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|Gay Ga. mega-church pastor reflects on year of coming out|
|by Shannon Hames|
|November 11, 2011 00:00|
Last year, Bishop Jim Swilley spoke from his heart to his congregation at Church in the Now in Conyers, Ga. He came out as a gay man, shocking many of his mega-church congregants and making national headlines.
The Oct. 13, 2010, sermon sparked a mass exodus from the church. Attendance dropped from approximately 2,500 on any given Sunday to only about 500. The church was forced into foreclosure on its massive property and is now renting one of the buildings back from the bank for worship.
The Georgia Voice spoke with Swilley last year about his coming out, and recently went back to follow up on how he, his family and his church are doing a year later. Despite the changes to his Conyers congregation, Swilley remains confident in his journey as a gay Christian and hopeful for his new project, Church in the Now Midtown.
He also speaks with a relief that is familiar to many who have come out, regardless of any religious affiliation — a vivid reminder of the power of the closet to constrain lives, and the peace can come with living openly.
Bishop Swilley: No, as a matter of fact, I had no idea where I would have been an hour from when I started the message. I didn’t even know how that message would play out. I didn’t have a script. I certainly had no idea that it was going to become the big deal that it became.
There has not been a day since then where I have not had feedback from that message. At Atlanta Pride, I had scores of people who came up to me to thank me, to tell me that [my coming out video] encouraged them to come out. The overwhelming response has been positive.
It’s a big question to ask, but what has changed in this past year?
Internally, nothing has changed. My preaching didn’t change because I’ve always preached grace and tolerance. The thing that has been the most noticeable change to me is the ability to just stop living inside my head and to be able to say things out loud.
I’ve faced my biggest fear, which was if the people closest to me knew this, they’re not going to love me anymore. But that wasn’t true and it didn’t happen. I’m still a father to my children and I am very involved with their lives. I still have an amazing relationship with my ex-wife and my parents come to church to hear me preach. Dr. Seuss said, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” There’s truth to that.
What did change is that I’m not afraid of anybody thinking that I’m gay. Recently, I was in a bookstore and I bought a big picture book of the films of Bette Davis. It was the first time that I could buy something like that and I wasn’t worried that somebody would see me buying it and think I was gay.
It seems like such a simple thing but when you’ve lived your life trying not to be who you are and going against... not just your sexual preference but your tastes, your whole being, the way you say things. To be able to say “This is what I like” and not be embarrassed about it, that’s something that I think straight people take for granted.
I remember when I was still closeted and I didn’t want to buy any Angelina Jolie movies because I was convinced that people would see that I owned it and know that I was gay.
Oh, I understand! A few months ago, I was invited out to lunch by a gay pastor in Houston. We were just talking about the Lord and having a good time and this waiter walks by. I looked at him and said, “He’s cute,” and we just kept talking.
But after a minute, I got really emotional. My friend asked if I was alright and I said, “Yes. To be able to say something like that out loud and not have to follow up with ‘Please don’t tell anybody that I just said that!’” — just to be able to comment that somebody is attractive out loud and go right on talking about the things of God… it was just a powerful moment for me. I’ve never even been able to verbalize stuff like that because there was too much danger in it.
I knew when I spoke with you last year that there would be changes in your ministry. I see that you have Church in the Now in Midtown.
I still have CITN in Conyers and now refer to that as “Church in the Now East.” We started CITN Midtown on June 2 of this year. We have about 100 each Sunday when we meet at the Biltmore at 8 a.m. We also have service on Thursday nights.
CITN Midtown is not a gay church. It’s an “everything” church. It’s gay, straight, black, white, male, female... it’s the type of diverse church that I’m used to anyway. These people know I’m gay and they are sitting here with their Bibles open in their laps and they’re loving God and they’re worshipping and these things are not mutually exclusive.
There was an exodus from the church when you came out. Did any of the people who left end up returning to the church after they had time to reflect?
Yes. After a period of time, they realized that they had a knee-jerk reaction. Some people privately write and tell me “I can’t come to your church anymore but you’re still my spiritual father and could you please pray for me?”
It bothers me because if I’m your pastor, come back to the church. The way that you interpret these six passages is going to keep you from going to church where you’re fed? These are things that you have to understand the context in which they were written.
The Bible promotes slavery. Paul said “slave.” He didn’t say “servant,” he said, “Slaves, obey your master. Even if they’re mistreating you. Even if they’re not a believer.” Well, nobody would call me and ask me about the pros and cons of slavery. The Bible says that you can sell women as property. It says if your daughter is raped, you can sell her to the rapist. Nobody would call me now and say, “Hey, we’re having a debate. Are women property or human beings?” No. We know what the Bible says but our culture has moved beyond that.
My issue with is that if you are going to use that rigid biblical standard for me, use it for yourself, too. I mean, are you willing to kill your disrespectful teenager like the Bible commands?
Exactly. When people bring up Leviticus gay passages to me, I say, “Great! The Levitical law says that you’re supposed to tithe and if you don’t, you have to pay a 20 percent penalty.” I would love for people to do that because then my church would never have any financial problems. But when I say that to them, they say, “Well, that’s Old Testament!” You can’t pick and choose.
When I came out and my pastors were confronting me about my sin of being gay, I explained to them that having sex with my husband (at the time) was very unnatural for me. They told me love is not an emotion, but rather an action. Even if I didn’t feel like having sex with my husband, I had to because my body didn’t belong to me. It belonged to my husband.
Oh, Lord! You know what bothers me about that? I know straight Christians that will say to me, “Maybe you were born that way but you can never be with a man, you can’t be intimate, you can’t fall in love with one or have a relationship.” That stinks because while these people are going on with their lives, they’re having fulfillment and intimacy and all of this love but they just want to make sure that you aren’t.
What’s amazing to me is how straight people set themselves up to be such an authority on something that they know nothing about. It is as absurd as me going up to a woman and telling her that her PMS or her menstrual cycle is just a choice. I have no possible way to empathize with her being a woman so I can’t speak to her issues. Gay people should be given the same courtesy. Straight people should be able to say, “I don’t understand it but it’s your truth.”
Exactly! There is a well-known mega-church pastor in this town who said that I was a “sign of the end times” and that people are being deceived. I thought, “If you really believe that, then according to your eschatology, you should be happy because Jesus is coming back! If you think I’m going to Hell, then that should take care of it.”
I really haven’t addressed the gay Christian watchdog groups that are going after me because I’ve been a lot of fodder for them for months now. I want to say to them that I can’t take them seriously as Christians because on their websites, there’s nothing about Jesus. There’s only an obsession with homophobia.
Jesus didn’t say a thing about homosexuality but He said a lot about love. If you’re going to pick and choose what it means to be a Christian, then why not go with what He actually talked about?
Are you currently dating anyone?
I had a relationship for a while but it ended amicably. Right now, I am just dating around and am not in a relationship. I’m on a public dating site. Anybody that I go out with more than once, at least by the second or third date, I insist that they come to church because I want them to know that before it goes any further, they need to know who I am. There’s this whole other life where people call me “Bishop.” So far, it hasn’t been a deterrent to anybody.
Where do you stand now in your life?
God is good. I don’t have any regrets. To be able to have freedom is something that I wouldn’t trade anything for. I embrace it and I love God more than I ever have. I’ve gone through some transition this year but I believe the latter is greater than the former.
A wife’s love
Bishop Jim Swilley came out to his congregation last year with the support of his now ex-wife, Debye Swilley. Now, she discusses how his journey has brought their family “closer together.”
Shannon: It’s been a year since we last spoke. What’s new?
Debye: It’s been an awesome year in a lot of ways. I’ve watched Jim go from frantic not knowing what would happen to where he is now at this place of wholeness. It has been beautiful. I’m sure you know that we started a new church in Midtown. One of the first services that he did was a communion service. I was watching these beautiful (gay) couples, who have probably never taken communion together, be able to hold hands and love each other and come to the table of the Lord.
For Jim to be able to serve them from this place of wholeness is mind-boggling; I cried the whole time. If there’s an evolution, it’s watching him come into this place, even in the way he ministers and everything. It’s been beautiful.
When our church foreclosed on our property, our boys had to move out of the youth building that was pretty much their life; it was maybe more of a sanctuary to them than our home was. That was a painful thing for us and it took a lot out of them. But they’ve bounced back. They’ve faced and overcome the worst thing. They love and respect us both, and I think this has just brought everybody closer together.
CITN Midtown is a new ministry that you have.
I love Midtown. I am there every Thursday night and I plan to be there on Sunday mornings even though it is a bit of a trek for me. It is an investment for us because CITN East is helping to support the CITN Midtown location right now, but we’re trusting God to provide and meet the needs of both locations.
I believe what we are doing is changing a mindset in so many ways. As are most cities, the city of Atlanta is full of hurting people who have been manipulated by religious demands. As Gandhi said, our desire is to be the change we want to see.
Are you dating?
Yes, a wonderful man that God has brought into my life who understands my commitment to Jim and to CITN. Having said that, when you’ve been a part of a marriage for so long, it’s really hard to wholly give yourself to somebody else; I’m not there yet.
I don’t know if that will ever happen, especially when something bad didn’t happen in your marriage. It was because of love that Jim and I married and because of love that we are no longer married.
Last year, I wondered if you guys would start dating and grow apart and have separate lives. That didn’t happen. I mean, you’ve both been in relationships and you don’t live together but you still have this really deep connection.
Yes, and thank you for believing in us and allowing for this part of our journey to be told. I think this next year is going to be even more exciting.
No matter what it looks like to people, we have honored God and have tried to do this as best as we could. In our spirit, we want to do the right thing and we are in this for the right reasons. It feels really good.
Top photo: Bishop Jim Swilley (by Bo Shell)
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