Pat Sullivan, affectionately known as "Mr. Pat" by most around our church, grew up in Mt. Prospect, IL. The oldest of three boys, he says his childhood was fun and filled with laughter. "I thought my parents were comedians," he reminisces with a chuckle.
But a tragic accident that occurred during Pat's eighth–grade class field trip changed his life forever. "We went to a Cubs game, then to Honey Hill Beach in Wauconda," he recalls. Near the end of the trip, a classmate who had been teased by other boys in the class drowned. "That event was so character-shaping for me. From that point and into high school, I decided to seek joy and happiness. I wanted to be happy and kind to everyone," Pat says.
Later in high school, Pat made a friend who was curious about Jesus and sparked Pat's curiosity as well. Pat grew up Catholic, but his parents weren't strong believers. Their family mostly attended church for Christmas and Easter. Pat hadn't learned about the joy that can be found in Christ.
It wasn't until after high school that Pat met a man named Paul who attended Willow Creek. As Pat and Paul's friendship grew, so did Pat's knowledge about Jesus and what it means to be a Christ follower. Even though Pat was struggling with what he referred to as "the party life" at the time, he entered into a personal relationship with Christ and started attending services at Willow. "I came alone at first," he says. "And my prayer was, 'Lord, please help me not to party anymore.'"
Over time, Pat found help and felt like he was growing stronger in his faith. He eventually brought his wife and kids to Willow. His son accepted Christ at Camp Paradise at age 10. "He wanted to be a pilot," Pat says with pride. But six weeks before starting college, his son was diagnosed with cancer. Pat and his family were devastated.
Pat's neighbors, who also attended Willow at the time, were instrumental in helping him through that tough period—specifically in their commitment to prayer. And Pat had an ardent prayer of his own. "My prayer during my son's cancer journey was simply, 'Lead me, Lord,'" Pat says.
God seemed to answer Pat's prayer in an unexpected way. "I felt called to take the next step and serve at Willow," he explains. Pat started volunteering in what was then known as Oasis and two years later decided to go on a serving trip to El Salvador with the same neighbor who'd committed Pat and his family to prayer.
"That trip was one of the three best experiences of my life," Pat says. "I felt love. I felt loved by God and so much joy in serving people. And that trip solidified and empowered my commitment to serve the kids back home at Willow."
And he did. Pat found out about an opportunity to serve kids on Wednesday nights during Willow's Midweek services. "I was so scared," he says. "I thought, 'I can't teach a Bible verse! I can hardly remember one on my own!'" He felt intimidated but didn't stop showing up. And as a result of following God's lead, Mr. Pat has been serving at Midweek for Kids every week for seven years.
"Vince, the young boy that died on that field trip, was a kid on the fringes. I picked on him," Pat says. But now Mr. Pat serves kids—especially those on the fringes—out of a commitment to making sure every child knows they are loved. "All children are our children. Every kid I've seen is my kid."
Today, because of the decision he made back in high school to pursue joy, happiness, and kindness toward everyone—and in obedience to God—Mr. Pat shows up and provides safety and consistency to kids on Wednesday nights. And the reward for him? "I've seen kids I've served now serving other kids in different ministry areas," he says. The love Pat's shared is going full circle.
Mr. Pat doesn't just see joy and happiness as self-produced characteristics of who he is. He sees them as gifts from God. "I've been given the gift of childlike wonder. And I want to go out like that. It's important to me for my joy to serve as my witness, especially to my grandkids."
As we we're wrapping up, I tell Mr. Pat he reminds me of a man who's also a beloved friend of Willow: Bob Goff, speaker and author of Love Does. With a huge smile, Pat responds, "I'm living the book."
I reflected with gratitude on Pat's description of his life, the pleasant and the painful. In the presence of Pat's joy, mine was increasing. I wondered, "If my joy had grown exponentially as a result of his gift in such a short period of time, what must those kids feel?" I walked away inspired to live a life of service and joy.
Written by Ashlee Eiland