Bishop Jim Swilley founded Church in the Now, the massive, non-denominational congregation in Conyers, in 1985. But as the church grew over 25 years, and throughout his almost four decades of ministry, Swilley struggled with a secret that he hid from his congregation.
“I am approaching my 39th year in ministry — All I have ever done is preach the gospel,” Swilley told his congregation in an emotional sermon last month, noting that his parents tell stories of him preaching while still in diapers.
“There are two things in my life that are an absolute: I did not ask for either one of them, both of them were imposed upon me, I had no control over either of them,” Swilley said.
“One was the call of God in my life … the other thing, and I wouldn’t have known what to call it at the time, is my sexual orientation. I know a lot of straight people think that orientation is a choice, but I want to tell you that it definitely is not,” he said.
Swilley discounted rumors that he was cheating on his wife, who sat in the audience nodding her support, thanked his children and parents, and said that he was motivated to speak up by the recent rash of gay youth suicides, and by ongoing hate crimes targeting gay people.
“I can only hope that you hear me out and you hear me with an open mind,” Swilley said then.
The video of Swilley’s Oct. 13 coming out speech has gone viral with more than 50,000 views in three weeks. Jim Swilley, Debye Swilley and their son Judah Swilley spoke with the Georgia Voice about the experience.
GA Voice: Debye, people who watched that video really want to know if you support Jim. Can you speak to that?
Debye Swilley: I look at this as a real love story. I’ve always loved Jim and we learned to build a life around his sexual orientation. We built an incredible life together. We love each other and are best friends.
In March of 2009, it hit me that I was no longer a blessing to Jim. I was handicapping him. I was doing him a disservice by keeping him from growing because I was keeping him from being who he was. When I realized that I was hurting Jim more than helping him, that hurt me. I came to a place where I knew that I was no longer the best for him.
Jim Swilley: She came to me and said, “I think it’s time that you are able to walk in the way that you direct people. You tell people that God loves them just as they are and that God has a purpose for them just as they are and you don’t give that same break to yourself.”
I told her, “If we were going to still work together [in ministry], you realize that you’re outing me. People will look at us and wonder if we’re that fine with each other, why don’t we just stay married?”
Debye: I told Jim Earl, “I will do anything that you want for me to do. If you want me to be the crazy woman who freaked out or let people think that I had an affair, I really don’t care what anybody says about me. If you don’t ever want to come out with this, it’s your truth. I just can’t do it anymore. I will not be in agreement with us not being everything that we’re supposed to be. Just know that I will never hurt you and I will always protect you.”
Jim: The church had a lot of questions. People still saw us together and there was speculation about why we were divorcing. There was enough buzz about it that I tried to address it at our church’s 25th anniversary. Somehow, the word got out into the community that I came out that day. We kept trying to decide what to do. Should I leave it? Should I say more? I was talking all around it.
The real thing that made me go ahead with it was that two-week period when those five or six gay teen suicides happened. I decided that I couldn’t not talk about this. I was just going to put it out there and whatever happens would happen. If I lost the ministry, I’d deal with that. I wasn’t afraid. I just knew it was right.
Voice: What has been the general response from the public and from your church membership?
Jim: In one week, I gained over 1,000 Facebook friends. I’ve heard from Hong Kong, Japan, London, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria… one story after another from people who say, “Oh my God. I feel like you totally told my story.” I’ve heard from other pastors who’ve come out or pastors who are still in the closet, afraid to come out. I’ve heard from teenagers. For every negative one that I get, there’ll be a hundred that are loving and affirming. I hear it over and over: “You saved my life.”
Voice: Judah, what have you observed about people’s reactions to your dad sharing his truth?
Judah Swilley: Thank God that most of it has been supportive. Unfortunately, we’ve heard from closed-minded religious people that see things a different way. The crazy thing is that the people who have extreme religious beliefs and they bring out different scriptures and try to pick and choose them to make their point. You can’t just pick one thing and take it out of context.
You know, Leviticus says all kinds of crazy things. …
Debye: What people might not understand is that Jim carried this fear of rejection with him that is so deep that it would come out in the way that he would minister. I always knew in my heart that if he just loved himself just the way that he was and if he embraced his humanity, the divine part would be exponential.
Voice: Bishop Swilley, what do you want to tell the gay community in Atlanta?
Jim: One of Jesus’ last words on the cross was “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”
What I would to say to the gay community is that Proverbs says that life is in the power of the tongue and the only thing that I know to do is to continue to communicate. I understand why so many gay people left the church. I totally get it. I understand why so many of them don’t believe in God. I want to be somewhat of a bridge builder or repairer of the breach.
What I would say to gay Christians is to continue to dialogue if you can.