R. Glenn Lee had a rocky start to life in Dunn, North Carolina, in 1968, and his childhood and youth didn’t get much better.
Before his first birthday, Lee’s alcoholic father committed suicide. Consequently, his mother found work in a factory, leaving Lee and his sister, only 10 months older, in the care of their maternal grandparents.
Lee felt love from his grandparents that he never experienced from his mother. But when Lee was 5, his grandfather had a fatal allergic reaction to medication dispensed before surgery. Soon after, Lee’s mother remarried a man 30 years her senior, and her children stayed back home full time. Lee’s stepfather, who drank excessively as well, began physically beating him immediately, without reason. After Lee told his mother he loved her, the emotionally cold, hurting woman pushed him away.
He felt rejected throughout the next decade.
When he was 10, Lee’s paternal grandfather killed himself. The boy heard whispers at school in the farming community, located 40 miles south of Raleigh. Classmates wondered aloud whether he would follow in his ancestral footsteps.
Meanwhile, emotional turmoil continued in his family. When Lee came home from school, he typically rushed into his bedroom to avoid detection — and a thrashing.
Although his stepfather worked as a heavy equipment operator, he spent much of the time inebriated, sometimes inexplicably disappearing for days at a time.
The fact that his mother did nothing to stop the walloping spurred great angst for the boy.
A modicum of relief came for the youth at 11, when he began attending a nearby Pentecostal church with which his grandmother had been connected. He rode a church bus. No one else in his family attended.
“I wanted to go to church all the time,” recalls Lee, 52. “It was the only place I could find peace.”
Lee read the Bible on his own, but no one discipled him. The thrashings at home intensified.
Nevertheless, Lee maintained excellent grades in school. Yet as a form of punishment, his stepfather vetoed his acceptance on the school basketball team.
Starting at 13, Lee fought back physically, but to no avail. He felt destined to fail, that he deserved to be chastened. After never divulging his pain to anyone else, in 9th grade Lee finally confided in a school counselor. But no investigation followed. Matters at home remained horrific.
At 17, in a driving rainstorm, Lee ran away from home, stopping at a friend’s house. The pal’s parents called Lee’s family, who came to pick him up.
A short time later, Lee determined to end his life. In the house he had access to guns, the method both his father and grandfather had chosen. Instead, he swallowed a variety of prescription pills, and went to the residence of a friend, who called 911 when Lee’s medical troubles became apparent. His mom came to see him at a hospital.
“It’s the first time in my life I saw her cry,” Lee remembers. “For the first time, I felt she loved me.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Lee confided his longtime struggles and depression to a doctor at the hospital, who made him promise he would leave home once he graduated from high school in six months. Lee emerged from this lowest point in his life to a season of hope after visiting Southeastern University, the Assemblies of God school in Lakeland, Florida. Lee had continued going to church all the years of his youth and, although he didn’t recognize it at the time, he felt a call to ministry from his first encounter with Jesus at 11.
En route to the university, his 1972 Volkswagen broke down on a highway just as he crossed into South Carolina. Lee recognized that he could either try to find another way to the school, or return home to a future of grief. A motorist — a Southeastern student on his way to the school — stopped to give Lee a lift.
But a prospective undergraduate with limited financial means faced an obstacle gaining admission to Southeastern. Lee had only $300 from multiple menial jobs he worked as a down payment for tuition — then $8,500 a year — and his family planned to contribute nothing. An admissions counselor delivered the grim news of his rejection.
Recognizing this as being a make-or-break situation, Lee audaciously asked for an interview with James L. Hennesy, who served at Southeastern’s president from 1980-98, the longest tenure in the school’s history. Hennesy agreed to meet. Hennesy and his wife, Margie, listened to Lee’s testimony and told him the school believed in him. But Hennesy told Lee he must find employment to pay his tuition cost.
Through landscaping and YMCA jobs, as well as obtaining scholarships and grants, Lee managed to fulfill his monetary obligations. He also immersed himself in ministry opportunities. After his freshman year, he spent the summer with a ministry team that traveled to children’s and youth camps. One week the team interacted with kids who had been abused. Lee spent time counseling and praying for 8-year-old twin brothers named Abraham and Elijah.
“God showed me He would use the difficulty of my childhood for His glory,” Lee says. The return to school for his sophomore year proved to be a turning point.
“Southeastern saved me from myself and healed me,” Lee says.
During his junior and senior years, Lee served as youth pastor of Bartow First Assembly. The Florida church paid his school tuition those years.
His senior year, Lee met future wife, Laura, at Southeastern. They married in 1993, soon after he graduated. Right after their honeymoon, Lee’s seriously ill stepfather asked him to visit. Lee heard his stepfather yelling down the hall, even before he reached his nursing home room.
Lee says the Lord impressed upon him the need to forgive his erstwhile abuser. When he did so, his stepfather began to weep. Lee told his stepfather that Jesus could save him. The men prayed, and his stepfather apologized for the pain he had caused.
“Death has a way of causing people to realize their pending mortality,” Lee says. “It was a freeing moment for me.” Lee’s stepfather died two weeks later.
Lee also forgave his mother. They reconciled as she lay dying in 2006.
John V. Leach, a fellow Southeastern graduate, has been a friend of Lee for three decades. After he finished his school studies, Lee interned under Leach, then youth pastor at Lexington First Assembly in Kentucky. Leach, just 3 years old when his father abandoned the family, found commonalities with Lee. Leach’s mother remarried repeatedly, including an abusive, alcoholic husband.
The 57-year-old Leach is married to Chris, his wife of 37 years, with whom he has five grown children. Early on, Leach encouraged Lee to share about his childhood in sermons.
“Glenn overcame so much,” says Leach, now pastor of Jubilee Fellowship Church in Lone Tree, Colorado. “He didn’t see his background as a hindrance once the Lord started using his testimony. He’s a gifted, effective preacher.”
For the past two decades, Lee has been pastor of Church Alive in Fuquay Varina, located 20 miles southwest of Raleigh. As recommended by Leach, Lee has been transparent about his history ever since his youth pastor days. The church has become a haven for congregants healing from past hurts, including abortion.
The Lees have three sons: Thomas, 25; Zeke, 21; and Judah, 14. While he’s never withheld discipline from his sons, it’s always been in the form of correctional talks, not beatings.
Lee says he is in an accountability group with four other pastors, which helps keep him stable.
“I walk in the power of healing,” Lee says. “Nothing is too difficult for God.”
IMAGE: The Lee family includes (from left)Thomas, Ivy, Harlow, Zeke, Ashlyn, Laura, Glenn, and Judah.