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November 13th, 2010
10:47 PM ET

Pastor says student's suicide was tipping point for his coming out

The founder and pastor of a Georgia megachurch said Saturday that the September suicide of a Rutgers University student was the tipping point for his decision to come out of the closet to his congregation.

"For some reason, his situation was kind of the tipping point with me," said Jim Swilley, who calls himself a bishop. "There comes a point in your life where you say - how much time do we have left in our lives? Are we going to be authentic or not?"

Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off a bridge after a secretly-taped sexual encounter between him and another man was posted on the internet.

Swilley, 52, said that he has known he is gay since childhood, but that he never thought he would live openly. He came out recently after more than 20 years of marriage to his former wife, who continues to work at their church.

"At a certain point, you are who you are," said Swilley, who has four children from two marriages.

He ministers at the Church in the Now, an inter-donominational Christian church in Conyers, Georgia, about 25 miles east of Atlanta.

"What I told my church is that I was given two things in my life that I didn't ask for... one is the call of God in my life and the other is my orientation. I didn't ever think that those two things could be compatible," Swilley said.

On the whole, he said his congregation has been supportive of his coming out, though some people have cut ties with him over the decision.

Homosexuality is a hotly contested issue by many faith traditions.

Earlier this month, Gene Robinson - the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church - said that death threats and the continued controversy around his selection contributed to his decision to announce his retirement.

Speaking specifically about evangelicals, Swilley said gay people are sometimes seen as trying to build a movement, or "recruiting" - views he took serious issue with.

"My position is not about gaying up the church," he said. "It's about people being who they are."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Georgia • Homosexuality • United States

soundoff (977 Responses)
  1. BABlue

    We had visited the church several times and we're thinking of joining but it just didn'ty seem right for us. Its funny that I was driving past a property last week where this Pastor's church had taken us on a tour. A thought hit me out of the blue that the owner of the house, a man, was obviously gay. I had not heard about the Pastor coming out until tonight. The thought was why was he support this gay man's house. God is awesome because now I get the answer to a thought that came some 4 years later. I didn't see this one coming but explains some things I observed in him.

    Its unfortunate that committment after 20 years could be throw away. Be true to yourself? I get that however, as a Believer in God and his Son Jesus Christ and as human we all go through felling like we might be cheating ourselves at some point in a marriage. Get some counseling and Stop the Madness. He needs deliverance that he does not want.

    November 14, 2010 at 10:17 pm |
  2. Kay Smith

    Jesus loves this man just like he is. Part of the reason I don't go to church is the controlling, judgemental behavior of 'evangelical' folks. My husband and children feel the same way. So I pray as I start my days. Lots happier when I stopped letting others judge me.

    November 14, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
  3. Jesus

    Everybody done writing and wasting good energy? So I guess I get the last word. Look, I get it you're angry and bitter and afraid. I don't understand where all the anger is coming from? There's so much to do to create a foundation of acceptance and compassion. I'm now wondering why I died for your sins. I didn't die so you could judge others. Do you really think that you can hate others and then kneel before me asking for forgivness? Good luck with that. Do I look like an idiot? For those of you who speak for me, STOP. And QUIT quoting the bible. This won't bring you any closer to me or DAD. Really, it doesn't.

    If you truely believe in me then believe this. DAD and I want you to take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself how am I serving this world. Am I serving others with compassion and integrity or am I serving the world in a selfish and vindictive way to save my own ass? It is a fair question. I thought I gave you everything you needed. Color me surprised. When you have a truthful answer we'll talk. Good Luck.

    November 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  4. JWH

    Wrong, sin is sin. You know that. Romans chapter one. You are no longer a pastor!

    November 14, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  5. JohnQuest

    Lake, Slavery is as amoral as murder but prohibition to murder, blasphemy, coveting and a bunch of other "sin" are listed in the Bible. If God "inspired" the Bible and thought slavery was wrong I think it would have been written in it. I propose one of two possibilities, God does not mind slavery or the men that wrote the Bible thought slavery was a good idea, which do you think is more plausible? Saying that the people would not have accepted the idea that slavery is incorrect, they accepted the prohibition against owning Hebrew slaves.

    November 14, 2010 at 8:33 pm |
  6. Rich

    What amazes me is the number of Christians who are terrified that Muslims will manage to enact Sharia law in their part of the country, etc, yet they don't see how denying gay people the right to marry, etc. is the exact same thing. Both cases are a case of one group imposing its religious doctrine on others. You don't have to support being gay or make it part of your church to say you're willing to let others who aren't part of your faith marry who they wish. There's no reason why we cannot fully separate the legal and religious aspects of marriage. People just aren't willing to do so – just like Muslims believe they have a duty to bring you under "Allah's grace". They actually think they're helping you. Sound familiar?

    November 14, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  7. MANOFGOD2010

    This man is just a pervert! He made millions while lying to his congregation. At some point he had to even give a sermon on marriage, on Adam and Eve, on different sins. How can he now come out and be guilty of what the Bible deems a sin. He actually wants people to buy into this. Jesus did talk about how our FATHER designed relationships from the beginning. If you follow this guy then you like to be lied to.

    November 14, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  8. Observer

    As long as people are just going to pick and choose from the Bible and ignor the rest, why not choose the Golden Rule instead of mindless hatred?

    November 14, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  9. Brian

    Joe

    To understand the scriptures Brian, you must also understand it's evolution, the various interpretations of the text over the years and YES even the influence of Anglicans (King James Version <–That is why its called a version) and other religious Folks editing, adding and rewriting sections to fit they religious agenda. Study up on the subject and how many variations there are of the original texts before making an uninformed comment.

    The variations you talk about Joe are not variations in the meanings. The different versions were wrote because of the different languages in the world at that time, so that that the word of God could and can be spread today. If you want to study something read about the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were wrote around 150BC to 70AD and were found around 1946-1956. The thing that will suprise you is after 2000 years there were no changes in the meaning of the text. The Word of God dose not evolve. It is inspired by God himself. Angelicans ????? I don't know where you got that ? If you want to study about angles go to davidjeremiah.org and purchase his book called Angles.

    November 14, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  10. helen

    What a tragedy,,,,,to give up one's place in eternity just to satisfy the flesh for ??? even if he lives to be a very old man, don't seem like a good exchange to me!

    November 14, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
    • RH of WI

      To Helen – What a tragedy that you remain uneducated and so very willing to judge. Judge not lest ye be judged.

      November 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  11. Observer

    @Lake,

    So God supported slavery if it was done right because people couldn't handle the truth? He told people to kill unruly children so apparently they could support that.

    November 14, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
  12. Name*Nan

    Why don't gays just start up their own church and leave the rest of the straight community alone and live and let live be the rule

    November 14, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
    • Kelly Garrett

      @Name*Nan

      You are right, there should be no Gays in christian churches. Gays and the christian god do not mix, never have and never will. As a Gay man I totally agree with one side of that. We do not need our own christian churches, though there are some. The largest, I believe, is the Cathedral of Hope, in Dallas, TX. It is actually a gathering place for a larger Gay community, but the eye-rolling and wispered groans during the christ-babble is just the price they had to pay to meet many from all over the city. Out of a congregation of several thousand, I doubt you would find more that a few who actually thought they were "christians." The "Gay christian" phenomena is a hold-over from brutal childhoods a decade past, and it is dying out fairly rapidly.

      November 14, 2010 at 10:51 pm |
  13. Observer

    "If the Jewish command back then was: slavery is just wrong/don't own slaves, the people would never have accepted it."

    So instead they bought the idea of killing unruly children and killing anyone who works on the Sabbath. Not valid.

    November 14, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  14. anointed

    We are living in the time that sin abounds everywhere. The enemy (the Devil) is running rampant on this earth. The Bible says that many shall be deceived, including Pastors. That is why we have the Bible, the Word of God to live by. God loves everyone, but he also judges sin. So you either believe God's Word (the Bible) or you don't. You accept Jesus by faith or you don't. It's a choice-
    everyday you have to make choices, wake-up in the morning – get up – go to work – eat – drive – all choices. Same for the Bible you choose to live by the Word. God loves everyone – but you have a free-will if you choose to live your life outside the Word. Then the Bible says your in sin & seperated from God, & instead of Heaven with God, your choice is Hell with Satan. It's a choice, your lifestyle is a choice. It's time for the ministers of the Gospel to stand up & tell the people the truth. Stop candy coating what the Word says, stop making exceptions for what you want the Word to say. It has not changed, the message is the same today as it was when God inspired man to write it. I am a minister of the Lord, and he gave me my ministry name tell you the truth.com Wake up people – Hell is real – but so is the God of all creation, turn from your ways & repent. Seek God and you will find him.

    November 14, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  15. Jesus

    Little Timmy,
    DAD goes by so many names, he can't keep up with it all. Some of that has to do with age. As long as it's a respectful name and you can sleep with it at the end of the day, go for it. It's all good. Sorry about the sandwiches. You know, seventh day and alll. Tonight we're having pasta. Just between us Timmy, I wasn't happy at all when DAD gave me this gig. Talk about pressure. And the dying part-not so much. I'm older and wiser. Remember the word " tolerence" has never been in my vocabulary. "Acceptance" is the only word I want to hear. Think about it, who wants to be just tolerated. DAD has a great saying: Never hold a grudge. It's too heavy and it doesn't have a handle. Not original , but it cracks him up.

    November 14, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  16. Natalie

    Religious people who condemn scare the jesus right out of me. Good for him though for coming out, and hopefully the backlash from the"faithful" isnt too severe on him and his.

    btw, if any of you think that his wife was shocked by this revelation after being married to him for 20 years, if you actually think she didnt know within 6 months of being married to him that he was gay, you really should just stay at home and pray for all us heathens. She knew, and she loved him enough to put on the front of a normal marriage to help him with his calling. Thats how I see it anyways. It happens more then you would think in this type of situation.

    November 14, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
    • Patti Cook

      @Natalie...FYI: Debye knew about Bishop's orientation BEFORE they were ever married. She is a wonderful woman of God and she is still our co-Pastor.

      November 17, 2010 at 2:25 am |
  17. dan

    see how being gay can ruin lives. dont be gay and you wont have to worry.

    November 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  18. Ian

    I applaud the courageous pastor. Now, if he can take the final step of shedding his imaginary friend (God) then he will TRULY be free!

    November 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  19. Pagan Aurora

    @Kelly Garrett

    @Reality,

    You are correct, from a Jewish perspective. However, chiristianity is not a form of Judaism, in fact it is Gentile super-cession of Judaism. Judaism is cultural/ethnic, not wrote. Judaism exists in the hearts, minds and spiritual metaphysics of the Jewish people, and they are not monolithic. They have anh exegesis known as PaRDeS, which incorporates their history, culture and spirituality into a system of interpreting their scriptures, and is ever evolving..though in some cases slowly...but evolution is not a quick process...just quicker than biological evolution. The heathen, Romani Gentile mind does not have the capability of Jewish PaRDeS, and are only left with Peshat, and no "extra-biblical" content. Christianity was invented by Emperor Constantine to promote a second phase of Roman hegemony, since the first attempt failed with the collapse of the Roman Empire. The christ is their abomination of the Jewish Prophet (and to some, Messiah) Yeshua ben Yosef. For those interested in the "real Jesus," he can still be found in the Gospels According

    seriously– I hope that you do not miss the irony of your statement....."The heathen, Romani Gentile mind does not have the capability of Jewish PaRDeS"–whatever you call it Judaism, Christianity, Islam -rules and regulation predicated on ages old mind control.

    Good for him. I grew up with all of the though shall "whatever insert you would like to pick" not people and I am so glad that I am no longer being tortured by their limited views.

    November 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • Kelly Garrett

      @Pagan Aurora

      My point, I guess, was...If I want to know what Jewish scriptures are really saying, I need to find that out from the Jews, not a bunch of Gentiles. Go to the source, not the hijackers. There is no reason for Gay people to "blame the Jews," because what their scriptures say to them on the matter is different than what they say to a Gentile heathen. If you let their insane religion poison you against Judaism, or any other spiritual expression, then you have let them win. Shame on you.You are far from unique in your experiences with the christians...the vast majority of us grew up in worse times than those children that recently took their own lives, and have to go to school in the intolerant christian environment like the one Mr. McCance oversaw in Arkansas. That school district is EVERY school district, and those gay children are EVERY gay child in EVERY school and neighborhood in this country. I don't know how old you are, but if you are less than 30 you have NO IDEA what christian intolerance of us actually is. When I was growing up EVERY gay child thought they were the only one on the planet, there was no Gay community "out there." They had no comfort at home, and no shelter from the storm there, either. In my day, most were totally alone from the second they became aware of their Relationship Orientation until they could get the heck out of whereever they were, and even then they did not know if anyone like them was out there. Su_icides were most likely much higher amongst our children during that time. Now, we are out and have communities. We are in the public eye, with televised christian protests against us. Opposite the christians there is usually a throng of Gay people and their supporters. The young Gays see that, and know they are not the only ones in the world, and see there is a community out there for them when they get old enough to join it. It is totally different now, than when I was growing up. We older Gays don't need a lecture about how awful it is to grow up gay amongst christians. The very existence of a program like "It Gets Better" is a wonderful thing for our young, and something that was impossible while I was growing up.I lost many friends and loved ones to A_I_D_S, their bodies stacked like frozen cord wood in the refrigerated warehouses of grocery store chains becauase morgue space ran out, as did coffins, embalming supplies and the like. I went to funerals where stacks of frozen bodies wrapped in canvas, my friends and loved ones, were shoved into mass graves. Those performing those "funerals" did not know who was in which pile, the grave markers just listing a subset of the names with no guarantee that the name on the marker was in that pit. No biological families claimed them to be buried with even the slightest dignity, nor did any of them show up for the mass burial. I have pushed my way through throngs of "loving chrisitians" blocking access to the medical facilities where I had volunteered as a healthy control for experiemental A_I_D_S drugs, and was sick for weeks on drugs that would take the chrome off a trailer hitch. These children of a loving god protesting the search for the drugs that would save lives, declaring that our efforts were in vain, because AIDS was sent by their god to wipe us out. I was cornered and beaten with a ba_se_ball bat by monsters proclaiming their love of their god and spent 6 weeks in a comma. I have been held down and had a cross carved into my abdomen by these children of a loving god and exsanguinated...another two months in the hospital as the result of the love of that hateful god. Their god has tried to kill me twice, and keeps missing. Who are you to tell me of irony?I am surprised someone that calls themselves "pagan" does not understand the difference between orthodox dogma, and spirituality. May Erin grant you the strength to change what can be changed, the courage to accept that which cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. Most of us gain the wisdom that the christian god cannot change by the time we are in our early teens. That gives us the courage to step away from that god and go out to our own kind, and the strength to work with our fellows to make a better place for ourselves, and the younger generations that will constantly flow into our communities. The last thing we need is a "pagan" like you...just as close-minded as the christians. If you are going to call yourself a pagan, act like one. Christianity is valid, for those it has been designed for, no one else. Even if you do not like their monster of a god, their path is valid for them. You have to do something with them that their god will not let them do with us. We can have a trascendental acceptance of their ways for them, while stoicly accepting their god will never change, and will forever be our enemy. WE have firends amongst those of other faiths...they are considered godless by the christians...those of others faiths have no more love for them than we do. The seculars, the christian "font" of future converts, as wising up to the truth of that faith. We are not alone, Look for your friends in this fight."When nature, herself, decides there should be only one kind of flower, only one kind of bird and only one kind of human being will I accept that there is only one true god above all others, and only one true way to worship."

      November 15, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
  20. DavidC

    Hope – as a bible believing person, why aren't you submitting to your man instead of exspousing an opinon, which, as a bible believing woman, you should know you shouldn't?

    November 14, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.