Swilley’s story: A gay pastor, his wife, and a deeper ministry

“One was the call of God in my life … the other thing, and I wouldn’t have known what to call it at the time, is my sexual orientation. I know a lot of straight people think that orientation is a choice, but I want to tell you that it definitely is not,” he said.

Swilley discounted rumors that he was cheating on his wife, who sat in the audience nodding her support, thanked his children and parents, and said that he was motivated to speak up by the recent rash of gay youth suicides, and by ongoing hate crimes targeting gay people.

“I can only hope that you hear me out and you hear me with an open mind,” Swilley said then.

The video of Swilley’s Oct. 13 coming out speech has gone viral with over 50,000 views in three weeks.  Jim Swilley, Debye Swilley and their son Judah Swilley spoke with the Georgia Voice about the experience.

GA Voice: Debye, people who watched that video really want to know if you support Jim. Can you speak to that?

Debye Swilley: I look at this as a real love story. I’ve always loved Jim and we learned to build a life around his sexual orientation. We built an incredible life together. We love each other and are best friends.

In March of 2009, it hit me that I was no longer a blessing to Jim. I was handicapping him. I was doing him a disservice by keeping him from growing because I was keeping him from being who he was. When I realized that I was hurting Jim more than helping him, that hurt me. I came to a place where I knew that I was no longer the best for him.

Jim Swilley: She came to me and said, “I think it’s time that you are able to walk in the way that you direct people. You tell people that God loves them just as they are and that God has a purpose for them just as they are and you don’t give that same break to yourself.”

I told her, “If we were going to still work together [in ministry], you realize that you’re outing me. People will look at us and wonder if we’re that fine with each other, why don’t we just stay married?”

Debye: I told Jim Earl, “I will do anything that you want for me to do. If you want me to be the crazy woman who freaked out or let people think that I had an affair, I really don’t care what anybody says about me. If you don’t ever want to come out with this, it’s your truth. I just can’t do it anymore. I will not be in agreement with us not being everything that we’re supposed to be. Just know that I will never hurt you and I will always protect you.”

Jim: The church had a lot of questions. People still saw us together and there was speculation about why we were divorcing. There was enough buzz about it that I tried to address it at our church’s 25th anniversary.  Somehow, the word got out into the community that I came out that day. We kept trying to decide what to do. Should I leave it? Should I say more? I was talking all around it.

The real thing that made me go ahead with it was that two-week period when those five or six gay teen suicides happened. I decided that I couldn’t not talk about this. I was just going to put it out there and whatever happens would happen. If I lost the ministry, I’d deal with that. I wasn’t afraid. I just knew it was right.

What has been the general response from the public and from your church membership?

Jim: In one week, I gained over 1,000 Facebook friends. I’ve heard from Hong Kong, Japan, London, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria… one story after another from people who say, “Oh my God. I feel like you totally told my story.” I’ve heard from other pastors who’ve come out or pastors who are still in the closet, afraid to come out. I’ve heard from teenagers. For every negative one that I get, there’ll be a hundred that are loving and affirming. I hear it over and over: “You saved my life.”

People want to tell their story. You just see the pain that people have gone through. That’s why it infuriates me when a straight person, who has no concept of this struggle, just flippantly calls it “gay lifestyle.” It’s just unacceptable. When you know the people who have gone to hell and back trying to change their DNA and how they’re wired, and to be told that it’s a “choice” and a “lifestyle,” I really have to get past the anger of it.

Judah, what have you observed about people’s reactions to your dad sharing his truth?

Judah Swilley: Thank God that most of it has been supportive. Unfortunately, we’ve heard from closed-minded religious people that see things a different way. The crazy thing is that the people who have extreme religious beliefs and they bring out different scriptures and try to pick and choose them to make their point. You can’t just pick one thing and take it out of context.

You know, Leviticus says all kinds of crazy things. I mean that with all due respect but it says things like not to let cattle graze with other cattle, don’t have a variety of crops in the same field, don’t blend the fabrics of your clothing. If you are disrespectful to your parents, you must be killed. … There are all kinds of things in there.

Christ said there are two laws to be Christ-like: to love God and to love people. It’s very simple. If you’re not loving, you’re not Christ-like. People try to say, “I’ll accept them [homosexuals] but I won’t affirm them.” That’s ridiculous! You have to love them.

Debye: What people might not understand is that Jim carried this fear of rejection with him that is so deep that it would come out in the way that he would minister. I always knew in my heart that if he just loved himself just the way that he was and if he embraced his humanity, the divine part would be exponential.

His divinity was almost limited and restrained because he rejected his humanity. I wanted for him to experience what everyone deserves to experience in a relationship and partnership. He should feel what everyone else takes for granted.

He did it right. There was no scandal. There was nothing to hide. On October 13th, he came out. He owned it. He did it beautifully. It was with confidence. I cannot express to you the pride that I feel because I’m seeing this man that I’ve loved for 22 years walk in a wholeness and a peace that I’ve never seen him walk in. It’s time for him to stand up and be this amazing gay man that brings words of life.

Continuing the dialog

Bishop Swilley, what do you want to tell the gay community in Atlanta?

Jim: One of Jesus’ last words on the cross was “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

What I would to say to the gay community is that Proverbs says that life is in the power of the tongue and the only thing that I know to do is to continue to communicate. I understand why so many gay people left the church. I totally get it. I understand why so many of them don’t believe in God. I want to be somewhat of a bridge builder or repairer of the breach.

What I would say to gay Christians is to continue to dialog if you can. Sometimes, you can’t. Jesus said, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” Sometimes, your message falls on deaf ears. There will be times where you’ll just have to let it go, but, if I can be somewhat in the position to say what I could not have said 20 years ago if I had come out.

Maybe as a man who’s been married his entire adult life, as a father and a grandfather… maybe I can say some things that will help people see things in another way before they just automatically dismiss me as someone who’s speaking from a gay paradigm.

I remember meeting with my associate pastor when I came out. I told him that there wasn’t a day in my marriage when I wasn’t begging God to change me but I was still gay. He told me that it was because my prayers weren’t sincere enough.

Jim: It’s like I said to my congregation… I have a large African American population in my church. I am very much in touch with the black struggle. As a white man, I could never say to a person of color, “I know your struggle. I know how you feel. I know how to tell you to think about being black.” There’s no way I could possibly empathize with them. As much as I love the black community, as a white man, I will never know what it’s like to be black. …

For straight people, for straight Christians, including straight ministers, to be so smug and arrogant as to think that they can tell you what your struggle has been like?

That’s the height of arrogance! I can’t believe that people think that they know what’s going on when they have no concept, no empathy whatsoever of what you’ve been through.  They’ve never dealt with it!

Straight people fall in love, get married, have sex, and have children, no problem. They never think about the other people who are trying to be straight who aren’t because they weren’t born that way. I have to get past my flesh reaction because it makes me furious.

When I was speaking to an obese elder in my church who was grilling me about my “sin,” I was just thinking to myself, “The Bible also says in Proverbs 23:2 to ‘put a knife to your throat if you’re given to gluttony.’ If he really took the Bible as literally as he expects me to take it, why hasn’t he slit his own throat?”

Jim: When people want to start throwing Leviticus around, I think, “If we’re going to play Bible wars, let’s go for it!” Jesus said if your hand offends you, cut it off. If your eye offends you, pluck it out!” I have never, in my entire life, met anyone who has dismembered their body in a quest for holiness.

On the heels of that, I want to say that homosexuality is not a sin. It’s an identity. When these people say the old “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” this is not a sexual fetish, it’s who a person is. It’s how they think. It’s not just about sex. It’s about attraction. It’s about love. It’s about romance. It’s about a connection.

To just dismiss it as a work of the flesh or a sin, it’s absurd. Straight people aren’t called “sexual intercourse.” They’re more than that. It’s so much more.The same thing is true about gay people.

These people will say, “Maybe you were born that way but you don’t have to live that way. You can be celibate.” However, the apostle Paul made it clear that celibacy is a special call from God that few people receive. Do all gay people to fall into this category of specially called by God to be celibate?

Jim: These Christians will say gay people can’t have sex because any sex outside of marriage is fornication. My answer is “Okay. Then let gay people get married.” They’ll respond, “Oh, no, no! Gay people can’t marry. It’s illegal!” What is the alternative?

When you see same-sex people getting married, what would you prefer — that the gay man marry your daughter, instead? Wouldn’t it be better to let him go with his orientation? It’s a ludicrous argument that people make to try to control something that they should really have nothing to do with.

Building bridges

Do you think God is doing a work?

Jim: We’re at a time right now where there’s a lot of upheaval because of this movement but a lot of the pretentiousness of religion is crumbling. It has to. With every credible person that continues to come out, surely people will begin to realize that this isn’t a fad. It’s just people telling who they are.

Not the least of which are the recent teen suicides. Are they trying to tell me that a 15-year-old kid is going to make up a story about being gay so that they would have an excuse to kill themselves? That’s insane! Of course that’s not true.

Why would a man like me, who has nothing to gain and everything to lose, stand up one day and say “Hey, I want to tell everyone that I’m gay” if it weren’t true? Why would I jeopardize everything that I’ve worked so hard to build for my entire life? If people would just think about it, it’s illogical to think that people would make it up or even to choose to be this way if it were a choice?

I figured out years ago that I wasn’t going to be able to pray it away. I was having that conversation with God my whole life. I would say, “You know that I didn’t ask for this. Please, feel free to take it.” I can honestly say that if God had knowledge, and Jeremiah says that God knew me before He ever made me, then I have to believe that God knew who I was going to be and how I would be and that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Romans 9:20-21, talking about the potter, says, “can the thing formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me thus?’ – I can’t second guess God’s creation. God made me exactly who I am — spirit, soul and body. If He gave me an anointing, a sphere of influence and a platform, then apparently I can say something that I could not have said otherwise. I embrace it and accept it. It’s not a curse. It’s just a reality in my life.

It looks like your family is poised to build bridges between the church and the gay community. There are so many people in the gay community who won’t even consider Christ anymore because they’ve been so badly hurt by people who purportedly represent Him.

Judah: People need to realize that morality has nothing to do with sexuality. There are gay people with great morals and straight people with horrible morals. The idea of being gay is immoral has to go. In people’s minds, for some reason they can’t understand how you can be gay and a Christian.

Debye: There are so many people that are hurt and rejected and can’t live life because of “religion” — that’s who we’re called to.  We’ve gotten thousands of emails and messages and stories… I weep every time I hear them. There are men who have had to go through electroshock therapy as little boys because their parents thought that they were demon-possessed.

I know (gay) people have to get tired of just being tolerated. When are we going to celebrate them? What if we stopped tolerating and really celebrated and accepted and honored and respected them? My God, what would the world be like if a human being felt those things instead of just being tolerated?

Judah, when a seemingly straight person comes out as gay, people think that because they have new information about that person, it means that that the person has changed. Do you think your dad has changed?

Judah: No. My dad is exactly who he’s always been. If anything, he’s become more real. A lot of people will have the false idea that you can influence someone in their sexual orientation. If they see my dad and know that he has influence, they think that he will influence others to be gay. My dad has influenced me in a million ways… a million ways. None of his influence has any bearing on my sexual orientation. The idea that a person can be influenced to a certain sexual orientation has to go.

Where are you all at right now?

Debye: On this day, to see my family love each other so much and to see my boys be so proud of their dad and know that it was because I loved their dad that I had to leave him, it has come full circle and we are in a great place. I’m in absolute and complete awe at how good God is. If we can help people go outside of their own prejudices and insecurities and fear, then we’ve done something. It’s all worth it.

At the end of the day, I wanted my boys to know that what I did was about love, not about the politics of religion.

Jim: If I had realized that the [coming out] video would become as viral as it has, I would have been more careful with some of the humor I used. But, I knew the telling of it was right. Once I have the witness of the Spirit, I’m good to go. It’s like having an angel on your shoulder.

It’s been a couple of weeks ago and everything is as it has been. It’s hard to predict what the future holds, but as for right now, I still pastor my church and we’re still bearing fruit. Hopefully, God’s still pleased with us.

Well, if God is for you, who can be against you?

Jim: Absolutely!


Top photo: For Church in the Now’s Bishop Jim Swilley and Debye Swilley, the decision to divorce so Jim could live openly as a gay man is ‘a real love story.’ (courtesy CITN)