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Jeanne Johnson: Choosing to Forgive
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Jeanne Johnson knows a thing or two about forgiveness. The gracious, soft-spoken singer has performed with her husband Bob for over 38 years,  rst as members of the Gethsemane Quartet, then joining the famed Speer Family before launching their own successful solo career. They have won Dove Awards, performed extensively on Christian television, appeared on numerous Homecoming videos and even hosted their own show on the INSP Network. But behind Jeanne’s poised and smiling exterior, there are lingering memories of a sad childhood marked by divorce and abandonment.

“I was born in 1941 in Greensboro, North Carolina,” Jeanne begins, as we settle in to talk. “My parents worked in the cotton mill there, and they were both singers. I was 5 years old when they decided they wanted to divorce, which was very uncommon and shocking in those days. They packed up my older brother Larry and me, then they took us over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and left us there. We never lived with them again.” (Pictured left: Jeanne and her brother Larry)

Jeanne falters for a moment, and then says, “I’ll warn you ahead of time, it’s not easy for me to talk about all this. Looking back, I guess my parents had their reasons, but I have never understood, even to this day, how anybody could leave their children that way. It was so confusing because we all still lived in the same city, but my mom never came to see us. My daddy’s parents were the ones raising us, so we saw him every once in a while. They both remarried and had other families, which I guess must have consumed their time.” Her voice trails off. Then she says, “You know, I loved my parents, and I never gave up hope that they would reconcile and then everything would be perfect. Family is really the core of your being, your identity—and a part of me always kind of felt like discarded trash.”

Jeanne describes her grandparents as very kind, godly people. (Pictured right: Jeanne and Larry with their grandparents) “They were hardworking folks who sacrificed a lot to raise us,” Jeanne says, “and they never once talked against either one of my parents.” They also made sure their grandchildren went to the Pilgrim Holiness Church every time the doors were open. “I could naturally harmonize, so I sang in the choir,” Jeanne recalls. “When the church got its new Hammond organ, I got to take free lessons, and then moved on to piano for the next eight years. That was when my love for gospel music really developed, which shaped my entire life. The thing that’s so sad to me is that both of my parents loved music and sang too—I was even told that my mother had the greatest voice around! I wish I could have heard her sing. But I’m grateful for the musical lineage they gave me and in spite of all of the disappointments and rejection, I came to believe that Jesus loved me and had a plan for my music and my life.”

In 1959, 18-year-old Jeanne married Bob Johnson after several months of singing with him in the Gethsemane Quartet. “Back then, that was the thing to do after high school,” Jeanne says with a laugh. “But I’ve always said that I could have looked around the world 10 million times and not found a better man. Bob is just a great guy. We’ve had our struggles like everybody else, but we never gave up. We’ve kept the faith and the Lord has blessed us.”

After the birth of her daughter Sonja, Jeanne experienced even more conflicting feelings about her childhood. “I knew instantly that I would do anything, go through hell and high water in order to keep my child with me,” Jeanne says. “I was determined to raise her in such a way that she would never doubt for a moment that she was loved. Having Sonja made it even harder for me to understand how my own mother could choose to not be a part of my life, not be at our wedding, not be there for the birth of her grandchild. When you grow up without that love and affirmation, you spend your whole life feeling like you’re never good enough.”

When I ask Jeanne if her parents had ever expressed regret for the decisions they made, she pauses to choose her words carefully. “That generation didn’t talk much about their feelings,” she says. “I don’t think they even knew how. I made the effort to see Mom at least once a year, so at Christmastime I would go visit her with her new family and take gifts. It was awkward and sad, but the Lord reminded me of the commandment that we’re to ‘honor our parents that our days may be long.’ I do honor them for giving me life, and I did not want to spend it full of bitterness and anger. Deep in my heart I knew I had to forgive my mother and father whether they ever asked for it or not. Forgiveness is a choice.”

Jeanne’s mother died of breast cancer when she was only 62 years old, and her father passed away about 15 years ago. “Both of my parents received Jesus as their personal Savior before they died,” Jeanne tells me through tears. “One day when I went to see Mom in the hospital, she suddenly looked up and just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And you know, that sort of covered it all for me. Every one of us stands in need of forgiveness every day of our lives, and we must give it to others in order to receive it ourselves. God healed my heart, but He has also used my past to give me a great deal of tenderness and compassion for hurting people. I don’t think you can ever really separate the child you were from the adult you are now, but just because there’s still some pain doesn’t mean there’s not forgiveness.”

These days when Jeanne and Bob aren’t singing and traveling, they spend their time at home happily surrounded by their family. Sonja and her husband Heath live only 20 minutes away and have provided the Johnsons with two precious granddaughters, Kylie and Kaylie, whom Jeanne describes as “the brightest lights of my life.” As our conversation draws to a close (so that Jeanne can take her ‘bright lights’ out Christmas shopping), I ask her if there are any final thoughts she wants to share. She thinks a minute, then says firmly, “I don’t want to put my parents in a bad light, because God uses everything for His glory. When I was a little girl living with my grandparents, my greatest desire was that someday I would be able to sing and be used of the Lord, and He has done that for me. God has truly blessed my life, and I am happy and fulfilled.”