Grammy-winning singer discusses fame, calling as pastor on LI

Senior Pastor Donnie McClurkin, of the Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport, talks about how his road to winning three Grammys began and credits Oprah Winfrey for sharing his talents with the world. Videojournalist: Ed Betz (Feb. 4, 2013)

Donnie McClurkin is a gospel star with a higher calling.

He has won three Grammys and recorded three albums that went platinum. He sang at the White House and Whitney Houston's funeral. His concerts pack arenas.

But home on Long Island, he is Senior Pastor Donald McClurkin, the founder and leader of the fast-growing Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport. Beyoncé and Star Jones are among the celebrities who have slipped in to hear him preach in a former C-Town supermarket on North Main Street.

With a congregation of about 3,000, McClurkin has become a local religious force whose stage presence captivates the faithful.

"I first came because of his singing. I stayed because of his preaching." said Sharon Williams, 51, a teacher from Roosevelt.

He has attracted controversy, too -- living as a gay man for years but later decrying homosexuality -- and straddled political fences, lending his talent to campaigns for Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Six-foot-3 and thin with a street-smart persona, McClurkin has lived a life of struggle and redemption -- a troubled childhood in which he says he was sexually abused by male relatives and, as a teenager in Amityville, bullied so badly he dropped out of high school.

As a preacher, he lays it all out for the world to see -- his harrowing past, his fulfilling present, and the message that people can overcome their worst mistakes.

"Sin is not alien to any of us," McClurkin told congregants one Sunday morning, touching one of his trademark themes that we are all flawed but can be "perfected" with God's help.

Train-bus shuttles bring followers to the church from throughout the metropolitan area. McClurkin says the building is too small for his congregation, and he is looking for a warehouse or abandoned store in the area to convert into a sanctuary seating about 3,000 people.

McClurkin acknowledged the challenge of juggling the roles of globe-trotting gospel singer and pastor.

"I would have never chosen both," he said in an interview. "But it's a matter of me being chosen for it."

Not that he's complaining.

"It's been a great journey. And at 53 years old, I still feel like a little boy in a candy shop," McClurkin said.

 

Rousing services

Though his roots are in African-American gospel music, the diversity of his congregation shows crossover appeal.

His Sunday services are exuberant affairs, with the faithful waving arms in the air and laughing at McClurkin's humor and imitations of famous people. At one service, he channeled Patti LaBelle and her high-pitched singing voice as he described one of their encounters onstage. The crowd roared.

"He has this spirit," Beyoncé said of McClurkin in a 2004 documentary about him. "You completely see God through him. And when he speaks it's incredible. When he sings it's like God is singing through him."

McClurkin's fame, vocal gifts and dynamic personality form part of his appeal. He also reaches out to society's outcasts, including gang members and prostitutes in the area whom he has invited into the church and encouraged to turn their lives around.

He is blunt in detailing his own missteps, including the son he fathered out of wedlock.

"He deals with real issues people are facing day in and day out," said church member Vonda Cortijo, 46, of Elmont. "He's human. He's not perfect."

Leading Long Island clergymen said McClurkin has turned Perfecting Faith into an important institution.

The Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, said McClurkin "has a strong church that is growing rapidly." Membership is up tenfold since its founding in 2001, McClurkin said.

Bishop Raymond Mackey of the Tabernacle of Joy Church in Uniondale, a leader in the African-American church community in Nassau County and a former president of the Roosevelt Board of Education, said McClurkin "has just touched countless lives really around the world. He hasn't forgotten home."

The church -- a dilapidated supermarket when McClurkin bought it for $1.3 million in 2001 -- seats up to 970 people and holds multiple services to accommodate all its members. It also offers community services, including GED and English as a second language classes.

The congregation -- about 70 percent African-American -- includes Latinos, Asians and Caucasians. Services are translated live into Haitian Creole, Spanish and Japanese for visitors who use headsets.

The annual budget of about $1.6 million is covered mostly through tithing, collections during services and outside donations, McClurkin said. He said he receives no financial compensation -- his music career takes care of that.

 

Flourishing music career

Last summer, he performed in Uganda, South Africa and Brazil. In the fall, his 15-city nationwide tour with three other gospel stars, including Kirk Franklin, brought Barclays Center in Brooklyn its first gospel performance. He has sold at least 6 million albums and is working on a new CD.

McClurkin lives in a two-story Colonial in the Lakeview section of Rockville Centre. He doesn't own a car; he gets rides from parishioners or takes the train.

When he gets a breather, McClurkin relaxes with relatives and close friends by playing games such as Scrabble and watching the Cartoon Network, classic TV shows and "The Little Rascals" comedy shorts.

Musical talent ran in the McClurkin family. So did tragedy and hardship.

His mother, Frances -- who died Jan. 18 at age 79 -- struggled with addiction to prescription narcotics. His hardworking construction worker father, Donald McClurkin Sr., fought alcoholism. (Both became sober and active in the church.)

When McClurkin was 8, he was playing in the front yard of his family's home in Amityville and did not see his 2-year-old brother Thomas escape through a gate and into the street, where a car struck and killed him. McClurkin blamed himself.

The night of the funeral, a male relative raped him, McClurkin wrote in his 2001 book "Eternal Victim, Eternal Victor" (Pneuma Life Publishing). Five years later, another male relative did so. He says the attacks led him into a homosexuality that wasn't natural for him.

As a teenager, he was bullied and the target of anti-gay slurs. He dropped out of Copiague High School.

He found refuge in singing gospel, which he had learned from his mother, and formed a group with his five sisters called The McClurkin Singers. They often performed on the streets and in Nassau and Suffolk jails.

Their favorite spot was the corner of Albany Avenue and Great Neck Road, known as "The Block" in Amityville because of drug dealing and prostitution. McClurkin and his sisters would set up their instruments and microphones in a supermarket parking lot and sing for anyone who would listen. To help pay the bills, he worked at a hospital and an import-export business.

In 1982, backstage at a concert in Brooklyn, he met a man who would change his life: Marvin Winans of Detroit, who was on his way to gospel stardom. They became friends and performed together a few years later in a Broadway musical, "Don't Get God Started."

In 1989, Winans started the Perfecting Church in Detroit. He asked McClurkin to be an assistant pastor.

McClurkin's singing career had yet to take off. In 1989, he formed a gospel group with some friends back East, "The New York Restoration Choir," and they recorded two CDs.

McClurkin said organizers of the 1992 Democratic convention in New York heard the music and invited him to sing.

"You're in Madison Square Garden, packed, full, and you're singing and people are screaming," McClurkin said. "And you feel like a rock star."

That performance led to an invitation from then-President George H.W. Bush to perform at the White House.

It wasn't until 1999, though, that an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show sent sales of his CD that includes "Stand"soaring, eventually reaching platinum status -- a million-plus.

Around the same time, McClurkin traveled to Long Island and held religious services at a Hempstead hotel that attracted growing crowds. Winans attended one and suggested McClurkin start his own church here -- something McClurkin says he never planned to do.

McClurkin trained as an apprentice under Winans rather than attending a seminary -- an arrangement not unusual in evangelical churches.

"He's taught me just about everything I know about ministry," McClurkin said.

 

Controversies arise

As Perfecting Faith Church grew and his career thrived, McClurkin's political and religious views stirred anger.

In 2004, black and gay activists criticized his decision to campaign for the re-election of George W. Bush. McClurkin had praised Bush's opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

"When he is talking about sexual orientation, he knows absolutely nothing," said David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Services Network.

McClurkin says he means no ill will. "The Bible gives us the parameters of what relationship is supposed to be," he said, and gay relationships are "not the will of God based on the Bible."

In 2007, after he sang at a rally for Obama, news reports reprising McClurkin's views on homosexuality led Obama to publicly disavow them. But he supported Obama for re-election and thinks the president made the right move by backing legalized gay marriage. "I am not for same-sex marriage but I am for a president that represents all people," he said. "It is the gay community's choice how they want to live."

 

Marriage on his mind

McClurkin says God "delivered" him from homosexuality -- "and when he did, I went a little overboard in deliverance."

He entered into relationships with women and fathered a son, now 12, with a woman who lives in California.

He does not encourage people to do what he did: "When people have children outside of wedlock, it very rarely works."

He wants to marry, but "it's harder now than it ever was because now you don't know who to trust, who loves you for you."

McClurkin performed at a Super Bowl Gospel Celebration in New Orleans on Feb. 1 with Marvin Winans, Kirk Franklin and Fantasia. On game day, he was back in Freeport with his congregation.

"You go from arena to arena and you've got 10,000 people, 12,000 people there. Wonderful," McClurkin said.

"But there's nothing like coming home to a congregation of people you serve constantly. You bury their dead. You bless their children. You help them out of financial problems. That gives me the strength to continue to do both. It's what God called me to do."

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