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Megachurch bishop takes a leap of faith 

When he came out of the closet, Jim Swilley risked it all to practice what he preaches

SEEING THE LIGHT: When Bishop Jim Swilley came out to his congregation in October, he became perhaps the most high-profile pastor to voluntarily tell the truth about his orientation.

Dustin Chambers

SEEING THE LIGHT: When Bishop Jim Swilley came out to his congregation in October, he became perhaps the most high-profile pastor to voluntarily tell the truth about his orientation.

On a Sunday morning in early November, a crisply suited Bishop Jim Swilley asks the congregants of Church in the Now a question you wouldn't expect to hear within the four walls of a house of worship, let alone one in super-suburban Conyers: "Have you ever noticed how destructive religious people can be?" It's a rhetorical question, of course, but Swilley still receives the response he's likely angling for: a smattering of laughter and murmured affirmations. He's discussing the Gospel of John, chapter 10, but he's also clearly enjoying the subtext, the onstage liberation of having recently divulged a lifelong and intensely private secret.

Swilley focuses on a passage he says is commonly misinterpreted. The "wolf" in the parable, which "snatches and scatters" a shepherd's flock, is usually taken to symbolize the devil and the flock the Christian people. But, Swilley explains, "The wolf doesn't have to be the devil. It can be anything that drives people apart" — the devil, sure, but also Christian doctrine, and even seemingly well-intentioned religious folks and the judgment they harbor in the name of God. The undertone of the sermon is that Swilley, his church and its congregants are somehow different from the others.

Superficially, Church in the Now — a sprawling, 43-acre religious complex off of I-20 — is a typical megachurch, a representative member of a species that's as ubiquitous in suburban Georgia as strip malls and chain restaurants. An ostentatious, stories-tall sign marks the entrance to its shopping-center-sized parking lot. And its leader is as scripture-meets-Southern-fried-machismo as his brethren. Well, almost.

Neither the parking lot nor the cavernous sanctuary are close to full on this particular Sunday. Swilley would argue the meager crowd has more to do with his nontraditional message than recent headlines — in People magazine, on CNN and NPR, and all over the Internet — centered on his bold decision to come out of the closet from the pulpit of his church. "In the last few days, I've read things about myself on Facebook — dark, negative, hurtful things, lots of scripture quoting," the bishop tells his congregation. "But I truly only care what God thinks about me now." The crowd explodes into applause.

After the service, sitting beside his ex-wife Debye at a long dining table in the church's chambers, Swilley is unapologetic about his willingness to break ranks with some entrenched religious beliefs about who and who isn't worthy of God's love. "The message that I preach is held suspect by a lot of conservative Christians," he says in a smooth, deep voice that carries just a twinge of Southern drawl. "They feel like it's too tolerant, too inclusive, too open-minded. Even what I preached today would be considered scandalous in a lot of churches." He says he's been accused of espousing an all-embracing doctrine during the years he lived as a straight man as part of a long, drawn-out attempt to set the stage for his coming out. "You know, maybe in some ways I have been," he says. "I don't think that necessarily needs to be defended."

The pulpit of a Southern megachurch is a surprisingly easy place for a gay man to hide in plain sight. First, you've got the built-in cover associated with being a man of God. In Swilley's case, he also has the benefit of coming from a long line of powerful Georgia preachers. (His name is probably familiar to CL readers less for his predecessors than for his progeny; he's the father of Black Lips frontman Jared Swilley.) Second, flamboyance is requisite. And given the vanity inherent in the position, it's doubtful many people will question a proclivity for perfectly coifed hair, meticulously composed outfits, or fingernails so well-manicured, they're buffed to a sheen.

Swilley obscured his sexuality behind that image for years — 39 as a pastor, 25 as the head of Church in the Now — and smack in the middle of the conservative 'burbs. "I don't think I'm effeminate, but there are some gay stereotypes that I fit into," Swilley admits. "If you're really savvy and really listened to some of the things I would say, you might suspect. I'm not a sports fan, I know all the lyrics to 'Gypsy.'" He pauses for a second before cracking up.

His affinity for show tunes aside, Swilley isn't nearly as flashy as plenty of other megachurch pastors, even the certifiably straight ones. When he came out to his congregation — and to the world — during a Wednesday night service in October, many were struck by his demeanor and candor. Citing the reason he decided to go public — a recent string of suicides among young gay people that culminated in the "It Gets Better" campaign — he's almost moved to tears. But his coming out wasn't theatrics. Just as he hadn't had a choice about being called to minister, Swilley explained at the time, he'd never had a choice about being attracted to men. "It's about just being who you are and telling the truth about yourself," he says.

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