First the skin came off Lee Owens' lips. Then his face. Then peelingsores gouged his legs and arms.
Four years ago, a mysterious skinailment attacked the young father's body, leaving him with the distorted appearance of a burn victim. He survives with pain medicine and antibiotics, but not even the doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital have diagnosed exactly why Owens' skin started peeling, he says.
Once, Owens stayed busy as a gospel guitarist and an employee of the county Public Works Department. Now, he limps from the televisionin the living room of his modest Severna Park home to the bathtub, where he lies for hours, staring at the wall, trying to soak away the pain.
Friends from Owens' gospel band have watched helplessly as his condition worsened, spreading from small sores on his gums to itching wounds on his body.
Tomorrow night, they are playing at a concert at the Earleigh Heights Fire Hall, with the proceeds going to their friend, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter.
Owens' group, The Spiritual Uplifters, and another group with whom he performed, Kenny Davis & The Melodyaires, will perform at 6 p.m., along with another 10 gospel groups from Baltimore and Annapolis.
"In the last fouryears, there are a lot of times I've been alone," says Owens, 33. "You get sick like this and people don't bother with you much. They can't visit or call as much as you'd wish. I'm glad they're doing this. I just wanted to hear some singing, anyway."
Owens plans to attendthe concert, if health permits, to remember the good days when he and his wife, Vonnie, rocked with the gospel tunes.
Though he's lost80 pounds and his speech is often slurred because of the damaged skin in his mouth, Owens' spirit is as sweet as ever.
"We all go through something in life," he says. "If it wasn't for God I couldn't have made this. But I know it's the devil that did this. The Lord told me he will heal me, so I believe this. I didn't know it would be this long, but sometimes you gotta wait."
The concert sponsor, a recently formed group called Christian Men for Christ, consists of four Anne Arundel County ministers and one pastor of a Baltimore congregation, who lives in the county.
First Community Baptist Church and Halls United Methodist Church, both of Glen Burnie, the Lighthouse Churchin Annapolis and St. John's United Methodist Church in Odenton have joined the group, says Henry Parker, the group's founder.
Says Parker, pastor of Baltimore's New Solid Rock church: "We wanted to make a strong stand for God. We want to show a positive role model for men. You hear so many negative things -- drug addicts, criminals. The community needs to see more of a role model than just basketball players."
Parker knew Lee and decided he could benefit from the organization's first effort.
"He has hardly any medical insurance at all,"says Parker. "His wife is unable to work because she cares for him. They're struggling to make it."
Disability payments from Owens' county job pay about $750 a month, and he also receives $127 a month infood stamps. It doesn't cover his medical care, especially when antibiotics cost him $100 a prescription. He only receives medical assistance when he enters the hospital because his disability payments are too high, he says.
"I don't know how much I owe on bills right now," says Owens.
In his home at the end of a dirt road in Severna Park, Owens talks about the illness that seemed to come out of nowhere.
It started with the tiny white beads on his gums. A puzzled dentist sent him to another dentist, and eventually doctors performed a biopsy.
The medical experts concluded Owens likely has a rare skin disorder caused by a hormonal change. But the severity makes the disorder unusual. Doctors are not sure if his condition will worsen.
"Igot these holes in my mouth, and I couldn't eat from January to April the first year. I went from 230 to 150 pounds," says Owens. "My legs are constantly in pain. It's hard to walk most of the time."
He pauses, looks at his skin.
"I always played for my church, the Rose of Sharon in Severna Park," he says. "And I had my own group, with me and my wife and my brother-in-law and another guy. I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old."
"We were The Spiritual Uplifters," he says. "Then I got sick, and we don't sing too much."
Tomorrow night, bolstered by the familiar music and the warmth of friends,he'll just listen.
Tickets for the benefit gospel concert are $10a person; the concert is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at the Earleigh Heights Fire Hall, 161 Ritchie Highway. For more information, callthe Rev. Henry Parker, 974-4788.