Straight Talk with Your Spouse
by Ingrid Ramos
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 part of him wanted to come clean with his fiancee, Dennis didn’t share his secret for two reasons. First, well-intentioned friends convinced him 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 the kind of past indiscretion that a wife might expect. His past 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 age 4 or 5, he felt different from other boys. He was a sensitive, gifted pianist, whose skill wasn’t considered manly 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 called him “sissy” and other demeaning names. 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 failing to gain his dad’s approval. Throughout school, Dennis 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.
“I became even more convinced that I was a mistake somehow,” Dennis says.
Having been raised in a strict Baptist family, Dennis tried to stifle his homosexual feelings. After graduating from high school, he headed off to Oklahoma Baptist University to study music. In sophomore music theory class, 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 wasn’t quite right about Dennis, she never suspected he was gay. “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 also 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 had 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 ask for some guidance.
As Dennis spilled his guts, the man admitted that’s the way he was too. Then he seduced Dennis. Afterward Dennis was so disgusted with himself that he went home, turned on the gas in his space heater, and lay on the floor to die. While imagining the peace that awaited him in death, he realized he 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. Far from bringing him the peace that eluded him, a full-fledged homosexual lifestyle only made him more miserable.
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. Without him realizing it, the seeds of a true transformation in Christ had been planted two years earlier. Shortly after attending a Christian concert, someone lent Dennis a Second Chapter of Acts album. The 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. Then Dennis went to see 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 if he surrendered himself to Christ. And he did. “In an instant the power [of homosexuality] was broken,” he says. “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. 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 that would free him. Instead, each day wound him 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 so, those he redeemed from the hand of the foe …”), he felt convicted to reveal his secret to his wife.
Dennis thought that would be the end of his marriage. Instead it marked the beginning of a deeper intimacy that he and his wife had never known. “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 his 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 boosted our intimacy level out the roof.”
For Dennis, the weight was lifted. “I wanted to shout from the rooftop, ‘Hallelujah! Look what God has done!'” he says.
The next night he shared his past with the church where he worked. Then he told his parents, who also took the news with unexpected calmness. Dennis’s dad told him he loved him.
Melinda says the first time he told his story in public was really hard. “Now every time he shares [his testimony] it’s more healing, more uniting,” she says. “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 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’s nothing compared to what we have already gone through.”
The above material was published by Christianity Today International. This material may be copyrighted and should be used for study and research purposes only.