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GUY RAZ, host:

A few weeks ago, Bishop Jim Swilley stood up in front of his congregation at the Church in the Now near Atlanta. It's one of the biggest churches in Georgia. He got up to get a few things off his chest.

Bishop JIM SWILLEY (Founder, Church in the Now): There are two things in my life that are an absolute. I did not ask for either one of them. Both of them were imposed upon me. I had no control over either of them. One was the call of God on my life. The other thing - and I wouldn't have known what to call it at the time - was my sexual orientation.

RAZ: Jim Swilley - twice-married, father of four, a man who comes from a long line of evangelical preachers, the leader of a megachurch - revealed a secret he'd been holding onto most of his life: He's gay.

And when I spoke to Bishop Swilley about why he decided to come out, he told me he was encouraged by his ex-wife.

Bishop SWILLEY: I told my ex-wife about my orientation before we got married assuming that she would say, all right. Well, let's just be friends. But she said, no, let's get married. We'll work it out. And to a degree, we did.

I've had 21 years of a very prosperous life. I've built a big ministry, raised great kids. But the trademark of our church is real people experiencing the real God in the real world. It's a very unconventional church.

I would like to say that I have never, ever, once said anything derogatory about gay people or about the gay community. But I never thought that I would deal with it myself. As a matter of fact, I really thought that eventually, it would just go away. When I say it, I mean the way that I think, the way that I'm motivated.

But close to two years ago, she came to me and she said, look, I love you and I'm never going to hurt you with this. And I've always got your back. But you and I both know that we don't have a conventional marriage. You tell everybody else to be real, but, she said, you don't allow yourself the same grace that you give everyone else.

She said, I think you need to tell everybody what the truth is and let the chips fall where they will. And I said, look, I will never say those words out loud.

RAZ: You thought you would never do it.

Bishop SWILLEY: No, because I know the force of homophobia, especially in the church world, in the South. But fast forward to a few weeks ago when there was such a spate of teen suicides, of young gay kids - and his name escapes me right now, but...

RAZ: Tyler Clementi?

Bishop SWILLEY: Yeah, the one that jumped off the George Washington Bridge. The reason that one sort of was the tipping point for me is because I would hear people nearly imply that he deserved it.

RAZ: Right.

Bishop SWILLEY: You know, people would say, well, you know what, he shouldn't have been in an act of perversion and so it's just as well.

And, man, when I started hearing that, especially from people who profess to be Christ-like, I don't know, it's - just something changed. And I thought, I'm going to tell my church. I'm going to tell them...

RAZ: You felt you had to take a stand.

Bishop SWILLEY: I felt that with me not saying at least my little part of it, I end up being part of the problem. And so, because of that, I didn't really overthink it. I just - we sent out an email blast and I said, I need everybody that is curious about what I need to talk about to show up tonight, and they did. And I just told them. And here we are today as a result of that.

RAZ: How has the congregation been handling the news?

Bishop SWILLEY: The biggest issue I've had is with the other churches that I cover as a bishop. And a good many of those disconnected from me immediately.

RAZ: It must be painful that, you know, some of these churches that you've had this longstanding relationship with just stopped returning your calls.

Bishop SWILLEY: Well, not only returning my calls. But, you know, when you've had a relationship with somebody for 30 years and you've walked with them through thick and thin, and you've been there and then you get like a little two-line letter that says, to whom it may concern, you are no longer my bishop.

RAZ: Wow. Wow.

Bishop SWILLEY: That's like, wow. I mean, how about even a phone call to say let me at least hear this. But on the upside of that, if I can try to see that glass half full, I've had people in my church come to me and say, you know, if this had been anybody but you, I would've just had a knee-jerk reaction and not even considered hearing you out.

But you've been my pastor for a quarter of a century. I know you. I remember all that we've been through. I remember when you baptized me, dedicated my baby, married us, did my mother's funeral. So if you say that you are and that you believe you were born this way, then that changes everything. It makes me have to go back and rethink all of my prejudices.

And so I'm gratified to hear that. You know, maybe at my age, I can say some things I couldn't have said 20 years ago.

RAZ: Right. You come from a long and distinguished line of famous southern preachers. One of your kids said Protestant royalty, that's where you come from. Did you feel like - when you were growing up, did you feel like you were a sinner most of your life? I mean, as a kid, when you had certain thoughts, did you feel like, you know, this isn't what you were being taught?

Bishop SWILLEY: Oh, are you kidding me? Yeah. I mean, there is - let me tell you. This is one reason I really bristle at the phrase "gay lifestyle" because I know what it's like to try to change your mind, quote Scripture, try to cast out demons that you think are in you, go through all your...

RAZ: Did you try that when you were a kid?

Bishop SWILLEY: Oh, my god. Nothing I haven't tried. I learned early on in my relationship with God that it was not going anywhere, so - not that I consider it necessarily a thorn in the flesh, as Paul called it. But Paul said that he had something he had prayed three times that God would take it away. And God said, no, my grace is sufficient for you. And so I just sort of left it at that. I thought, all right, this is my deal. I come from a very apocalyptic, end of the world, Jesus is coming back any moment kind of thing.

So, you know, I know this sounds crazy to people that weren't raised this way, but I really never thought long-term. You know what I mean? I just thought, well, this is all going to be over with soon and we're all gonna be out of here and I'll go to heaven and Jesus will fix me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop SWILLEY: And then, as I got more educated and as my theology evolved, I really moved away from that paradigm, and - which then, you know, I was faced with this problem. Like, okay, I guess I'm going to live out my life. And, wow, I found myself in a situation where I didn't intentionally mean to lie, but I'm living a falsehood. Not like I'm living this life where I'm, you know, leaving my house and going out and finding men. That's never happened.

I just wasn't real. You know what I mean? It's like, to me, at this point, at my age, this isn't about me even finding somebody. It's about just telling the truth about yourself and having that freedom.

RAZ: It must have been incredibly liberating to do that.

Bishop SWILLEY: You know, I told the church the other day, I've never been a good sleeper. I don't know that I'll call myself an insomniac, but I'm just not a good sleeper. And man, that night - well, first of all, as soon as the service was over with, people lined up and they were, you know, hugging me and affirming me.

Now, I would like to say that in the midst of the service, a lot of people got up and walked out. You know, it was like separating the sheep from the goats, sort of thing. Like, okay, well, I see who I've got to work with here.

And I went home and laid my head on the pillow and snored for eight hours. And I woke up the next morning, I said, oh, is this what the rest of the world feels like? This is what it feels like to be rested. Wow. I really should have looked into this sleep thing earlier.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Bishop Jim Swilley. He's the leader of the Church in the Now near Atlanta - it's one of the largest churches in Georgia - on his recent decision to come out to his congregation. Do you think that the way you will lead the church and the way you will preach will change? I know you don't want to be known as a gay bishop with a gay church. I mean, will things change?

Bishop SWILLEY: I can't imagine that it would change that dramatically because I have preached inclusion, and I don't have to go back now and say, hey, all of that bad stuff I said about gay people, I take it back. The one thing that I think some people from my sort of background are concerned about, they say, well, you know, I can accept the fact maybe that you were born that way, but you're going to have to live a celibate life and you're going to have to be alone. You can't ever act on it.

Here's my take on that. When people say, you know, you've made it okay to be gay now, I think, look, people are gay whether I say they're okay or not. There's no - you know, like, straight people aren't turning gay. There's no weird phenomenon that's going on. I think some evangelicals think that. They think that there's this thing going on, like a sign of the times, the last days, that straight men are turning gay.

I'm like, no, let me tell you something. Heterosexuality is doing just fine. It's not going anywhere. There's no gay agenda. Nobody's trying to get your children. They're not trying to take over the world. Just, you know, settle down.

But when people say, well, you know, you've got to tell people that they can't have sex because any sex outside of marriage is fornication, to which I say, all right, well then, let gay people get married.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop SWILLEY: Oh, no, no, no. They can't get married. Like, okay, well, you're not leaving people a lot of alternative. But as a pastor and as a bishop, my responsibility is not to get all in people's personal lives. You know, Paul said this one thing that I wish every Christian church would just put this on their letterhead. He said, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. In other words, your relationship with God is not my relationship with God, and frankly, it's none of my business.

So my responsibility is just to preach the gospel and let the gospel do its work. Trust the gospel. Don't worry about it.

RAZ: Bishop, I know that gay marriage is not legal in Georgia. But if a gay couple asked you to marry them, would you do it?

Bishop SWILLEY: Well, you're the first one to ask me that. You know, I'm gonna have to cross that bridge when I get there. I did tell my church - this is months ago - I was talking about if you're going to be for or against something, at least know why. And I said, take gay marriage for example. At this point, I'm not really sure what I think about it - this is what I said a few months ago.

But I said, if you're gonna say that marriage should only be between a man and a woman because marriage is for procreation, I'm gonna have to challenge that because most of the couples I marry these days, it's their second and third marriage.

They're not planning on having children. If I was gonna follow that logic, I would have to do a fertility test on any two people that wanted to get married to make sure they were capable of having children. At the time, I was just really thinking that maybe civil union is the way to go, but someone told me the other day that there's so many more rights that are accessible to married people than are with civil unions.

So, you know, I guess I'm having to rethink that. No one has asked me yet. And, you know, I can hide behind the illegality of it and say, well, you know, I can't perform something that's not really legal. But, you know, it would be hypocritical of me to say, yeah, I'm gay, but I'm not going to support gay marriage. So I'm, you know, look, this is all - saying these things out loud is all new for me.

This has all been inside my head for years, so there are certain things I'm having to even decide, well, what's my policy on this now, because I never even had to think about what I thought about it. I guess, you know, I'll just have to see what happens when somebody asks me.

RAZ: Bishop Swilley, there's another secret about you that we actually planned to expose here on this program and here it is.

(Soundbite of song "Bad Kids")

BLACK LIPS (Music Group): (Singing) Bad kids, all my friends are bad kids, product of no dad kids, kids like you and me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop SWILLEY: Is that my son, Jared?

RAZ: This is the punk band Black Lips, with their song "Bad Kids." And that's your son, Jared, on lead vocals. How cool is that? I mean, you're an evangelical preacher, your son is in a pretty hipster band that's getting a lot of attention.

Bishop SWILLEY: That's cool. My son Jared has been such a blessing to me lately. And, you know, he's on tour. He's out in Europe most of the time and he's gone. And after I'd initially told the other three kids, I thought, man, this isn't good that he doesn't know this. So I called him one night. He was at the Paris airport. And I said, if you've got a few minutes, I've got to talk to you. And he said, yeah, what is it?

And I was, you know, I was talking all around it, didn't know how to say it. And finally, he stopped me and he said, Dad, are you trying to tell me you're gay? And I said, well, yeah. And man, in his - he's 27, and in his life he has never talked to me this way. It was like, oh, my God, you're my hero. I love you so much. Nothing could ever change that.

He has just been incredibly supportive. And how did you know about that? Investigative reporting.

RAZ: We've got some good investigators here on the staff.

Bishop SWILLEY: And I have to say, you know, unconventional as he is, you know, he is my beloved son. He's awesome.

RAZ: That's Bishop Jim Swilley. He's the head of the Church in the Now near Atlanta.

Bishop, thank you so much.

Bishop SWILLEY: Thank you so much, Guy. Appreciate it.

RAZ: And you can hear an extended version of my conversation with Bishop Swilley and see a video of that coming-out speech to the congregation at our website, npr.org.

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