Dennis Jernigan was a man with a past. He knew it. A few Christian counselors knew it. A couple of old friends knew it. Trouble was, Melinda, his wife-to-be, didn't know it. And she wouldn't until five years and three kids into their marriage.
Though there was a part of him that wanted to come clean with his fiancee, Dennis didn't share his secret for two important reasons. First, he was convinced by well-intentioned friends that since God had forgiven and forgotten his sin, he should do the same. They suggested he never bring up his past to anyone—not even his wife. And second, Dennis and Melinda had agreed not to talk about the past, acknowledging they both had done regrettable things.
But Dennis's secret wasn't a run-of-the-mill "past indiscretion" that a wife might expect. His past was one that would haunt him for years. Even though he had turned his back on his former homosexual lifestyle, he still was bombarded by fear. What would Melinda, their children and his church do if they ever found out?
Growing Up 'Different'
Today, Dennis is a well-known singer and composer of praise and worship music. His songs are used in Sunday-morning services across the country. But he says that from the time he was four or five, he felt different from other boys. He was a sensitive, gifted pianist—not a very manly trait in the rough-and-tumble world of rural Oklahoma where he grew up. Real men went fishing and hunting; they didn't tickle the ivories for Auntie Beth in the parlor, as Dennis was regularly asked to do.
"I never got to do boy stuff," he says now of his frustrating childhood.
The other boys noticed that Dennis was different. They routinely called him "sissy" and other demeaning names. All the while, Dennis says, "this just confirmed to me that I didn't belong with other little boys."
Throughout childhood, Dennis struggled in two areas that he now says led to his sexual-identity confusion: feeling like a "freak" and his inability to gain his dad's approval. Through out school, he excelled at many things. In addition to his obvious musical gifts, he was a star basketball player and valedictorian of his high school class. But none of his accomplishments won his father's respect, which he desperately sought.
"So," Dennis says, "I became even more convinced that who I was was a mistake somehow."
Having been raised in a strict Baptist family, Dennis tried to stifle the growing intensity of his homosexual feelings. After graduating high school, he headed off to Oklahoma Baptist University to study music. It was there, in sophomore music theory class, where he met Melinda Hewitt.
"I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen," Dennis says. "I asked her out because I thought, maybe I'm not doing what I need to do to [be straight]."
For the next two years, Dennis and Melinda dated off and on. Though she noticed that something was "off" about Dennis, she never suspected he was gay.
"I had dated a lot of guys, and I knew what a man was like," Melinda says. "I just thought he was this really moody guy. And I was real attracted to him. He was the first guy that I had ever dated that I really thought I could marry."
"I could never commit to anything," Dennis says. "I was just so confused—it whacked her out."
Dennis's confusion manifested itself not only in the form of homosexual urges, but in knowing whom to trust. Dennis grew up thinking Christians were the last people he could talk to about his identity crisis—his own church background exposed him to more than his share of gay bashing. But when he befriended an older, married Christian man during his senior year of college, he thought he'd reach out for some guidance.
"During the course of me just spilling my guts, he basically said, 'Well, that's the way I am,'" Dennis says. His friend then took advantage of Dennis's trust and seduced the younger man.
Feeling disgusted with what had happened, Dennis went home that night, turned on the gas from his space heater and lay on the floor waiting to die. While imagining the peace that awaited him in death, he realized he really didn't want to die. He turned off the gas jet, but instead of turning his back on homosexuality he decided to embrace the sexual tendency that he had been fighting. But far from bringing him the peace that eluded him, a full-fledged homosexual lifestyle only made him more miserable.
Seeking an Escape
Dennis knew he needed a radical change, but he had dated women before without noticing any decrease in his homosexual yearnings. So when he renewed a relationship with Melinda, he still didn't see a solution to his problem. But without him realizing it, the seeds of a true transformation in Christ had been planted two years earlier. Shortly after he had attended a Christian concert, someone lent Dennis a Second Chapter of Acts album. Their music blew his mind. He didn't know how anyone could be so passionate about Christ.
This curiosity continued to stir within him, but he didn't find the answer until after his college graduation. He and Melinda broke up for what they thought would be forever, and that fall Dennis went to see the Second Chapter of Acts in concert. It changed his life.
"Annie Herring [the group's lead singer] stopped after singing 'Mansion Builder' and said, 'God put on my heart that there's somebody here tonight hiding something. You'd be devastated if you thought anyone knew about it.' I thought, 'This chick's talking to me!'"
That night Dennis says he felt God telling him that he could be born again—begin anew—if he surrendered himself to Christ. And he did.
He explains: "In an instant the power [of homosexuality] was broken. I got to the point of saying 'I can't,' so I gave it up to the Lord, and he said I could.
"But it has been a process. It doesn't mean the temptation stopped. It doesn't mean that I forgot my past." He did, however, have the strength to live as God wanted him to live.
For the next several months, Dennis drove a city bus and wrote music. He began by singing his way through the Psalms, deepening his relationship with God. He didn't think about contacting Melinda until one day when his parents mentioned her. Their comments made him miss her. He started by writing a letter, and they got to know each other again. Two years later, they were married.
Truth Be Told
Dennis followed his friends' counsel to forget his past, thinking it would free him. Instead, each day wound him and his marriage up tighter. After reading Psalm 107:1-2 ("Give thanks to the Lord; for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say this—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe … "), he felt convicted to reveal his secret.
Dennis thought the day of his confession to Melinda would be the beginning of the end of his marriage. Instead it marked the beginning of a deeper intimacy that he and his wife had never known.
He says, "That night I went to Melinda, and I said, 'Here's what I've been hiding from you. God's healed me, but I should have told you sooner.'"
To Dennis's amazement, his wife seemed unfazed—even relieved.
"It was not any huge big deal to me," Melinda says. "We had three children by then. Our marriage was great. We didn't have any problem sexually. I knew there was something [in his past]. And when he unloaded I was like, 'Oh good. Now I can get rid of my junk and we can go on.' It was freeing for us. It just boosted our intimacy level out the roof."
For Dennis, "all of a sudden this weight was lifted. I decided I'd shout it from the rooftop: hallelujah! Look what God has done."
The next night he shared his past with the church where he worked. And then with his parents, who also took the news with unexpected calmness. Dennis remembers his dad first telling him he loved him on the night he came clean.
Melinda says the first time he told his story publicly was really hard. "Now," she says, "it's like every time he shares [his testimony] it's more healing, more uniting. I am right there with him supporting him."
The Jernigans have supported each other in helping their nine children understand why their father speaks publicly about a potentially embarrassing topic. And their kids seem to get it.
"They know that what Dad did was bad," Melinda says. "But look what God can do. They know that no sin is too big for God to take care of, and they've learned what healing means—we live it out every day of our marriage."
Melinda also continues to be Dennis's main support in his ministry, which centers on the truth that God's mercy is for everyone, regardless of their past.
They feel confident that God has given their marriage strength to endure. As Dennis says, "Any strife that comes between us, we deal with it. It's nothing compared to what we have already gone through."
Ingrid Ramos is a writer living in Palm Beach, Florida.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.