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But while the hardest part — divulging the secret — is over, the seemingly easier task of living life as an open and honest gay man (who just so happens to be a megachurch bishop) isn't without its stresses. Even if Swilley's congregation, by and large, accepted his coming out, will they be as willing to embrace the bishop's boyfriend when the time comes?
Discussions about homosexuality and religion tend to revolve around sex. In recent years, gay sex scandals involving leaders in the Christian church — many of whom habitually persecuted gays while building their extravagant empires — have become clichéd in their frequency. Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard was shoved out of the closet by a male prostitute he'd been patronizing for years. Most recently — and locally — Lithonia megachurch Bishop Eddie Long was accused of preying on young, male parishioners. Four of them filed lawsuits in September accusing Long of plying them with trips, cars, accommodations and shopping sprees in exchange for sexual access. (Long has yet to comment on his sexuality, but told his congregation that he's not the man he's been made out to be in the court documents or in the press.)
Swilley's coming-out was different from others on several counts. For one, there was no scandal of which to speak: no humiliating revelation about morally ambiguous sexual conduct, no lawsuits, no claims of infidelity. He made the revelation of his own volition. Perhaps even more important to his coming out in good conscience and good standing is that Swilley never preached against homosexuality. From the beginning, he built a church "in which all are welcome ... a place where all individuals and families can grow and flourish in their own faith and discover God's unique plan and purpose for their lives." Try as they might, no one could paint him a hypocrite.
The media came calling almost immediately after he came out. Since October, he's appeared on Don Lemon's show on CNN, Talk of the Nation on NPR, and Joy Behar's program on Headline News. (He turned down other shows, including, probably wisely, "The Wendy Williams Show.") He's gotten something like 1,000 new fans on Facebook. He's become an icon. He reads aloud from his cell phone a message someone left on his Facebook wall: "Just saw your interview on CNN and thought it was inspiring. To speak so eloquently about a very Christian rationale for accepting people as [they] are will have a huge impact on the lives of many. Although I am not a Christian, your actions restore my faith in what truly wonderful things can happen when religion is used to bring people together rather than to divide."
"I get a lot like that," he says proudly.
Jim Swilley had what he describes as an "old-school, neo-classical Pentecostal" upbringing. Pretty much everything was a sin, but he was able to take comfort in a doctrine that preached imminent rapture. Jesus would come soon, and he would be fixed.
A fourth-generation pastor — and nephew of influential megachurch pastor Earl Paulk, who died in 2009 and saw his legacy at south DeKalb's Cathedral of the Holy Spirit tarnished by widespread infidelity and allegations that he molested underage girls — Swilley wasn't raised in an environment in which being gay was acceptable. Cathedral of the Holy Spirit did become known as one of very few Pentecostal churches to welcome openly gay people, but that was much later, well past Swilley's formative years. Swilley's unable to point to an epiphany or moment of self-discovery, but says he knew he was attracted to the same sex from the time he was 5 or 6 years old. Even at that early age, he knew it was taboo. He recalls, "Pretty much as soon as I knew it, I thought, 'Well, I gotta change that! That's not gonna work!'"
As Swilley aged and his theology evolved, be began thinking about Christianity differently. His belief that the Bible wasn't to be taken quite so literally was transformative, if controversial, and it helped to inform the more progressive, real-world gospel he preaches to his congregants today. But, it also meant he'd have to come to terms with his sexuality.
Still, Swilley didn't tell his first wife he was gay. (Swilley says he did not begin having relationships with men until after his divorce from his second wife.) They married in their early 20s, and had two children, Christina, now 25, and Jared, 27. "I married her with the intention of changing. I figured I'll get married, we'll have kids, and it will change." It didn't change, and the couple divorced after five years. "When she divorced me I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to be married to God.'" That didn't stick either.
I agree with Andrew.
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