Lindy Laird is invited to speak with the pastor of a new church in Whangārei. Photographer Tania Whyte
It sounds like a story, all right — a former gang affiliated drug dealer from Auckland who is now a pastor in an almost new charismatic church in Whangārei.
To add to the bad-goes-good story, God's new club, the C3 (Christian City Church) in Vine St, is in the building that once housed Whangārei's notorious club Danger! Danger!
The sticky carpet, stripper's pole and dance cage are long gone. There's no sign at all of the award-winning mining shanty town fittings and exterior in the pearly white shrine to goodness and light.
Two seedy backgrounds; two astonishing reformations.
Fast growing global faith phenomenon, C3 (Christian City Church) set up church in Whangārei 15 months ago. In that time it has gone from just the pastor, his wife and a few other couples brought in from Auckland to help sow the seeds and set the scene, to a congregation of around 180 people.
The former crim, now pastor Trent Membrey tells me that these days people are still hungry for God but they've lost the taste for stuffy, ancient church-based religion. They want a more loosely structured, contemporary style of worship.
''We sing a lot,'' he says.
A line-up of guitars on the stage/pulpit backs up the statement. Is it what people might have called, say, late last century, a happy-clappy church?
''No-ooo,'' he ponders. ''I wouldn't say happy-clappy.''
But let's backtrack a bit. Why am I here?
Have I heard of Pastor Trent Membrey, I was asked by the nice congregation member who called to suggest he might make a good story.
He's known for being open and out there about his former life as a drug addict and dealer who was on his way to hell in a handcart before finding God.
No, never heard of him, so I turned to Mr Google to find out more.
Sure enough there he is - tall, dark, handsome and redeemed, on YouTube and several other social media forums, talking to C3 congregations in New Zealand and overseas about his years of drug taking and dealing, the harrowing 'now I die' moment that instead saved him, and the hard slog to become a clean, caring, God-fearing family man with a mission.
Working in Auckland bars and nightclubs in the 90s and noughties, a heavy meth (often called P) user himself, he was seduced by the big bucks and the lifestyle the drug world offered.
Penthouses became as second-home as seedy backrooms, and there were times Membrey made hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ''movies'' (drug deals) a night.
He must have been a damn good salesman, I say. He looks so very slightly huffy.
''I'm not a salesman for God, if that's what you think,'' he says.
Thirteen years ago he was a first-time father who, leaving his partner and their newborn babe at home, went on a meth-fuelled five day bender. It ended with him being kidnapped and tortured by former gang associates for two days.
He didn't think he'd survive the beatings and degradation in a motel room. (He was there, he said, ''because of a misunderstanding, I was in the wrong place with the wrong person when these guys snatched us".)
At the lowest, most dangerous point, Membrey caught sight of his bruised, cut, sore-infested face in the bathroom mirror of that torture chamber ... and he broke, or possibly awoke.
''GOD, I internally screamed ... GOD, if you save me, I'll do anything to earn your love, anything!''
The godless fellow truly surprised himself, he says. He'd never before been in a church, never held an inkling of belief, could not understand where that primal scream for help came from.
''I'm not perfect but I've been 12-and-a-haf years clean and sober. I called out to God. and I believe God heard my call that day.''
(And the gangsters let him go.)
Membrey's happy to talk about that moment of despair, desperation and enlightenment.
It was followed by months, years, along an agonising path to earn back his partner Jade's (she was also a drug user and dealer when they met) and her family's faith in him, to go through rehab after a seven year-long meth addiction preceded by using any drugs he could smoke, snort, swallow or shoot since the age of 15, and the deepening pact with his new God.
But he's wary of talking now about the lifestyle before his redemption. He's a community leader, and a mentor to the children and young adults of the congregation, and he works with ex-gangsters.
''I don't want to glamourise what I've done. I don't want to glorify how much money changed hands, and the lifestyle that went with it.
''I've had to help bury family members and friends. I was kidnapped and thought I'd be killed. Drug addiction [nearly always] leads to jail, institutions or death. There's nothing good about it.
''I didn't have a pact with the devil but I was living a life of destruction which destroyed some of my family and friends, and destroyed some of my enemies, too.''
Agreed. It's not a pretty picture any which way you look at it. But, I suggest to Membrey, if he doesn't want to highlight that stuff, perhaps he should take down his C3 sermons about it on social media. That's where I learned about it, I say.
He shrugs. Yeah, maybe.
He wants to talk about the church growing at such a rate it's gone from its first ever outing in Sydney, by founders and Kiwis Phil and Christine Pringle in 1980, to now being in 600 centres worldwide.
About 65 per cent of the Whangārei churchgoers are Māori, which Membrey puts down to Māori, like young Christians, defining their own style and place of worship but having an innate understanding of God.
''But we still preach the Bible, we preach the good word, we live in the Kingdom of God, we expect people to care for and love each other,'' he says of the post-post-modernist church.
''Jesus was very simple in telling people what to do. He said love God and love your neighbour. It's not that hard to do.''
Membrey and his wife Jade now have two daughters and are expecting their third child, a son, in June.
The couple have both clawed their way out of addiction to find fulfilment and purpose in the lap of the church. It was Jade who had earlier links to C3 and found there the door to the couple's salvation.
They've been involved with several branches of C3 in Auckland on a journey on which the couple long ago promised they would go wherever their God led them.
Membrey was pastor at Manukau in South Auckland for five years before being sent to bring C3 to Whangārei, to open its fifth New Zealand ''campus''.
The church members are very proud of their achievements.
The leased Vine St building is now flat-faced, painted sombre dark grey, its wide glass doors opening into a foyer with feel-good messaging and signs on its walls. One says ''Your life matters'' and another says ''Whare Karakia''.
The foyer leads into a large, open common room with hard edged tables and chairs, and walls too white to feel homely or relaxing.
Off that space is a small room with the sign Mums and Bubs above the door, and at the other end the Kids' Zone, a large, tidy playroom.
Then we open a door into perhaps the only vestige of the former dirty old nightclub, what I think feels the most spiritual space in the place — the worship room, the hall or temple (I'm not sure of its title), with its high walls, original wood-lined and trussed roof, and small gable windows letting in triangles of natural light.
This is Danger! Danger!'s onetime boozy, rowdy, sodden bar.
''Once a house of sin, now a house of God,'' Membrey offers, with a wry grin.
Too far? Maybe.