By Ryan Zepeda —
Danny Gokey’s wife died unexpectedly during a routine heart surgery in 2009.
“They gave me a private room and I yelled out loud, ‘God you have to save her! You have to heal her! You have to. You cannot leave me alone like this!’” he said on an I am Second video. “It got to the point where she was gone, and once again that old familiar thing of fear came back into my life.
“I felt in my heart, God’s mad at me.”
Christian singer Daniel Jay Gokey, 40, is best known for his first single, “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me,” which peaked at number 29 on the country chart, inspiring him to release his full record My Best Days in early 2010.
Born in Milwaukee, Danny attended Heritage Christian Schools and sang with his family in church. In his mid twenties he became the director of Faith Builders International Ministries.
During this time, he married Sophia Martinez, who was also a fellow church-going music fan.
It was Sophia who encouraged Danny to audition for American Idol. He was accepted as a recipient and ultimately placed third in 2009. This launched his music career, which he aimed at the Christian pop segment.
Four weeks before Danny’s tryout on American Idol, Sophia died. He performed his best in devotion to her.
“I made a promise that I would go try out,” Danny says. “Little did I know that when I would try out for this show, it would be a month after she passed.”
Sophia had a heart condition from birth but had gotten it fixed in a surgery when she was young. Or so Danny thought.
“Little did I know that in our first year of marriage that we’d be in the hospital together because her heart was beating 200 times per minute,” Danny recalls. “And that’s when the doctor dropped the news on us. We were both 24 years old. He said, ‘We’re going to have to have another heart surgery.’”
In his youth, Danny was plagued by all kinds of irrational fears. Many of his fears centered on whether God truly and unconditionally loved him.
Now all the old fears rose up.
“Both of us cried in the office because we didn’t know how to take this news,” Danny says.
They gathered their courage and decided to believe God through the crisis.
They carried on in ministry and even prayed for and witnessed miraculous healings in others.
They covered the walls, doors and refrigerator of their small apartment with scriptures about healing.
Four years later, they were still going to the hospital due to his wife’s condition. It was dragging on and Danny’s faith began to waver.
Sophia was scheduled for open-heart surgery.
The surgery failed.
He was in the waiting room when the surgeon called him to come into the surgery room immediately.
“You need to get down here, she’s not gonna make it,” the doctor told him. “You need to say goodbye to her.”
Danny pleaded with God urgently for her life.
“It got to the point where she was just gone,” he says. “It was just a complete loss.”
Reeling from the loss, fear reared its ugly head.
“Because she passed away, I literally felt in my heart, God’s mad at me.”
Danny had to wrap his head around the fact that God’s plans were something different than what he wanted. He had to process the death of his wife.
“At the funeral, there was such a numbness on me that I just could not cry a tear,” he says. “Everything that I had in me was literally drained.”
For days, he didn’t want to do anything, but because he had promised to try out for American Idol, he went. His wife had been an “avid” American Idol fan.
Still, as he stood in line with the others, tears streamed down his face. He agonized between his loss and the excitement of several auditions and the possibility of a win.
“How was I going to live life without her?” he wondered.
He passed the auditions, even when he was going through depression and insomnia due to his doubts about God’s love. His fears were obsessive compulsive.
When he soared into the top 50, he felt no desire to compete.
“I’m a mess, and I’m going to look like a mess in front of all these people,” he thought.
Meanwhile, Psalm 46:10 kept appearing before him: “Be still and know that I am God.”
He struggled to let go of all the negative emotions.
“God reinvigorated my soul with life again,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, he received letters from people who had heard his testimony on American Idol. One woman was going to commit suicide but because she heard about his loss got encouraged to continue living. She got saved.
“I heard story after story,” he says. His heart warmed because God had used his testimony of grief to rescue others in grief and depression.
Ultimately, Danny took third place on the eighth edition of American Idol.
He landed and lost a record deal. He remarried model Leyicet Peralta in 2013. They have four kids.
Eventually, he signed another label and saw success.
His album My Best Days peaked at number three on the Billboard Country Albums chart. He even opened a handful of dates on Taylor Swift’s Speak Now World Tour in 2011. His single “More Than You Think I Am,” debuted at number one on the Billboard Christian Albums chart.
Danny began an organization inspired by the death of previous wife, Sophia, entitled Sophia’s Heart, which would later be rebranded to Better Than I Found It. The non-profit helps homeless families.
“As a young kid, I didn’t believe that Christ was enough. I believed there was a Christ plus now I gotta do X,Y and Z,” he says. “One of the most profound things I’ve learned in my walk with Christ is He is enough. I lean towards Jesus more than ever before.”
Ryan Zepeda studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.