Singer-songwriter Dennis Jernigan has been making Christian music for decades, recording with big-name acts like Natalie Grant and Rebecca St. James — but he's also known for another very pointed and controversial reason: he's a past homosexual who openly shares his story.
Considering his candid nature, it's no surprise that Jernigan complied when he was approached not long ago by Jacob and Ashlyn Kindberg, a couple from California who wanted to turn his testimony into a documentary. The end result is "Sing over Me," a film about his life-long struggle with homosexuality.
"In a nutshell, I've been telling my story publicly since about 1988," he recently told TheBlaze.
His candor is particularly intriguing considering the current political climate that is increasingly favorable toward gay rights. There's no doubt that Jernigan's views — once part of the cultural mainstream — are losing popular appeal, but that isn't stopping him from speaking out.
Jernigan, whose Christian worship hits like "You Are My All in All" and "Nobody Fills My Heart Like Jesus" have been heard around the globe, said he's hoping "Sing Over Me" will leave audiences feeling inspired and with the realization that "change is possible."
"My hope is they'll take away the reality that change is possible and freedom is worth fighting for, because that is my story," he said. "I want them to come away encouraged with another point of view, with seeing that maybe Jesus is the answer."
While Jernigan said this might sound "trite," he credits his faith in Christ with setting him free from homosexuality — the very idea of which many critics would scoff at.
But the songwriter is resolute in claiming that it was his faith that guided him and transformed his life in profound ways.
"So much freedom came into my life," he said. "I never thought I'd be married, much less to a woman. We have nine children."
Jernigan, who is aware of the innate and visceral controversy his story spawns, told TheBlaze about his upbringing and his negative self-image during his younger years, which he believes helped shape his perspective on relationships.
"I was very effeminate as a boy ... the other guys said you're a sissy, you're a fag, you're a girl," he said. "I was emotionally sensitive and I saw the world different."
See an interview with Jernigan's children below:
Also among the many elements at play was the belief he held as a child that his father didn't accept him or view him as a "real man." Additionally, Jernigan alleged abuse at the hands of an adult who he says approached him in a sexual manner when he was just 5 years old.
All things considered, he said that he realized his same-sex attraction at an early age and that he briefly ended up entering into a relationship with a man. That said, he continued to struggle with the notion that he wasn't living the way God wanted.
A Christian his entire life, Jernigan had tried to date women, but said that "nothing worked." Eventually, he found himself completely disgusted — so much so that he attempted suicide.
His personal pain forged on during his younger years until something changed. On Nov. 7, 1981, Jernigan said he had what he described as a profound moment of clarity.
While attending a concert by the Christian band Second Chapter of Acts at the University of Oklahoma that night, the man, who would become a well-known songwriter, said he had a "moment of transformation."
When lead singer Annie Herring proclaimed from the stage that God told her there was someone in the 4,500-person audience who was struggling, but that the Lord was there for him, he was astounded.
"Jesus died for whatever it is you're hiding," he recalled her saying.
After she spoke, Jernigan said that he "placed homosexuality on Jesus' shoulders." Read his testimony about the experience here:
As I listened to Annie Herring speak and sing I was overwhelmed by the love she spoke of. … All of a sudden she just stopped in the middle of [a] song and said, "There are those of you here who are dealing with things that you have never told anyone and you are carrying those burdens and that's wrong--that's sin and you need to let those hurts go and give them to the Lord. We are going to sing the song again and I want you to lift your hands to the Lord — and all of those burdens that you are carrying, I want you to place them in your hands and lift your hurts to Him." This was all new to me--worship and praise. I had always thought before that this was just an emotional response that didn't really mean anything. But you know what it did for me? As I lifted my hands, God became more real to me than I had ever imagined! The lifting of my hands was more than a physical action. My hands were an extension of my heart! I realized that Jesus had lifted His hands for me —upon the cross. I realized that He truly was beside me and that He was willing to walk with me and carry me and just be honest with me. And I could be honest with Him! At that moment, I cried out to God and lifted those burdens to the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, I can't change me or the mess I've gotten myself into--but you can!" And you know what? He did change me!
While Jernigan said his temptations didn't go away immediately, he believes God began to change his thoughts and perspective. And he says that his story, as told through "Sing Over Me," will help others who have had similar experiences.
"My personal opinion is that people give up often far too soon or they don't get to the root issues and, for me, getting to the root issues was that really brought my freedom," he said. [The] reality was I was created as a man, I was created to be with a woman."
Jernigan continued, "Feelings do not define us. Temptations do not define us."
He's aware that many critics believe he's doing more harm than good, rejecting his premise that it is possible to change one's sexuality. Some have even called his stance dangerous.
That said, Jernigan isn't planning to stay quiet.
"I've seen too much good come out of my life and my story to stop telling it," he said. "I'm not telling anybody they have to change. I am nobody's savior. I can't change somebody. That's … between you and Jesus."