thing. So the neurological stuff they were giving me was making the condition worse because I had a hypoxic brain. If you give narcotics to anybody - they were treating me for MS, Huntington's and epilepsy. I was in pretty bad shape."
Things came to a head for Kelly. She remembered, "I remember I had to go somewhere and I asked the shop manager would he look after the dog while I went across the road. He said no, so I had to take the dog with me. At the time I was finding it very difficult to walk as well. We went into the park and I was so bad tempered I said oh you stupid dog and walked off and left her. I didn't know she was as badly injured as I was and her eyesight was deteriorating. I walked on and left her. This is the weirdest thing that happened. I'm walking across the park, scrawling, and I felt something hit me on the back of the head, pushing me forward. I turned around but there was nobody there. But there was this horrible feeling of loss. And I thought where's the dog? Where's the dog? I remember trying to run - I could barely walk - but you can run till you realise you can't run and I saw this lady pull out with a white van. I didn't know the significance. I went back, crawled back to the shop and said to the manager somebody's just told me the dog's been killed, been hit by a bus. They've taken her down to the vets. Will you go down? So he went down. This is where it all came into place. I went in the shop. I remember sitting in the same place where I had dedicated the shop to the Lord. Not one customer came in, the telephone never rang, nothing. And I said, 'Lord, I don't know how I'm going to cope with this because it's my fault. I shouted at my dog, I walked away and left her.' And I said, 'It's over.' I remember putting my hand up and saying if you will help me now, I'll serve you for the rest of my life. I'll be ordained and I'll do what you want me to do. I didn't open my eyes, I felt somebody touch me and pull me up and I knew it was God. He'd heard my plea. So anyway, the manager came back, he had the dog's lead and I saw the blood. What I hadn't realized, the lady in the van had picked the dog up. God was merciful to me - I didn't see what everyone saw. So I said to the Lord, 'OK, I'll do it.' I'd already spent a lot of time studying the Bible. I said I'll fight to get better and I'll serve you the best way I can. And that was the end of it."
The carbon monoxide poisoning was finally discovered. Legal action was taken against the engineers whose negligence had almost killed Kelly. She explained, "There was a cover up. But I went before God and I said, 'I hate to blame somebody but will you reveal what's happening here?' Within two weeks of that the persons responsible had a breakdown and confessed." Kelly was ordained into the Elim Pentecostal church in Brisbane, Australia. She remembered, "Soon after that they said right, we're going to have you for a year as a pastor with the Aborigines. And I said why the Aborigines? They said because you get on with most people, they need a pastor and they love music and you play guitar. And I said but I don't think that that's what God wants. I want to go out on the streets."
Back in the UK Kelly began to plan a ministry to reach the broken and hurting on the streets of Warrington. Still recovering from illness Kelly took a short holiday to Cyprus. There she felt God speaking to her. Explained Kelly, "I felt the Lord speaking to my heart. 'When are you going to name your ministry?' the Lord asked. I said, 'I'm not, because I'm not sure if it's me. But if it's of you, will you give me a name?' Right away it dropped in my spirit, dropped in my heart: Streetwalk. And people have tried to change it - Streettalk, Street Support, Street this and I said no. It's God's ministry. Six months before I was ordained I had to do quite a bit of street work. I trained up three helpers and they were pretty good. If you go back to when Jesus was with his disciples and they knew who Jesus was but he decided to get up and wash their feet, right? That's what I did. I saw a great need so I started to go out and I got to know people. I started at the back of B&M in Warrington and all the drug addicts were there and all the homeless people, lying there with needles in them and all sorts. I had one of our pastors from Australia with me for a couple of weeks."
The Streetwalk ministry blossomed. Kelly was already known to quite a few policemen and workers in the social services. "When I came back from the Middle East I would go in and out of Strangeways gaol, so I knew them all. Opposite B&M in Warrington was Kwiksave, the grocery store. I used to say to the people on the street, 'Would you like me to get you some food?' They'd say yes, we'd love it. So I would go across and get bags of food and stuff. One evening one of the guys said, 'Miss, you don't have any knives or forks or anything.' But then he said, 'Don't worry, I'll get you some.' And he did. He went to B&M and stole a picnic set to bring the plates. So obviously I had to say, 'No, that's not the way that we do it.' So I went into B&M and said, 'I'm sorry, this has happened, let me pay for it.' And they said, 'No. Have it.' That's where it started."
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