Jim Swilley, bishop of Church in the Now near Atlanta, said he hopes his coming out will change attitudes toward homosexuality.
(Nov. 15) -- Despite feeling called by God to spread the gospel, he lived a lie for decades, fearing that the truth would not set him free, as John the Apostle promised, but ruin his life and his devotion to preaching.
Bishop Jim Swilley founded a Greater Atlanta house of worship in 1985 that has grown into a mega-church. He married twice and fathered four children. He traveled the country giving sermons about Christ and Christian love, but kept secret his own feelings on human desires.
But on a recent Wednesday night, he stepped out of the closet while sitting in the pulpit of his 1,200-member, nondenominational Evangelical church and announced he was gay -- something he said he neither chose nor spoke about for most of his 52 years. Some walked out. Many others stayed.
Swilley said he wanted to change hateful bullying and intolerance of homosexuals. He wanted people to know that, at least for him, it was not a choice or a calling.
"There are two things in my life that are an absolute," he told his flock. "I did not ask for either one of them; both of them were imposed upon me, I had no control over either of them. One was the call of God on my life ... and the other thing ... was my sexual orientation."
It was the recent series of suicides by gay teens that pushed him to stop living a lie, Swilley told NPR. He was especially compelled by the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a friend allegedly live-streamed video of a sexual encounter between a man and Clementi.
"I would hear people nearly imply that he deserved it -- you know, people would say he shouldn't have been in an act of perversion," Swilley told the public radio network. "And when I started hearing that, especially from people who professed to be Christ-like, I don't know. Something changed."
In the videotaped address to his followers, Swilley said he had recently told his parents and his children, and they stood behind him. He said his wife of 21 years, Debye, had known before they were married, but loved him anyway. The couple separated more than a year ago, but she remains an associate pastor at their cathedral in Conyers, Church in the Now, about 25 miles east of Atlanta.
And it was Debye who told him he should come clean and follow the church's motto of "real people experiencing a real God in the real world," Swilley told WSBTV in Atlanta.
He said he's received some sharply negative reactions. "I know all the hateful stuff that's being written about me online, whatever," he said. "To think about saving a teenager, yeah, I'll risk my reputation for that.
"As a father," Swilley said through tears, "thinking about your 16-, 17-year-old killing themselves, I thought somebody needed to say something."
The pastor also said he wanted to clear up some rumors. He had not left his wife for another man, he told his congregation, which included a smiling and applauding Debye. His situation was not similar to Eddie Long, another mega-church pastor in Atlanta.
Long, an anti-gay preacher, has been sued by four young men who claim he coerced them into sex with lavish trips, gifts and jobs. Long denies the accusations.
"My position is not about gaying up the church," Swilley told CNN. "It's about people being who they are."