WINCHESTER — In April, Bradley Hill found himself alone in Williamsburg, fearing he had lost his wife, his friends, his church — everything.
Hill, affectionately known throughout the Winchester area as Pastor Brad, had fallen hard from grace. The recovering addict who preached faith, love and sobriety every week to the hundreds of people in his congregation at Grace Downtown of Winchester had secretly relapsed.
"Relapse doesn't care who you are," Hill said last week in his first interview about the situation. "It doesn't care if you're the pastor of a church, a doctor or a street person."
Pastor Brad said he was weakened by his personal ambitions to become a prominent member of the community, and that caused him to lose sight of his faith and recovery.
In late January, he started using drugs again, even as he publicly touted the blessings of a drug-free lifestyle.
Pastor Brad was able to keep his secret for awhile, but eventually, his wife and members of the church at 35 E. Jubal Early Drive in Winchester caught on to the fact that something was seriously wrong. In April, they removed him from his role as lead pastor of the church he had founded.
But they also offered him a path toward redemption. If Hill got clean, successfully completed treatment and counseling, and made amends for his transgressions, he could be reinstated.
"If none of us got second chances, none of us would be here," Matt Fanning, a member of Grace Downtown of Winchester's board of directors, said on Sunday. "Grace is in our name."
'I was desperate'
No one chooses to be an addict; you're either born that way or you're not.
For example, if five friends go out for a drink after work, four of them will be perfectly content with one beer. The fifth will want to keep the party going, either with the group or at home alone.
If five friends pass around a joint, the fifth will be thinking, "If weed makes me feel this good, I wonder what painkillers feel like?"
Pastor Brad is the fifth person.
The 60-year-old started succumbing to addiction when he was a young man. Like most addicts, he made excuses to himself and others in order to justify his alcohol and drug use — even though he knew it was killing him — because it was too terrifying to think about facing life sober.
"I got high on crystal meth one time and thought I was swallowing my tongue," Pastor Brad said. "I stopped at a convenience store and ran in saying, 'Call 911.' I was so high, I was having a hallucination."
His addiction eventually got so out of hand that he would visit friends just so he could raid their medicine cabinets. One day, Pastor Brad gobbled down two odd-shaped pills he found in the prescription bottle of a friend who was recently discharged from a hospital.
"It didn't look like pills, but I figured they probably got melted or something," Pastor Brad said. "I was desperate."
When he came out of the bathroom, his friend asked if he would like to see the kidney stones he passed while he was in the hospital.
"That's how bad my addiction was," Pastor Brad said. "I ate kidney stones."
In 2012, he finally managed to overcome his fears of sobriety. He became an advocate for addicts and started telling them how his faith helped him overcome addiction. He even launched a church, Grace Downtown of Winchester, to share God's message with those whose faith had faltered or never existed.
About two years into his sobriety, he got married. Pastor Brad had been so forthcoming about his addiction, so steadfast in his resolve to stay sober, that his bride, Mary Hill, said she believed he would never again succumb to the temptations of drugs and alcohol.
She was wrong.
"He put so much pressure on himself to not let people down that eventually, it got the better of him," Mary Hill said.
Pastor Brad is a man of profound faith. He gets strength from the Bible, and he considers it to be God's direct word.
His literal view of the Bible's teachings got him in hot water on Jan. 11, and played a significant role in his recent relapse.
It was a Sunday morning and Pastor Brad was speaking to his congregation about the Bible's stance against homosexuality and living together outside of wedlock. While he personally welcomes gay and unmarried couples into his church, he said God opposes relationships outside of the so-called natural order. He then proclaimed that gay people and unwed couples could no longer work with children in the church's youth ministry.
"A lot of people didn't understand, but one of the things I have to do as a pastor is tell the truth about what God's word says," Pastor Brad said last week. "It was God's word that compelled me to do what I had to do."
An article about his sermon appeared in the local newspaper and the community's response was overwhelmingly negative. Pastor Brad said most of his neighbors put up gay pride flags in front of their homes, and he and the church were bashed relentlessly by hundreds of people on social media.
"The backlash from what happened really messed with me," he said. "I didn't handle it well."
By the end of January, Pastor Brad — who still stands by his interpretation of the Bible's views regarding gays and unwed couples — was turning to drugs to fill his emotional and spiritual voids.
He started with kratom, an Asian plant that is legal to buy but, when taken in sufficient dosages, can produce effects similar to those of opioids and stimulants. Pastor Brad then visited doctors to complain of anxiety, which led to them prescribing benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax.
"I didn't let them know that I was an addict, which I should have done," he said.
In a matter of weeks, Pastor Brad looked weak and tired, and his personality had changed.
"People in the church would come up and ask me, 'Are you OK?'" he said. "I would tell them, 'I'm just tired.' Nobody knew, not even my wife."
Or so he thought.
'My lowest place'
In early April, Mary Hill told the church's board that her husband was using again, and together they staged an intervention. They told him he could no longer serve as lead pastor of the church he had founded unless he committed to an intensive, prolonged course of treatment and therapy.
Pastor Brad's initial reaction was anger and outrage, but Mary Hill would hear none of it. She shot back with a fiery passion that left her husband with no doubt that he had to agree to the board's conditions if he wanted to save his marriage and ministry.
"I dropped a few f-bombs," Mary Hill admitted. "In church nonetheless."
A few days later, Mary Hill drove her husband to the Farley Center, a residential rehabilitation clinic in Williamsburg.
"God met me there in my lowest place," Pastor Brad said. "He told me he loved me, he wasn't done with me, and he would help me. He's been faithful to that promise."
After a week of detox, Pastor Brad took advantage of the Farley Center's recovery programs.
"It lasted five weeks and it changed my life," he said. "It caused me to realize where I was and the weight of what I'd done."
Once he was out of rehab, Pastor Brad said the church's board put him on "a program of restoration," which included staying in contact with his recovery sponsor, participating in a 12-week outpatient treatment program, having weekly conversations with both a psychological counselor and a spiritual advisor, and committing to a 12-step recovery program.
"I had to make a list of people I had harmed," he said. "I think I'm up to 65 pages."
As of last week, Pastor Brad said he had met every one of the board's conditions "and then some," and was well into his ongoing 12-step recovery program.
"We believe that God can restore anybody who wants to be restored," Shelley Temple, a member of Grace Downtown of Winchester's board of directors, said on Sunday. "He's probably closer to God now than ever. He's a changed man."
"He definitely has the willpower to keep going and get his life back together," added board member Don Searfoss. "I didn't think it was possible, not in the shape he was in. I'm very proud of him."
None of the church's five board members hold ill will toward Pastor Brad, and they all acknowledge he had become overwhelmed with the responsibilities of running Grace Downtown of Winchester on his own. To ease his burden, they recently took over the administrative aspects of church operations so he can focus on the congregation's spiritual well-being.
"Brad was a central part of helping me turn my life around," Fanning said. "I think it would have been very hypocritical of me to even consider the thought of not giving him this chance."
Mary Hill said she has forgiven her husband and is proud of his comeback.
"There were quite a few people in the NA [Narcotics Anonymous] community that walked away from him, which I thought was pretty sad given that he had supported them for so long," she said. "We all fall. We have to have grace and mercy, especially if we want to receive the same things from God."
'Rising from the ashes'
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday, Pastor Brad stood in front of the Grace Downtown of Winchester congregation and spoke to them for the first time in five months as their lead pastor.
"This is a big day," he said as members of the board of directors came forward and formally reinstated him to his position. "I'm so excited to be back, and I'm so humbled that I've been given another chance."
Pastor Brad then launched into a 30-minute sermon with no notes and nothing prepared in advance — just a man speaking straight from the heart about love, compassion and mercy.
"No matter what you've done, God is not done with you yet," he told the congregation as they cheered and applauded. "It's not the failure that matters; what matters is what you do with it."
Today, Bradley Hill refers to himself as Pastor Brad 2.0. He has a renewed passion for his church, faith and marriage.
"My relationship with God is better than it ever has been, by far," he said.
He has resigned from several community and nonprofit boards, including the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, and apologized to hundreds of people he believes he hurt with his recent relapse.
"Most people have been very loving and accepting," Pastor Brad said. "Every day when I get up, I ask God to forgive me. I hope and pray others can as well."
He is also improving his personal health by exercising and maintaining a low-carb diet that has dropped his weight to 167 pounds and given him the physique of a long-distance runner.
"The Bible says, 'The righteous man falls seven times, but he gets up again,'" Pastor Brad said. "I've been rising from the ashes since April 4th. I had a lapse, but that's not going to keep me down."