Praise, Pride & Rock ‘N’ Soul
By MICHELLE BEARDEN The Tampa Tribune
Published: Dec 12, 2006
There were many lonely nights, too many to count, when Melanie Wilkinson would drive with no particular destination in mind. Alone in her car, she prayed.
I really miss you, God, she’d cry out. I want to talk to you again. Where are you?
She was the wife of an Air Force sergeant, a mother of two children and an accomplished Christian composer and musician, giving solo concerts and playing in churches. The daughter of an associate pastor, she was raised a Southern Baptist in Lakeland, the buckle of Florida’s Bible belt.
She also knew, without question, she was a lesbian.
“I kept secretly falling in love with the girls in my Bible study,” recalls Wilkinson, 50, a regional director of a staffing management company in Tampa. She chuckles at the memory. It’s funny now. It wasn’t funny back then.
Nine years ago, she finally put an end to her internal struggle and came clean. She wasn’t going to live a duplicitous life anymore. She turned her back on the church that she knew would condemn her. She got divorced, broke her father’s heart and found unexpected support from her son and daughter.
For a while, she “lived like hell,” figuring that’s where she was going to end up anyway. But in those alone moments, a seven-year stretch she calls her “wilderness period,” she wanted to take God out of the box she had put him in and hold him close to her heart. Now that her secret was out and her shame subsiding, she wanted her soul back.
Canaan brought her back home.
In the Bible, Canaan is the Promised Land of the Israelites, a land of milk and honey for those escaping bondage in Egypt.
It’s also the name of the band Wilkinson and two friends formed in late 2004, becoming the first gay Christian performing group in the Tampa Bay area and one of only a few in the country. The five-member rock-’n’-soul ensemble is a popular concert fixture at gay venues around the state.
The members make their homes in Brandon and Riverview. On Sundays when they’re in town, they lead praise and worship at Rainbow Promise Metropolitan Community Church in Lakeland.
In September, the group released “Serious,” its first CD of original music, on an independent label. In January, Canaan will head to Seattle to perform at the Gay Christian Network conference. It will be the band’s second consecutive appearance at the annual gathering.
“They’ve got a real unique niche,” says Justin Lee, founder and executive director of the Raleigh, N.C.-based nonprofit organization, which ministers to the gay and lesbian community. “You’ve got Christian bands and you’ve got gay bands, but you rarely see a band that goes after both audiences at once. It puts them in a controversial position.”
Lee calls Canaan’s music “energetic, inspirational and a fun blend of musical styles.” But its most important role is ministering to a population that feels disenfranchised by the mainstream Christian community.
Note: Justin Lee’s web ministry is www.gaychristian.net.
“Most of our members grew up in conservative churches. Their faith is very important to them, which is why they struggled with being gay,” says Lee, who was raised a Southern Baptist. “Now they’re out, and they need support, prayer and fellowship. Canaan’s music is a powerful testimony for us.”
Canaan’s songs – such as “I Am Free!” and “Undying Mercy” – deal with anguish and shame, finding freedom in truth and building a relationship with a loving God. The lyrics reflect the members’ personal journeys and parallel the lives of many in their audiences.
Vocalist James Blanchard, 25, used to work as a music director at a Lakeland Pentecostal church. After being outed by an acquaintance who had grown suspicious, he quit church and music completely.
“I didn’t have a choice,” says Blanchard, who works in health insurance claims for a Tampa firm. For a few years, his singing outlet was karaoke. But that was all about entertainment. What he wanted was the spiritual experience of singing for God.
He got that back with Canaan.
“It’s all about the message. When people get the message in the songs, they can see that it’s not just a gay thing. It’s not just a straight thing. It’s a God thing,” he says.
Their quick ascension to the national gay-Christian scene has caught even the band members off-guard. It started modestly at Lakeland’s Rainbow Promise when Wilkinson, a longtime solo artist, got up to sing with music director David Lee and Blanchard. They harmonized beautifully.
“We felt a strong connection from the moment we sang together,” says Lee, 39, who works in information security for a Tampa financial institution. “We knew something was there, and we couldn’t walk away from it.”
Lee, a vocalist and songwriter, plays piano, guitar, percussion and saxophone. The son of a Pentecostal preacher from Oklahoma, he grew up playing music and singing in the church choir. But inside, he was tormented about his sexuality. At age 18, he finally accepted the truth, though he kept it secret, even as he went off to study music at Florida Southern in Lakeland, a Christian college.
His mother found out a short time later, after coming across a letter in his suitcase while he was home visiting.
His parents prayed fervently for their son. Lee felt he disappointed them and the church he grew up in.
“I quit going altogether because I figured I couldn’t be Christian and gay,” he says.
Years passed. Lee took a year off to travel the world. He found what he was seeking in Prague when he passed an old church and heard the faint sounds of glorious choir music. He went inside.
“Something spoke to me. It was calling me home, back to the church and Christian music,” Lee recalls. “I knew then this is what I was supposed to be doing.”
He envisions a day when Canaan members can quit their day jobs and tour fulltime. Their occasional weekend gigs aren’t enough to reach the scores of gays and lesbians who feel abandoned and spiritually lost. Wherever they go, they hear the stories. He knows there are so many more out there.
“I make it my personal mission to live exactly who I am with no excuses and show people I’m OK. Being gay is only a small part of who I am,” Lee says.
Being a part of Canaan doesn’t mean full disclosure for everyone. Sax player Dave, 22, didn’t want his last name used or to be photographed for fear of reprisal in his workplace. And although percussionist Cathy Taylor, 47, came out 20 years ago and toured as a Christian comedian, she worries that her employer, the Hillsborough County school district, may not relish her openness.
But she’s not hiding anymore.
“I hid in the church for 12 years, playing drums for the church band. I can tell you that living two lives eats you up,” says Taylor, a high school English resource teacher.
“Now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. But sometimes, being honest comes with a heavy price. That’s why so many keep their true sexuality a secret.”
Wilkinson also dreams of a bigger audience for Canaan. She’s only half-joking when she says she’d love an appearance on “Oprah.” She looks forward to the day when the group is referred to not as a gay Christian band but as a rock-’n’-soul band.
“It’s not like we’re waving rainbow flags at our appearances,” she says. “We’re producing good music, not using our platform to promote gay causes.”
Like the Israelites, she views Canaan as a destination. They’re still on the journey, but she believes they’re heading to a better place.
“Maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime,” Wilkinson says wistfully. “But I see a day when the mainstream church, whatever church, will be accepting and loving toward all people. That’s the God I know and love.”