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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"It's on the altar now."

Bishop Jim Swilley, pastor of Conyers’ Church in the Now, a mega-church in Georgia, has publicly announced that he is gay.

Swilley is 52 years old, has been married twice, and has four children. In an address to his congregation - a folksy, personal, sometimes rambling talk that lasts about an hour - he reports that he's known he was gay since he was a young boy.

You can watch the address in its entirety here.

Indeed, he says that before he and his second wife, Debye were married 21 years ago, he told her of his sexual orientation, but she was not concerned. "I love you," Swilley reports she said, as Debye looks on, nodding her head in agreement,"we'll work this out."

"We've been living like brother and sister for years," he says, "which is probably more information than you need or want, but there it is."

The couple kept their secret for 21 years, but earlier this year, Swilley said Debye told him it was time to stop living a lie and they divorced.

She said he should practice what he preaches and follow the church’s motto, “Real people experiencing a real God in the real world.”

So, Swilley came out to his kids and his congregation. He said he knew he might risk everything, but the recent rash of gay teen suicides pushed him over the edge.

“As a father, thinking about your 16, 17 year old killing themselves. I thought somebody needed to say something,” Swilley said through tears.

"I know a lot of straight people think orientation is a choice. I want to tell you that it is not," Jim Swilley said in the video.

"Those of you who are people of color. How do you like it when a white person says, 'What is the deal? What are you so unhappy about? You've got a black president already, isn't racism over?' Doesn't that make you want to say, 'Thank you but you really have no idea what you're talking about.' … It's very easy for people who have never experienced something … to have opinions about it."

"I've always known two things about myself," he says, "that I have received an anointing and I've always known about my orientation. . . . Every day of my life, I wake up with a "To Do "List": Pick up the Dry Cleaning, Get Milk, Don't be yourself."

He pleads with his congregations, "Please, spare me any more Leviticus. You need to get beyond the nine 'abominations' about homosexuality and take a look at all the abominations in that book. There are so many, about so many things, you couldn't get through a day without committing one abomination."

"Those who bark most about scripture know the least about it," he says.

He reports that his bishop has asked him to resign from the "College of Bishops", saying that while he personally supports him, "it won't go well with the other pastors."

He has not yet been asked to resign as pastor of the church, which he admits could happen, saying, "This is my whole life. My whole adult life has been about this ministry. I don't want to lose it, but it's on the altar now."

He also says, "This whole thing could fall down, but, if that happens, well, we'll just move someplace else, and, with Debye as my partner in ministry, together with my staff, we'll build it up again."

At that point, as in several points during his address, the congregation rose to its feet in warm, supportive, enthusiastic applause.

He does note, however, that some people in the congregation had walked out of the church while he was speaking.

At least they left quietly.

The interesting thing is that the internet has been relatively quiet about this story. Indeed, I didn't know about this story until my dear, sweet brother-in-Christ David, from Montreal, sent me the link to Swilley's testimony, for which I am deeply grateful and profoundly edified.

Well, that probably says more about me than it does about the internet, but I suppose a good part of the reason is that there is no "scandal".

Swilley didn't get caught with another man. He wasn't messin' around with little boys. Indeed, he remained celibate in his marriage these last several years rather than use his gender and sexuality as a weapon, acting out, as so many closeted gay men have done.

So, a pastor - a bishop - of a mega church with thousands of members and mission churches in Uganda comes out as a gay man.


Well, yes. That's exactly right. Except, this man has quite a story to tell, and it is infused with his obvious love for God and his passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His mission and ministry in the world.

I'm struck by the man's obvious integrity and humanity and openness. He didn't deal publicly with his sexual orientation until he was personally touched by the deaths of all those young adolescent gay men. And, for them, in their memory and for future young LGBT people, he took an incredible risk.

I'm also deeply impressed with this southern Evangelical congregation and their willingness to embrace their gay pastor. That's not easy for any congregation to do, but, in that particular climate and culture, it speaks volumes about their love for him as their pastor and their love for God and Christ Jesus.

I'm aware that I make that statement by way of confessing my own sin: I have my own stereotype of the hardness of heart of Evangelicals in general and southern Evangelicals in particular. I have never been more delighted to have been proven wrong - or had the hardness of my own heart broken open by the love and warmth and support of this Evangelical congregation in Georgia for their pastor.

Oh, someone is now fussin' about, "Well, he has been in the closet for most of his life and all of his adult professional life. If he had come out sooner . . . ."

Well, you know what? That's between him and Jesus. He didn't come out when you or I would have liked him to - or, perhaps when we need him to. He came out when Jesus asked him to.

Whenever anyone comes out and frees themselves from the bondage of hypocrisy and duplicity and embraces the fullness of his or her identity as a child of God, it's the right time. And, it is a good time.

God is clearly using the gift of this man's sexual orientation as a vehicle of healing and restoration and renewal - for him and countless others. I hope the parents of all those young adolescent gay men who were bullied into suicide find some solace and comfort in the courage their tragic deaths inspired in Swilley.

He is pastor of "The Church in the Now". How prophetic.

It's now the 'Church in the Know' and there's no turning back now.

I encourage you to watch the entire testimony here.

Jim Swilley is a real hero. He has slain a few of his own demons as well as a few of those who belong to others. Now he just has to get on with the hard part: loving and embracing a world that, for the most part, will not reciprocate that love. Indeed, some will return that love with hate that will lead others to violence or threats on his life.

Of your mercy and kindness, I ask that you please keep this man, his family, his church and their ministry in your prayers.

If you don't know how to pray for LGBT people, here's one I'll be praying for Jim Swilley and his family, and sending along to him with a note of encouragement. Believe it or not, I found it on the website of The Archdiocese of LA Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics.

I hope you'll join me in this prayer:
Lord, you are my shepherd, the one who knows my voice, recognizes me, and calls me by my name. You gather me up, hold me close, and feed me.

You strengthen me when I am weak, heal me when I am sick, and bind up all my wounds.
Lord, you are my shepherd, the one who refreshes my soul, invites me to the table, and welcomes me to dwell in your house.

I am your homosexual child, baptized into your flock, O Lord.

My family and I cry out to you for shepherds here on earth — your church and among ourselves — who, like you, know us, feed us, care for us, and invite us to your table. Amen


Doorman-Priest said...

More like him please!!

RevMama said...

How many of us in the over-50 crowd came out when we could have or should have? I can't even begin to imagine what kind of courage it took to stand up in front of that large, evangelical congregation and come out. God bless Jim Swilley.

Paul said...

I read about it a couple of days ago, I think. Blessings on David for holding the story up for us and you for sharing it here.

May his testimony strengthen others for the sake of the alienated and bullied youth of the world.

Mary Jo Campbell said...

God bless Jim Swilley and those dear to him. Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing that lovely prayer.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Check out his interview with Joy Behar

David said...

Amen, sweet sister, Amen.

For me personally, one of the most powerful teaching moments in Jim's video was his insistance- his repeated insistance that 'it's not about sex.'

Something we perhaps need to insist on a little more often in our discussions about the Church we are called to be: It's not about sex- it's ALL about love. Trying to live out our vocations to be the embodiment of that 'Love beyond our wildest imagining,' to quote my favorite living Giant of the faith.

One very fine post Elizabeth. Thank-you- it only confirms my hunch to share the story with you, knowing you'd write something insightful and powerful on this remarkable moment in the life of the body of Christ.

MarkBrunson said...

God bless him and keep him!

If you want to know about Conyers - see the documentary The Children of Rockdale County (sic). Gays ain't the problem.

Cecilia said...

I've posted a link to your post Elizabeth. It is a powerful testimony (yours, as well as his). I do believe each of us has to come out when Jesus tells us to... for me, it couldn't have been clearer. It was time.

Pax, C.

altar ego said...

I pass The Church in the Now regularly as I travel through Georgia to my family's haunt in South Carolina. I've always marveled at its name and its size, and it's rather odd architecture. I am grateful to know, through you, of the flesh that is attached to the structure of that place. Prayers abound for all there, and those whose stories resonate.

JimB said...

I am often struck by the incredible courage that my LBGT brothers when they expose their lives to a world full of bigots. I do not know that I could do that. This story makes a me weep.