I have got to say there is nothing worse than finding one’s self on the wrong end of a gospel story. A few days ago, when the news of Bishop Jim Swilley the founding pastor of  “The Church in the Now” got out that he had come out, I was not particularly kind.

One my Facebook page I made the following comment: “is thinking Rev. Swilley is NO gay hero. He finally comes out after he has fathered 4 kids, was in a sham of a marriage...and how many young folks took his hypocritical teachings to heart and ended their life? I am sorry there are those of us who have stood in the line of fire for a long time and took the hits while he was...Thank you Rev. for getting a conscience, lets see what you do now that you are out.”

Then as I am preparing to write this blog I re-read the story of the “Prodigal Son.”  One can find the complete story at Luke 15:11-32 (The Message).  Needless to say I found myself on the wrong end of this Gospel story.

Religion blog: I was wrong about Pastor Jim Swilley

For as many times as I have told this story over the years and how it is a wonderful affirming story for the LGBTQ community, I found myself convicted tonight by the end of the story.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef! —Because he has him home safe and sound.’

“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’

“His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!'”

I found myself standing in the place of the older son.  For a guy who has been preaching an inclusive gospel for 25 years this is an embarrassing and humbling place to find one’s self.

Of course when one reads this story from Jesus, it is easy to see and understand the Father’s response.  However, the more difficult part of this story is we never get the interaction between the older son and the younger.  Did they ever work things out?

When the party was over did the older and younger brother reconcile?  Did the younger brother ever know the older one was unhappy and why?

Did the older brother ever stop and listen to the younger brother’s story and how he came to do what he did and make the choices he made?

I have never met the Bishop and only know of the Church he founded by driving by it on I-20 several times and thinking each time…there is another one of “those” places.

It was a mega church; an evangelical church and we all know how they feel about the LGBTQ community right?

So of course I sat and listen to the Bishop’s coming out sermon to his congregation tonight from beginning to end.

I then found his blog and read what he had to say. In his latest writing, “Making it Plain” he said: “I at least have not had to work through any credibility issues, or do any damage control concerning my message. I have never one time in nearly 39 years of preaching said a derogatory or condemning word about people with same-sex attraction. An in-depth search can be made through my books, or through decades-worth of tapes, CDs, DVDs, or manuscripts of my sermons, and there will be no evidence of the preaching of condemnation found.”

Further just before that he said: “I think it’s important to point out that my main message is and always has been one of love, grace, and tolerance. Church In The Now has been a multicultural/multi ethnic/ecumenical community since its inception, and, as such, has established a long-standing reputation as being a bridge builder among belief systems and people groups. It is neither a white church, nor a black church – it is a church for all people – so it will not become, now or ever, a “gay” church. CITN is inclusive because we believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, demands that we be…and that Gospel is simply the Good News that GOD IS LOVE, demonstrated through the Christ, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that the lifestyle demands made by the Gospel are summed up in two basic and proactive commandments: (1) Love God (2) Love people. That’s all. Church In The Now will always be a place that embraces the truth of the real Gospel, and the simplicity that is in Christ.”

I had done what I have so long preached against … I made lots of judgments and offered my friends and family a knee jerk reaction.

I, like the older brother in the story, felt like all the attention the Bishop was getting for coming out at 52 when I was out at 13 was a little much. One can read my previous blog to get the full story on that.

I felt like as an openly gay pastor and progressive person of faith I had taken the heat, buried our people, held the hand of the oppressed, fought the fight, stood on the front lines and taken the bullets of hate, ridicule and disrespect. In fact I could think of many of us pastor’s who have for long time been barley able to make ends meet because we took the opportunity to be out, proud and free.

Of course so has the Bishop: “Concerning any negative things written about me online, which are mostly done by conservative Christian or Evangelical groups or watchdog organizations, I can only say that it comes with the territory, and I’m used to it. I have no desire to defend myself, or to argue the Scriptures with those who would not be open to anything I would have to say. Integrity can’t be proven, it must be discerned.

“I’ve been discussed on blogs and websites for years because of my inclusive theology, and because of the spotlight being on my family for some time because of my uncle, Bishop Earl Paulk, who died nearly two years ago. Usually, any negative article about me begins by making the connection with him, and, even though I don’t understand why that connection is germane to my story, I guess it makes it more interesting to some.

“In the last few days I’ve been called both a hero and heretic. I don’t believe that I am either. At the end of the day, all that really matters to me is what God thinks and says about me, and that is between Him and me.”

So why write this?  Why admit to the community I was a jerk in the way I responded to the story, that I was childish and immature?

First, because words have power and as we have seen with the bullying issue words can have a devastating impact both in the short term and the long term.  My open and public words were no better than any bully. For this I am deeply embarrassed and sorry … May God have mercy on me.

Second, two words, being authentic! At Gentle Spirit Christian Church it has been taught for years that we “walk the talk.”  So not to admit publicly I was wrong after public words of judgment would hypocritical at minimum and anti-gospel at the worst.

Finally but not least, each one of us travel this life and for the most part do the best we can with the cards that are given to us.  The Bishop is right on the mark when he says there are only two things that really matter: (1) Love God (2) Love people.

I know tonight, my Facebook words did neither of those things … God have mercy on me a sinner.

Bishop Swilley, welcome home and may God bless, protect and encourage you in the days ahead.


Rev. Paul M. Turner is the Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta. For more information, please visit www.gentlespirit.org or e-mail info@gentlespirit.org.