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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

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"Judah, because he's on staff, said, 'I love you, this doesn't change anything. But don't ever say it publicly. Let's keep the image.' And, you know, I understand that," Swilley recalls. "Jonah was my main concern because he's a senior in high school, and I didn't want him to have to deal with stuff at school. And he kind of said, 'Yeah, people have already talked about it and it doesn't have any bearing on me.'"

Of his eldest son, Jared, he says, "[He's] never been spiritually inclined at all, but he wrote me this long letter one night. He said, 'I really think you're supposed to be the Martin Luther King of the gay movement.' I mean, that's not my vision, but the point was, he was saying please speak to the disenfranchised, it makes me love and support you more than ever. And it was just very out of character for him." In an interview with CL in November, the Black Lips frontman said he thought what his father did "took a lot of balls."

"Once I knew my kids were OK," Swilley says, "I was invincible."

If Swilley's Facebook page is any indication — pretty much every day, nearly a dozen users post messages of praise and encouragement on his wall — his story has resonated with people far beyond the confines of his church. Homosexuals who were raised in religious households or who became involved in ministry — many of whom also tried and failed to lead a hetero life — have been particularly responsive.

"It's awesome what he did and a lot of people can relate to him," says Bruce Joffe, pastor of the non-denominational, predominantly LGBT Christ Church of Peace in Jacksonville, Fla. "I was married twice, I have two children. I personally could relate, but I can tell you, in my church, probably 80 percent of the church could relate, whether women or men." Christ Church of Peace had always been an LGBT-affirming church and Joffe had been out of the closet for years — he's been with his current partner for nearly two decades — when he was installed in June.

Pastor Dennis Meredith of Tabernacle Baptist Church on Boulevard in Atlanta was also married twice, and had three children before he came out to his congregation as gay-bisexual in 2007. During the 16 years he's overseen the church, its demographics changed dramatically. His son, the church's choir director, came out six years before he did, in 2001. Around that time, more and more homosexuals began joining the church. Without his knowledge, a performer at the Decatur gay bar Traxx had been encouraging people to come to services. Meredith's coming out was practically a reaction to the composition of his congregation. During a sermon, he says, the confession just kind of slipped out, the crowd cheered, and that was that.

In describing his church's philosophy, Meredith laughs at the notion that Christian churches have to specify that they're "inclusive." "I don't know what that means," he says. "Someone coined the term 'inclusive' and we all use it. Isn't that strange? You have to say 'inclusive' when you're supposed to already be that way." When news of the Eddie Long scandal broke, Meredith — who was already in the process of filming a documentary about his church — recorded a strongly worded video statement that was subsequently posted on CNN's iReport, admonishing Long for his hypocrisy. Still, Meredith believes that even if scandals like Long's appear to be damaging to the acceptance of gays in the religious community, that's not the case. "It may look like it's pushing us back," says Meredith. "But it's really not. The fact that it's out there is making us talk about it.

"Ultimately," Meredith continues, "I think this is bigger than Swilley and Bishop Long and all that. I think it's just the hand of the divine moving civilization to a point where we get along, a point where we are better."

While Church in the Now's congregation is diverse and has openly gay members, it's far from majority homosexual. Coming out to them wasn't risk-free. Predictably, the revelation wasn't universally well received. A person calling himself "Concerned Christian" posted an article on the website TheSOP.org calling, as many did, for Swilley to step down from his post. "God loves him and can forgive him, just as he loves and will forgive all those living a homosexual lifestyle if they will confess to Him and repent, but He does not want this man to be a leader in the church," the anonymous author said in late November. "Jim Swilley's gay lifestyle is not only a sin but he has been dishonest about who he is to a whole group of people that looked to him as their leader. Deceitfulness is a sin as well."

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