In this story from July 1998, singer Gloria Gaynor shares how, though she had achieved great success in her career, there was something missing until she learned who Jesus really was.
- Posted on Sep 25, 2019
At a time in my life when I felt as if I were on a seesaw, praying one day and then smoking and drinking and partying the next, I went to a little Baptist church in New Jersey with my godmother. At the end of the service, the minister asked if anyone wanted to accept Christ as savior. Accept Christ? I didn’t even know what that meant.
When I got home I dusted off a study Bible a friend had given me some years before. We had discussed religion, and she must have realized how little I knew. Now I wanted to find out more.
I sat down in my dining room and let the Bible fall open. God, I’ve been praying all my life. I believe my prayers have been answered, but now I want to know who this Jesus really is. It was 1982 and I was the “Queen of Disco,” with more success as a singer than I could ever have dreamed of. My single I Will Survive had been a hit, topping charts around the world, and yet I still felt empty. I needed to sit in that dining room in our New Jersey apartment, read the Bible and look back at how God had worked in my life.
I grew up in Newark, one of seven kids, and we were a singing family. My mother sang; my brothers sang; even my youngest sister, Irma, who had a terrible voice, sang. We all loved music and constantly had the radio going. I would walk into the kitchen for a glass of water and turn on the radio. I remember once my mother took a pencil and wrote on the wall, “Gloria has just come into the house and left again without turning on the radio.” She said, “This has to be put down for posterity.”
When I was a girl my mother had surgery on her throat. After the operation she could no longer sing. Still she tried. One day she was trying to sing a beautiful song called Lullaby of the Leaves. I had heard her sing it hundreds of times. But now she couldn’t reach the notes. Finally she turned to me and said, “Gloria, sing it for me.” I didn’t think she had ever paid any attention to my singing. And there she was asking me to do one of her favorites.
My first public recognition came when I was 13 years old. I was practicing a song by Frankie Lyman—Why Do Fools Fall in Love?—under the staircase in the hallway of our building. The lady from upstairs leaned over the banister and said, “Oh, I thought that was the radio.” Wow, I thought, I really can sing.
Later, after I had graduated from high school, I was baby-sitting for a couple of days. Every morning at 10:00 I heard footsteps in the apartment above me. I began to follow the sound of those steps; wherever they stopped, I sang underneath. I wasn’t interested in applause. I just wanted my voice to be heard.
A few nights later, my brother Arthur and I went to a nightclub. As we were sitting at a table with our Cokes, I sang along with the band. The next thing I knew the bandleader said there was a girl in the audience named Gloria and perhaps if the audience applauded, they could get her to do a number or two. Too surprised to ask questions, I went up onstage and sang. Afterward the band asked me if I would like to work with them—starting the next night! As it turned out, the person whose footsteps I had been serenading was the manager of the club.
That was my start in show business. For the next few years I performed in clubs for nearly nothing. I loved every minute of it. I went in with my book of 200 songs, the band chose enough of them to get through the engagement, then we went to work. It was a wonderful experience. It built character, fortitude and confidence. By the time I was being hailed as “Queen of Disco” in the mid ’70s, I had put in countless hours of work. And I had said my share of prayers.
For as long as I could remember, I had prayed every night for all my family and friends. As a child I had a list that I said in the same order: God bless this one, that one. Whatever worries or troubles, I told God and asked him to put them right. I honestly can’t recall a time when God didn’t answer the smallest request, like a sunny day for a picnic or snow on Christmas. But I still didn’t know who Jesus was.
Two things happened that led me to that New Jersey church and started me reading my Bible in earnest. First, my mother—my closest companion—died. With her gone I became more and more aware of a great emptiness at the center of my life. I was looking for something to fill the ache inside me, yearning for something I couldn’t even identify.
Then on March 12, 1978, I had a terrible accident onstage. I was performing at the Beacon Theater in New York City. I was doing a number during which I danced away from three backup singers and then turned around, twisted my microphone upside down and snapped the mike cable like a whip. The singers grabbed the cable, but they didn’t hold on to it. I crashed backward over a monitor at the side of the stage, severely injuring my back.
What upset me later when I saw a videotape of the fall was the reaction of the band members. They didn’t look at me. They didn’t reach out for me. Nothing. The whole audience stood, and some tried to catch me. But those three singers didn’t. I had worked with them for several months, and I had thought we had gotten really close. Is there no one who really cares about me?
I was in the hospital for several months, and while there I began to read the Bible, almost out of boredom. I must have read the first chapter of Genesis 15 times. I never got further than that because I didn’t understand what I was reading; I don’t think I really wanted to. It was a semiprivate room, and one of my roommates called later to tell me that my reading had got her going to church. At least it did her some good.
When I was released from the hospital I stayed away from partying for a while, but then I couldn’t stand being left out of the good times. I wanted to study and talk to people about God, but I didn’t know any Christians well enough to ask the questions that nagged me. It got so bad that I stopped praying at night because I returned home so late I just fell into bed.
Then came my visit to that little Baptist church. For the first time, I was really ready for whatever God told me. At home I sat at my dining room table with my study Bible. I prayed, God, I want to know who Jesus is. I’m listening. I want to hear from you.
My Bible fell open to a chapter titled “Harmony of the Gospels.” Verse by verse it showed how the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled. I wrote and studied and read. The verse that really spoke to me, a verse I had sung in Handel’s Messiah as a schoolgirl, came from Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). And then the study Bible referred me to Matthew, where it is explained that Immanuel means “God with us.”
At that moment, the Good News spoke to me. God with us. Jesus is God with us. He is with us always, every day. He had been with me when I was a girl listening to my mom sing, when I was teenager, when I was a young woman performing in clubs night after night. Jesus is God with us.
For the next two years I sat down at my dining room table every time I had the chance, and I spent an hour or two studying the Bible. Today I feel blessed, and unshakable in my faith because I didn’t get it from my aunt, my mother, my grandmother or the lady upstairs—the Lord taught me.
I believe I was born again that first day that I sat down with the Bible. I had money and fame, but there was a great void, a God-shaped void, in my life. I was willing to let my old self die and ready to accept the gifts and strengths he would give me. I can’t tell you exactly what day it was because I never marked it on a calendar. But for me it was my second birthday.
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This story was adapted from I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor (St. Martin's Press, 1997).