Grammy Winner Sings About Redemption, Preaches About Second Chances

c. 2005 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

FREEPORT, N.Y _ Donnie McClurkin is a gospel music superstar whose voice is recognized around the world. But on Sunday mornings, as Pastor McClurkin, he has more local concerns _ like the parking problems in his church's neighborhood.

``You wanna be mindful of Zack's Delicatessen across the street also,'' he told his congregation during a recent service. ``You can park around there, but don't block the front door entrance. They have a problem with the clientele getting in. Amen?''

McClurkin, a Grammy Award-winning artist, has sung for presidents, but he's better known for being real. And whether in his local church pulpit or on a stage before thousands, he preaches a forthright, often provocative message _ about his troubled past, his struggle with homosexuality and his faith in God.

Music, he says, is his sermon.

``You won't find a major religion in this world that doesn't use music, because the truth of the matter is that music comes from God,'' he told the PBS television program ``Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.'' ``I don't understand it to this day, but music goes past the soul, goes past the emotions and gets into the spirit of a man and can bring him to his knees. If you ever want to get anybody in touch with God, sing to them.''

McClurkin, 45, has sung for millions. His three solo albums have topped the Billboard charts and Gospel and secular R&B playlists. In 2003 he won a Grammy for his CD ``Again.''

``Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs,'' released in April, debuted at number one on the Gospel charts and number five on the secular R&B/Hip-Hop charts.

He credits Oprah Winfrey with promoting his hit single ``Stand,'' written in 1996.

``She said, `Donnie, has this CD gone gold yet?' And I said, `No, no.' She said, `OK.' She stood on television and said, `This is ... you've heard me talk about Donnie McClurkin before. This is a voice that you've got to reckon with. And this is my favorite song.' ... Two weeks later, the thing went gold.''

McClurkin wrote the song after having what he calls a ``meltdown'' with God. He was on a red-eye flight, feeling exhausted and frustrated that God didn't seem to be answering his prayers. The song that has become his signature came to him, he said, in about 20 minutes.

``He'd (God) allowed me to have a temper tantrum on a plane so that a whole entire world can be, you know, ministered to by a song. Why he does that? I don't know. And when I get to him, I'm going to ask him!''

Much of McClurkin's music comes out of his personal experience, especially his pain. His happy early childhood ended abruptly in 1968, when he was 8 years old. His 2-year-old brother was hit by a car and killed. The night of the funeral, he said, his uncle raped him. In addition, his family was torn apart by drugs, alcohol and violence.

McClurkin found solace in the church. He was particularly drawn to the music of the church.

``I was always introverted. I was the guy that was scared of crowds, that was inferior. I had such an inferiority complex, and the only way that I could really depict any feelings or any emotions was through music.''

When he was 13, McClurkin said, he was raped again _ by his cousin. That led to a 20-year battle over his sexual identity.

``My desires were toward men and I had to fight those things because I knew that it wasn't what we were taught in church.''

He said that through Bible study and intense prayer, he has overcome his homosexuality.

``God gave me the wherewithal to get out of that. And to find out who I really am. And consequently, that's how the change took place. The different Scriptures in the Bible, his (God's) will being shown through the Scriptures. ... God walked me through it.''

His comments have provoked a firestorm of controversy, particularly from gay rights groups offended by his belief that homosexuality is something that can be chosen _ or ``overcome.'' McClurkin insists he's not condemning anyone, but he makes no apologies for his beliefs.

``There's a group that says, `God made us this way,' but then there's another group that knows that God didn't make them that way. And for those that are looking for that exit _ there are those of us, and I'm not a lone wolf _ there are many more that can tell that God did it for us, and he will do it for them.''

He's also open about his continuing sexual struggles.

He fathered a child out of wedlock five years ago. His hit song ``We Fall Down'' talks about the frailties of saints and sinners alike.

``You know, I don't understand where the hypocrisy comes in heavily in Christianity. And it angers me in a way, because the bottom line is, if you mess up, just say, `I messed up.' Don't cover it up and act like, you know, I'm too pomped and pious to say that I've done wrong. No, if you are a preacher and a pastor or a minister and you mess up, just come clean,'' he said.

McClurkin is head pastor at Perfecting Faith Church, a nondenominational Pentecostal church in Freeport. The thousand-plus congregation meets in a former supermarket and he's home for the services every Sunday, unless he's traveling overseas.

Services there are exuberant and interactive. Church members are likely to be dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues or lying on the floor, overcome, they say, by the Holy Spirit.

McClurkin says reports of his upcoming musical retirement were premature and exaggerated. It will be several years from now, he says.

Asked how he handles fame, McClurkin acknowledged celebrity has its pros and cons.

``But what celebrity has afforded me is a greater platform to declare the very message that has changed my life. ... I don't want to be larger than life. God's chosen that I am for his purposes.

``At the end of all the accomplishments,'' he said, ``I've got to be that little boy. The one who was broken, realized his own lack of self-worth, that depended on God in the beginning. The one that depends on God now.

``If you want to know who I am, I'm Donnie McClurkin, a 9-year-old boy who met God. That's it.''


Editors: This story was adapted from the PBS television program `Religion & Ethics Newsweekly' and may be used by RNS clients.

Check the RNS photo Web site for photos of McClurkin to accompany this story. Please use the Religion & Ethics credit line.