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For Gay Christian Musicians, Work Balances Faith, Art, Love

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For Gay Christian Musicians, Work Balances Faith, Art, Love

For Gay Christian Musicians, Work Balances Faith, Art, Love

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Many Christian denominations consider homosexuality to be a sin. As a result, there are a number of Christian singers, songwriters and musicians living closeted lives. A few who've come out have had to give up successful careers in Christian music. David Person has this report on the challenges some artists face trying to balance their art, their sexuality and their faith.

DAVID PERSON: Singer and songwriter Jennifer Knapp has sold more than one million albums and earned Dove Awards on the strength of songs like her 1998 hit, "Undo Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDO ME")

JENNIFER KNAPP: (Singing) Mama, I know I never cry, but I never meant to hurt you, I never meant to lie. (unintelligible) you can tell (unintelligible). I'd love to take the blame...

PERSON: At the height of her career as a contemporary Christian artist, Knapp stopped making music in 2002 and disappeared.

KNAPP: Knowing that I was going to have to publicly deal with my sexuality, it really made me consider how much I wanted to participate in music.

PERSON: She reemerged seven years later no longer calling herself a contemporary Christian artist but a folk-rock musician who is a person of faith and a lesbian.

KNAPP: It in fact I think in some ways made me very hesitant to get back up into public level, knowing that there would be discussion about my sexuality on the whole.

PERSON: This may well be the central challenge facing Knapp and other gay musicians who are Christians. There are clear expectations regarding sexuality in the Christian church and in the Christian music industry, says Dr. Teresa Hairston, publisher of Gospel Today magazine.

Dr. TERESA HAIRSTON: There is an assumption that as a minister of the gospel and your expression of that ministry being in song that you are an ambassador that carries with the gifting of the music a lifestyle that agrees with the Bible. That is the assumption.

PERSON: Ambassadors of heterosexuality, of the God-made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve concept. Most, if not all, Christian musicians seem to accept this mission at least publicly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU")

YVETTE FLUNDER: (Singing) Thank you. Thank you, Lord, for all you've done for me. Hey. He's good to me. Thank you, Lord, thank you, you're good, thank you, (unintelligible), thank you, when I work for it, thank you, I (unintelligible), thank you, and I praise thee...

PERSON: That's Bishop Yvette Flunder singing the lead of the Hawkins Family hit "Thank You". Flunder was not only a featured vocalist with the legendary gospel group but was a minister at the Love Center Church in Oakland, California, founded by group leader Bishop Walter Hawkins.

FLUNDER: At Love Center, we sort of practiced a don't ask, don't tell environment where same-gender-loving people did exist in significant numbers, and do exist in significant numbers. But the determination was that it was problematic to be open about it because there were people in the ministry who were not able to reconcile same-gender sexuality and spirituality, particularly Christian spirituality.

PERSON: While don't ask don't tell may work on Sunday mornings, Bishop Flunder, who eventually left Love Center to found The City of Refuge Church in San Francisco, discovered after she came out that churches aren't the only ones uncomfortable with openly gay Christian artists.

FLUNDER: It became clear to the record labels that my theology was a potential liability, not because I was unique as a same-gender-loving person singing gospel music, but because I was clear about my sexuality and clear about my theological position regarding human sexuality. And consequently, you know, folks loved me but I became an economic liability.

PERSON: Which meant the end of her record deal with a major Christian label.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERSON: Tim Dillinger, was known around Nashville as a go-to backup singer for gospel and secular recordings. Eventually, Dillinger began to get airplay for his own songs, like this one, "That's the Kind of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S THE KIND OF LOVE")

TIM DILLINGER: (Singing) As (unintelligible) I (unintelligible) mend my soul, kiss the (unintelligible) and they just roar. Love was made so gentle and rocked me to my core, that's the kind of love that I am searching for. That's the kind of love...

PERSON: But all that changed.

DILLINGER: Somewhere around the end of 2006, I came out on a gospel radio station in Kansas City. And I did an interview with a minister there, Gerald Palmer. It was the first time I'd said it publicly. It was the first time I had talked about it in any kind of public forum, let alone on a gospel station.

PERSON: Dillinger says coming out went from being a freeing experience to a devastating one.

DILLINGER: My audience in Nashville, where I was doing a lot of concerts, literally cut in three-quarters. I used to say it cut in half, but it was actually like three-quarters. And I went from being able to fill a room to - I went back to begging people to come again.

PERSON: That's an unfortunate reality, says Teresa Hairston of Gospel Today.

HAIRSTON: I think people should be able to be open about their choices. They should be loved despite their choices. But they also have to realize that they have to be accountable for their choices, and that their choices have consequences.

PERSON: For artists like Jennifer Knapp, those choices meant giving up a career as a gospel artist and coming back as a secular artist. For others, it means the end of their careers.

DILLINGER: A lot of people disappear. They have big careers, and then they disappear. And then go and they live, you know, their quiet lives elsewhere.

PERSON: Tim Dillinger.

DILLINGER: It's almost like they do the music for the season that they can, and then they move on and take care of their personal lives. And it's just kind of a shame to me that this is what this community really forces people to do, really because we're not willing to have an honest conversation about sexuality and really, really talk about why we believe what we believe.

PERSON: For her part, Bishop Yvette Flunder is not discouraged by these challenges. In fact, she is adamantly prophetic about what the future holds for gay Christian musicians.

FLUNDER: The time will come when the church will celebrate its gay children and the incredible contributions that same-gender-loving people have made to the life, to the income, to the spirit, to the power, to the passion of the church.

PERSON: For NPR News, I'm David Person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU")

FLUNDER: (Singing) Praise you, mercy, thank you, praise you, thank you...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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