WINCHESTER — Gay and unmarried couples living together are welcome at Grace Downtown of Winchester, but under a segregation policy that until now hadn't been enforced, they can no longer work with children in the church's youth ministry.
"Moving forward, we're going to do things right because these kids are important," the Rev. Brad Hill told about 200 parishioners on Sunday. "And we have no business imposing our beliefs on the innocent children."
Hill, a recovering addict and alcoholic in long-term recovery, founded the church in 2015 to help addicts and alcoholics maintain sobriety. Services were originally held at Brewbakers Restaurant, a downtown pub. The church moved to its current location at 35 E. Jubal Early Drive in April of last year. Hill said in an interview after the sermon that the church has about 350 parishioners, including about 20 who volunteer with the youth ministry.
"As a Bible-believing church, we hold to God's word and his standards. That's what we want our children to learn," Hill said. "We're not just talking about gays, we're talking about people living together. We don't want [the children] to think it's OK for [unmarried] people to live together."
Hill told parishioners the policy is part of strictly adhering to "God's standard," which he said only allows marriage and sex between men and women. Hill said he and church leaders met with a few couples last week to inform them of the change. While the change excludes people based on their lifestyle and sexual orientation, Hill said he told the couples he wasn't judging them.
"I've been a felon! I've lied! I've cheated! I manipulated my parents. I took my mom's cancer medicine so that I could get high," he told parishioners. "But it is my job to tell you what the truth is and from there, it's between you and God."
Among the people Hill spoke with last week were Alicia and Sherry Marple, who married in 2015. The Marples weren't married at Grace Downtown, which forbids marrying same-sex couples. Sherry Marple said in an interview on Thursday that the two have been volunteering in the youth ministry since they joined the church in 2017.
Marple said the volunteering is for about two hours after Sunday services and includes playing games with the children and listening to the sermon of youth pastor Adam Glogau. Marple said she and her partner were active church members. Her volunteering included driving clients from the Edgehill Recovery Center, which treats alcoholics and addicts, to the church twice per month.
The Marples met with Hill and church leaders on Tuesday and were told they were not allowed to work with children in the youth ministry. Sherry Marple said they were told the church's board of directors had approved the change and it was part of a church bylaw that hadn't previously been enforced.
"We were told we could still attend church and open the door for people or sweep their parking lot or drive their van as long as we pretty much didn't go near any of their children, " said Marple, who said she and her spouse will no longer attend the church. "The board had voted that it wasn't aligned with God's plan and that's not how they wanted to be seen as not following God's word because it's biblical that man shall not lay with man."
The church's website says it is "looking for ways to build bridges to better society," and Hill said in an interview that the change doesn't contradict the church's mission to be inclusive. Hill, who was applauded throughout the approximately 45-minute sermon, said he's not anti-gay.
"Some of my best friends are gay," he told parishioners. "My sponsor is gay. I've got friends that are gay. I've got friends that are living in sin."
Hill apologized for not implementing the policy earlier. He said it was because he wanted to be liked and not offend people.
"I've been so consumed in making everyone feel good about themselves that I forgot the word of God and his standards," he said. "Brothers and sisters, we can't just choose to accept the things in God's words that we agree with. It's all or nothing. Either this is the truth or it's not."