By Hannah Hughes —
Christian radio host Delilah Rene, madam of maudlin, was disowned by her parents when, at age 21, she decided to marry an African American.
“My father was a racist,” she told NPR. “So when I came home with my first husband, who was black, he ran to the gun closet and unlocked his gun, and I was greeted with a gun to my forehead. And he said, ‘You’ve got to the count of three before I pull the trigger.’”
Her husband pulled her by the arm and they fled from the house. She never reconciled with her dad.
With 8.8 million listeners on her syndicated show, the so-called Oprah of radio has both Christian and secular versions of her show, making her the most listened-to woman on American radio. The featured songs are different but the advice she dishes out nonstop to the lovelorn listeners who call is pretty much the same: Love, forgive, move on, stand up again when you’ve fallen down.
Delilah has “fallen down” many times through personal misfortune and missteps — three divorces, a son’s suicide, an adopted son’s death from sickle cell anemia — but has found the strength in God to get back up, dust herself off and confront life with renewed optimism.
Delilah was born in 1960 in North Bend, Oregon, to a controlling, alcoholic dad and codependent mother, according to CBN.
Her teachers complained that she talked too much in class, so it’s no surprise she got into radio beginning in middle school. (A third-grade teacher even duct-taped her mouth shut.)
Working radio was an escape from her dysfunctional upbringing. When Delilah came home one hour later than her curfew on her high school graduation night, she found her belongings packed in a suitcase on the front porch, courtesy of her embittered father.
“He was hell-bent on controlling me,” she said. “And in his mind, he was doing it out of love, to protect me. In my mind, get the heck out of my way. And so I left home the day I graduated high school. We had an argument, and he told me to be home at midnight, and I said no. And so when I did come home, the door was locked. And I had gotten a set of luggage for graduation that day, and it was on the front porch, packed. He thought that he was going to prove a point and I was going to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m sorry. I should’ve listened to you.’ And instead, I was like, ‘See you, wouldn’t want to be you.’ And that was that.”
Her first marriage to radio colleague George Harris ended after three years. Delilah was left to raise their son, Isaiah, alone, while she launched her new format, “Delilah After Dark,” on a Washington radio station.
When her brother and sister-in-law were killed in a plane crash flying out to see her and Isaiah a few months later, she was crushed by compounded grief over her losses and cried out to God.
“God, if you’re real, I need to know,” she said, according to CBN. Delilah had grown up with no teaching about God in her household, so she was taking a shot in the dark.
When she woke up the next morning, she found a New Testament on the windshield of her car with a handwritten note: “Jesus Loves You.” It was the first sign of a remarkable answer to her prayer.
In response, she asked a neighbor if she could go to church with her.
“And that was the day I gave my heart to God,” she says.
As she was slowly growing in the Lord, her heart ached for romantic love, so she rushed into a second marriage after a six-month courtship. That marriage lasted a mere six weeks.
Steve Kenagy, who gave Delilah her first job in radio, said Delilah had a penchant for the wrong kind of man and was quickly and easily swept off her feet.
“She would get all crazy about some guy,” Kenagy told the Washington Post. “We’d say, ‘With your gorgeous voice and your creativity, the sky is the limit for you… Don’t throw your life away chasing a boy right now.’ ”
In 1990, Delilah moved her show to Philadelphia. While there, she met and married Douglas Ortega, who was involved in youth ministry. Her daughter Shayla was born from that union.
She wanted more children but was having trouble conceiving, so she and Douglas adopted three children from the foster care system. Then she got pregnant, bringing the home brood to six.
Sadly, she again divorced in 2002. As a believer, she knew divorce wasn’t God’s plan. She had misfired not once but three times.
“You do the best that you can do,” she says. “And when you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”
While her marriages failed, her radio show succeeded wildly.
Some might wonder why anyone would take her advice. But her messy life — which included alcoholism and an eating disorder — made her seem a more real, sympathetic, and compassionate counselor to her listeners.
Syndicated since 1996, her schmaltzy show exploded across the nation. At a time when shock jocks were all the rage, the self-branded “Queen of the Sappy Love Song” charted her own course, delving into human heartbreak with heartfelt counsel on air. Her “romance radio” — equal parts confessional and therapy session — thrived while shock radio withered and all but died. Her estimated worth is $4 million.
“It’s like going to your hairdresser,” the love guru says on Buzzfeed. “Like people who sing along with the radio, with their windows down, off-key. You forget that we all are listening to you and seeing you be a knucklehead.”
It was also in Philadelphia where her non-profit was born. Point Hope was founded in 1993 to distribute food, clothes, and other resources to the homeless and to be a voice for forgotten children.
When she returned to Seattle in 1997, Delilah took a break from Point Hope to dedicate her time and energies to her many children. After receiving an email from Africa asking for help, she re-launched Point Hope with a focus on a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana.
Since then, Delilah has visited West Africa more than 30 times, always twice a year, and has adopted five African children. She now has 14 children in total — 10 of whom are adopted. They all live, with Delilah’s fourth husband Paul Warnerd since 2012, on a 55-acre homestead on Puget Sound with animals and farming. She records in a studio in the basement.
In 2012, her 16-year-old adopted son Sammy died from complications of sickle cell anemia, which went untreated for most of his life in Africa.
That tragedy was followed by the suicide of her biological son, Zachariah, who spiraled into depression following a car accident, which caused him to fall behind in high school and hindered his graduation. At the same time, his girlfriend dumped him.
Zacharia was smoking marijuana, receiving professional counseling and taking antidepressants, which seemed to change his personality. Eventually, he stopped the antidepressants.
Zachariah had a mild form of autism but loved life and had a zany penchant for pranks. “He was my wild child: 13 broken bones, umpteen trips to the hospital with appendicitis, tonsillitis, a fractured skull,” Delilah told People Magazine. “He was wild but so so sweet. He was a faithful friend to the outcast and the troubled. Dozens of his friends have written to me and told me he was like a counselor to them.”
Days before his fateful decision, Zachariah, 18, seemed to be doing well. He was making up high school credits and was preparing for film school. Nobody suspected what he was apparently planning to do. After texting his dad to apologize for his recent attitude, he walked into the woods on Oct. 2, 2017 and hung himself. His body wasn’t found for two days.
It should be noted that antidepressants often contain warnings that they can cause suicidal ideation. Ending such drugs abruptly is especially dangerous and can trigger psychotic episodes.
“It was a chemical imbalance that made my son decide to take his precious life. He simply wanted his thoughts and pain to end,” his father wrote on Facebook. “I share this, not as his final eulogy, but because the national news covered more about his celebrity mom than about him. It’s not her fault.”
Delilah took a break from her show. Suddenly the woman who had healed the hearts of millions of women on more than 180 stations nationwide, needed her own heart to heal. What got her through, of course, was God.
“I would not be standing if it weren’t for the prayers of my friends, my family, and my listeners,” Delilah said on CBN.
She told People magazine: “There is a verse that says, ‘Every one of our days is numbered before a single one comes to pass.’ That one verse has saved my sanity because all of my son’s days were numbered. God knew when they were going to leave this earth before they came to this earth and knowing that changes everything. Because if I didn’t believe that, then I would do the what-ifs. What if I had done this differently? What if I had done that differently?”
Hannah Hughes studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.