With the statistics of church decline grabbing column inches and headlines on a regular basis, Sorted magazine caught up with Alanzo Paul to hear his drug-fuelled story of transformation and new faith.
What was your upbringing like?
I had quite a normal Canadian upbringing with loving and present parents, as well as an extremely athletic sister who lovingly toughened me up with wedgies and banter. We were a really happy family who played board games, built snowmen, went sledging, and did other such activities that one can enjoy when it’s a brisk -40C winter day in Canada. I grew up in a nominally Catholic home and when we did go to church, I didn’t really understand its meaning, significance, or relevance. Nostalgically, I reminisce on how religious holidays such as Christmas, from my perspective, had the primary function and focus of amassing presents. While Easter, for me, equalled delightfully gorging one’s self on copious amounts of chocolate bunnies.
Unbeknown to me at that time, for years, storms had been forming and thundering between my parents. When I was 12 years old, it reached its climax and my parents’ marriage ended, unfortunately, in a nasty divorce. My father moved 30 minutes away to another city and remarried. My mother was shattered and began what she calls “her dark years”. My sister also took it exceptionally hard and sought refuge with her friends. I was left by myself. Abandonment, anxiety and guilt began to wrap their icy tentacles around my heart and were choking the life out of my blissful upbringing.
Tell us about your teens and what life looked like for you.
At 12 years of age, I did not know how to handle the implosion of my family. Thus, in order to medicate the … pain that I was experiencing, I smoked my first marijuana cigarette, my first tobacco cigarette, and had my first experience of drinking alcohol. This was much of how I spent my teenage years. I was not focused on goals such as university, my future career and so forth, but rather, I struggled desperately [to] find a sense of belonging, identity, self-worth and ultimately, love. My reasoning was “what was the point?” of pursuing such endeavours if I’m literally crumbling on the inside. I felt utterly broken.
Fast forward to 18 years old, I had barely graduated high school and had been kicked out of my mother’s house. Subsequently, I moved in with my father who also kicked me out a short while later, then I moved to a ‘dodgy’ part of town. My substance abuse, which was already a part of my regular daily routine, increased exponentially. In addition to my use of marijuana, tobacco and alcohol, I became addicted to opiates like percosets, morphine and OxyContin. From the moment I awoke until I fell asleep, I would be snorting. My ‘friends’ at that time were gangsters and drug dealers and my upbringing was but a memory.
When did the idea of ‘faith’ become part of your thinking, and how did this begin to affect your life?
When I was 20 or so, I had opened up a clothing store with a drug-dealing acquaintance of mine, and around that time my sister escaped an abusive relationship. While recovering from the experience, she came across a group of Christians and became a follower of Jesus. The change was remarkable, there was a peace and a joy in her. As astonishing as this transformation was, when she invited me to church I was hesitant to say the least. I ranted and raved about not wanting to be judged by these Christians. Eventually, I told her the truth, “‘I already feel bad about myself… why would I go there to feel worse?”
My sister loves me and is persistent. She told me that if I came I would, at least, leave feeling positive. After some time, I conceded. One Sunday morning, around the age of 20, I snorted a fresh rail of OxyContin, grabbed a coffee and went to church. This was the beginning.
Why and when did you come to a point where you wanted to begin your own Christian faith?
When the pastor spoke about Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be God in the flesh, I felt as if I had been lied to my entire life. I felt as if no one actually told me the truth about who Jesus was. Generally, society labels Jesus as a “good man” or a “good moral teacher”. Or perhaps, as some world views claim, an enlightened guru or prophet. However, that was not what I was observing as I read his own words and studied the eyewitness accounts of his life (the Gospels). As C.S. Lewis pointed out, there are only so many options when viewing who Jesus is. He is either lying, crazy, or the Lord.
His teachings were extraordinary, for instance: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”; “I am the … truth” (John 8:32; 14:6, NIV). Not only is his teaching extraordinary, his life was as well. The way he radically included the marginalised of society; women (at the time), the untouchables, the unpopular, the unreligious, the uncivilised and the unloved. He helped those with broken relationships. He was a friend to the friendless. He healed those with shattered lives. Lastly, from my perspective, his self-sacrificial love was extraordinary.
Voluntarily laying down his life on the cross, replacing our brokenness with his wholeness, our darkness with his light, our sin for his righteousness, and our death with his life. His … teaching, life and love were all compelling arguments that Jesus was [not lying or crazy], but rather, is Lord. Furthermore, I never knew that Christianity invited you to challenge and examine it. It’s a faith that invites you to engage your mind, to think, to reason and to process the data about this person, Jesus. To examine the eye-witness accounts of his life, his claims and to ultimately examine his death and resurrection. This is a lifelong pursuit of truth which I love. After several Sundays of hearing about Jesus, I figured maybe he could love me too. I prayed a simple prayer of inviting Jesus into my life and it transformed me.
Why do you think that the Christian Church in the UK is engaging with such low numbers and facing further decline?
This is a complex question and difficult to narrow down to one specific reason or another. Many have drifted from being a practising Christian to a non-practising Christian, or something else, because of one of the following reasons: they have stopped believing the teachings of Christianity; abandoned the Church because of scandal; or they disagree with the Church’s position on certain political or social issues. These factors, I think, lead to lower numbers of people engaging with the Christian Church in the UK and, unless something changes, may lead to further decline in the UK’s Christian population.
Christianity is still the largest religion in the world. According to Pew Research in 2015, 31 per cent (2.3 billion) of the world’s total population is Christian. Globally, Christianity is steadily growing due to conversions and birth rate. However, it does seem to be declining in Europe specifically. Why is that? One factor to consider is that between 2010-2015, the European Christian population experienced a lower birth rate than death rate. Conversely, all other religious groups experienced the opposite. Clearly, this led to a steady decline, and if it continues we’ll see more of that.
However, I think there is hope for Christianity in the UK. Everyone has deep and meaningful questions about life. We want to know the truth about what to believe and not believe. Unfortunately, some churches have not always done a great job engaging with and responding to people’s questions and, consequently, they leave to seek answers elsewhere. I am a part of an organisation called Zacharias Trust that helps people with those very questions. To show seekers of truth that the gospel is meaningful, beautiful and credible. We do this around the globe in universities, corporations, parliaments, churches and so forth.
Based on my experience of speaking with people, my childhood represents the majority of people’s experience of church. Their understanding of church or Christianity is a misconception. Therefore, in order to reduce current declining trends, the mandate of every single Christian is clear and the apostle Peter says it best, “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Why should UK men look at the teachings of Jesus?
I think UK men should look at the teachings of Jesus for a number of reasons, including the answers to our origin, meaning, identity and significance. One reason in particular is Jesus’ teachings of hope in a dying world. All human beings long for hope. Hope for a better society, justice, restoration of broken relationships, forgiveness and for true love. Secularists during the 18th century Enlightenment period, shifted hopes from God to better psychology, politics, higher education, freedom of sexual identity and expression, in the hope that this would resolve the significant problems of humanity and finally create the utopia they’d longed for. However, in the 20th century, humanity achieved feats such as corruption, world war, sex slavery, and the list goes on.
In the 21st century, the secularist seems to have shifted hopes again – hoping that robotics and artificial intelligence will remedy our broken relationships; hoping that social media will sufficiently cultivate community and resolve our deep sense of loneliness; hoping that we’ll achieve immortality and rid humanity of the problem of death (i.e. the uploading our consciousness to the Cloud).
However, Jesus taught that there is a different hope that exists. Christians describe our hope as a “living hope” [see 1 Peter 1:3] and the bedrock of it is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He was crucified for his claims of being God, he came to reveal God’s true identity, he came to identify with our humanity and suffering, and to give up his life for the sins of humanity.
It’s not just a hope but a living hope because Jesus did not stay dead after his crucifixion, but … he rose from the dead, demonstrating that death will not ultimately conquer us and the universe but rather, that he has conquered death. This is just one reason why UK men and women should take seriously the teachings, life, and death of Jesus.
What advice would you give youngsters in destructive patterns today?
My advice is this – if God is willing to reach out, help out, and love someone like me, he is willing do to it for anyone. I was not worth spitting on when God rescued me, but he did because of his great love for all of us. Don’t think that God is mad at you, but rather he is madly in love with you and he went to the cross to prove it. With that being said, if you have a background similar to mine, it’s a tough journey ahead. I have had many more failures and falls than successes. Fortunately, God’s grace is more than enough, every step of the way. More than that, it’s been worth the struggle, so please don’t give up.
A few tips that helped me along my journey of freedom from addiction to spiritual maturity:
1 Connect into a passionate Christian community (aka church): All of them are imperfect so just be forewarned, but you and I are not either, so we fit in perfectly.
2 The journey of discipleship: It was the love and support of people that really helped me get back on my feet. Find someone at church who loves you and loves Jesus and is willing to mentor you.
3 Practise spiritual disciplines: Discipline is a little tough at first, but with discipline comes freedom. It can give you structure to help you have a productive life as well as ensuring that you are connected to God, which is vital for growth. Remember: eat, pray, sing. Eat: the Bible is spiritual nourishment, eat heartily every day. Pray: prayer is when you speak to God and it also gives God a chance to talk back. Sing: worshipping God cultivates an attitude of gratitude in your heart and gets the focus off ourselves onto him.