“Sing Over Me”: The Saving Grace of God’s Rescue
Here’s a not-so-very-pleasant place to start: I have nine gay friends, and every single one of them has been hurt by the Church.
And by “the Church” — lest we overlook ourselves in the term’s abstraction — I mean they have been hurt by individual Christians.
Having spent the last decade of my life in academia’s liberal and affirming circles, I have, of course, met dozens more than these nine professors, staff, and students — and quite a few of them have shared with me tales of some not-so-First Corinthians 13 encounters with Christians. But those nine are ones I’d call real friends.
“Sing Over Me opens up a safe space for homosexuals who feel — as Jernigan did — in need of rescue.”One — after agonizing for years over coming out to her family — was asked by her grandfather, a pastor, to never set foot in his house again. Another overheard his Christian roommate (half-)joking about him on the phone, saying he needed to “turn or burn.” Another was asked to stop participating in the church choir until he had gotten his sinful nature “under control.” Several others were just slowly “phased out” of their Christian friendships after coming out: texts went unanswered, calls went unreturned, profiles on Facebook were suddenly “limited,” and pretty soon they were being excluded from important life events like marriages and births with no uncertainty as to the reason why.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, this really isn’t such a hot track record. And I seriously doubt my friends’ experiences are unique.
What got me thinking about this in the first place was the documentary Sing Over Me, the testimony of popular Christian singer/songwriter Dennis Jernigan. I’d never heard of Jernigan, but some Google searches revealed that I’ve heard many of his songs. When I saw that his testimony centered on redemption from a life of homosexuality, though, I got nervous. I began anticipating all the possible ways a film like this could be trouble: preachy, judgmental, simplistic, aggressive, presumptuous — there were any number of land mines it could step on. Also, I was concerned about the medium. As a student of media and rhetoric, I know that the trouble with a format like film is that it’s not reciprocal. The audience sits and watches, the final credits roll, and viewers are left to think about what they’ve learned. There’s no conversation or chance for questions or clarification. This is fine for some subjects, but for others, lines of communication need to be open. I feared this was one of those subjects.
So I was, to be quite honest, really surprised when, ninety minutes after suspiciously clicking “Play,” I found myself sitting calmly and thoughtfully in front of my computer screen feeling simultaneously motivated and meditative, provoked and inspired, challenged and hopeful.
Here’s the basic plot: As a child growing up in Oklahoma, Dennis Jernigan experienced homosexual desires at a very young age. He was sexually harassed in a public restroom as a five-year-old and never received the type of approval, attention, and unconditional love from his own father that he desperately craved — two factors he feels contributed directly to his early attraction to other boys. Raised in a time and a church where it was acceptable for homosexuality to be openly and harshly mocked and condemned, Jernigan lived a closeted life for many years. He heard homosexuals derided by churchmen, sent to hell from the pulpit, and he remembers praying over and over again that God would just “fix” him. He attempted to date girls in high school while experimenting with boys — some of whom were also in church — on the side.
He was different in other ways, too: sensitive and artistic, his safe haven throughout high school was at his grandma’s piano, where he learned to read and play music. He “performed” the role of a straight man into college where he dated a woman named Melinda on and off, all the while cheating on her with other men. It was during this time that his “secret” was revealed to two people: a respected older gentleman in the community who took Jernigan under his wing and a friend, Chuck King. The former, upon hearing Jernigan’s story, took advantage of the moment and came on to him sexually. Later that night, while tormented by feelings of shame and betrayal, Jernigan went home, turned on the gas in his stove, and attempted suicide. The latter responded with such compassion and grace that Jernigan’s life was changed forever. Through Chuck King’s ministry, Jernigan was able to hold his head above water long enough to truly see the Gospel lived out without judgment, without hate, without anything but support, encouragement, and love.
What a difference one person can make.
The rest of Dennis Jernigan’s story follows a beautifully positive trajectory of redemption. He describes how, after committing his life to Christ at a 2nd Chapter of Acts concert, God gradually took away his homosexual desires, allowed him to marry Melinda, and blessed him with nine children and a global music ministry. A miraculous transformation.
There are a couple of things I think director Jacob Kindberg handled well and approached thoughtfully in Sing Over Me, things that might lead this film to reach a non-Christian audience and which, at the very least, will challenge Christian viewers.
1) While the central message of the film is that Jesus can and will redeem anyone from any sin, Jernigan’s experience of homosexuality is presented as a very individual and unique journey. There is, for example, no assumption made that homosexuality is exclusively or even necessarily a result of an unloving father or sexual abuse in childhood. This was simply how it played out in Jernigan’s life. Centered on clips from interviews, the testimony remains fiercely personal. There is room allowed for divergent experiences of homosexuality. There is no assumption that Jernigan considers himself the entire population’s ambassador or spokesperson. His humility is refreshing.
2) The role of Christians in the lives of people struggling with sin is highlighted in a way that’s both deeply convicting and motivating. It was Christian after Christian after Christian that — through words and deeds — kept Jernigan closeted and in fear for so long. He felt that, more than anyone else, it was people in the Church who must not find out about his struggle. But it was also Christians who showed him the true Gospel and worked as powerful players in directing him toward healing. Besides Chuck King, there was Jernigan’s grandmother who prayed every day for his ministry of music to reach multitudes for the Lord. There was his wife Melinda, who — four children into their marriage — found out about her husband’s past and didn’t even flinch. And there are Dennis’ children who take pride in their father’s testimony. Over the course of the film, viewers see how each of these positive witnesses helped encourage and strengthen Jernigan’s own faith.
Sing Over Me isn’t so much about Dennis Jernigan as it is about what Jesus can do and what Christians ought to be doing.
If there is one caveat I should add though, it’s this addendum of sorts to my first point: Just as each Christian’s journey to Christ is unique, what redemption looks like in each individual Christian’s life will be unique as well. Redemption in Jernigan’s life led to the total elimination of his homosexual desires, to a wife and children, to an incredibly far-reaching ministry, and to both material and spiritual wealth. During the film, we meet two other men who become Christians because of Jernigan’s ministry and overcome homosexuality in their lives as well. Both men ultimately married and had children. But though this establishment of a “traditional” family is the picture of redemption the film presents, it should not be universalized. There will be Christians who turn to Jesus for freedom from homosexuality and are never entirely rid of the desires. Some may be called to a life of abstinence. Some may find the desires extinguished but face infertility. How God’s grace manifests cannot be predicted or stereotyped. The one assurance we have is that for each of us it will be perfect, complete, and exactly what we need.
Sing Over Me sets out to tell the story of a life and a conversion, and does so. Dennis Jernigan’s story is one of hope and is a beautiful one to hear and share. But as is the hope with any Christian testimony, the goal is for those on the receiving end to be challenged and changed as well. At one point in the film, Jernigan mentions that when he first came out with his testimony in 1988, he was “flooded with people” who wanted to talk to and meet him. Clearly there’s a need for this particular type of testimony — the experience of redemption from homosexuality — to be shared. That was nearly three decades ago, and we now live in a world with even more complex feelings towards homosexuality.
Individuals who, like Jernigan, experience same-sex attraction as “shameful” or “destructive” will find no friends in secular culture. Those uncomfortable with living openly and with complete confidence in their homosexuality — who feel troubled or convicted by these desires, and experience them as temptations rather than an exclusively biological product — will be mocked in the halls of academia, in popular magazines, in pop music lyrics, and on the big and small screens. The Church might be the one ear left willing to hear. While most Christian denominations still identify homosexuality as sin, as the experiences of my gay friends exemplify, individual Christians may not be doing the best job of arriving at their feet with love and non-judgment.
At one point in the film, Jernigan says: “My perspective was, I was worthless… My particular sin? God hates [it] more than others. That’s just what the Church had communicated to me. That’s what I had come to believe about myself: I was unlovable, I was not worthy, I was not ever capable of getting close to God.” This is tragic. Sing Over Me opens up a safe space for homosexuals who feel — as Jernigan did — in need of rescue. It allows them to see that even in the midst of an affirming culture, their feelings of discomfort about their sexuality are permitted, and there is hope. Sing Over Me also serves as a strong reminder to Christians to never speak a partial gospel, whether in word or deed. In the same breath as we speak of sin, we must also speak of God’s rescue. No one should leave our presence knowing of abomination and condemnation but nothing of hope. What a difference one life can make.
Hi Amber –
First, thank you for the caveat. There’s a dangerously ignorant narrative in the conservative Christian world that being gay is a result of sexual abuse or poor parenting. I think this is comforting to some people – to pathologize homosexuality means that there’s hope of a cure (as if being gay is something that needs to be cured).
But the overwhelming testimony of gay people is that we are not sexual abuse victims and most of us came from reasonably happy homes. We were raised with love identically to our straight siblings.
Personally, I’m skeptical of ex-gay stories because such claims are belied by the science (see Jones/Yarhouse for a conservative Christian approach) and by experience (see John Paulk, Alan Chambers, and a host of other ex-ex-gay leaders). I don’t wish to invalidate anyone’s experience, but it’s harmful to expect that any gay person will change orientation – that’s a false hope indeed. While we may not know what causes one to be gay (any more than we know why some people are left handed), we know that sexual orientation is fixed around a point on a spectrum. It is mostly or exclusively immutable (this may be slightly less true in women, but is true as a generalization).
Secondly, there is another way that the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit plays out in the lives of Christians who are gay – that’s covenental partnership. While some people, both gay and straight, may be called to celibacy either for season or a lifetime; some other people are given the blessing of relationship. It is both contrary to scripture and to human experience to suppose that all gay people are gifted with celibacy; that’s a dangerous theology (every bit as dangerous as a theology that demands reparative therapy) that endangers the health and well-being of Christians who are gay.
I hold a consecrationist view of the sanctity of gay relationships; that is, even though I wasn’t looking for a lifetime partnership, God blessed me with it. My marriage – mutually self-sacrificial and in the service of community – is completely aligned with the gospel and has enabled me to draw even closer to God.
BTW – as a book reviewer, I once recommended A Time to Embrace by William Stanley Johnson to you. Did you ever have a chance to read it? If not, I’d still highly recommend it.
Peace and blessings
Thank you for this review. It was very well written and a pleasure to read, I will check out the movie. My husband and I both escaped from the bonds of Same Sex Attraction by turning our lives and desires completely over to Jesus and walking by faith, not by how we felt at that moment. I still struggle with the affects of choosing to see other women as desirable, for me it was most definitely a choice that I made to define myself. (Both of us were sexual abused, he grew up in a very Catholic type environment, I grew up in an extremely liberal anything but Jesus type of environment.) What it really comes down to is that it doesn’t matter how you come to the sin that you idolize over Jesus, all that matters is cutting it out and turning to Him period. Leave the results to Him and you will receive abundant life eternally. I am so thankful that we sought the Truth, we never had anyone to turn to except for each other. I’m so thankful for Mr Jernigan’s testimony and the people that Jesus will set free from SSA with it. God bless you.
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