Meet Patrick Black, once homeless and hopeless, now leading a thriving children’s ministry.
Almost three years ago as a college student in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, I didn’t know where to turn. Far from God at the time, all I knew was hurt. And then I saw a car with a bumper sticker that read “Christ Follower.” Curious, I made a spontaneous decision to follow that car. It led me to The Experience Community Church.
I approached the small, dark building. I was anxious, hurt, and desperate. As I hesitantly pushed open the door, and a man with a wide smile and a beard greeted me. This man, Patrick Black, introduced me to an authentic church that facilitated my journey as a Christian for the next two and a half years.
Patrick is the leader of ECCO, Experience Community Children’s Outreach. ECCO is a rapidly growing ministry that spreads Jesus’ love to hundreds of kids each Sunday.
When I asked Patrick what he most wants his kids to know, at first his response may seem standard: “I want the kids to know that they’re loved no matter what and that God is always with them.” But once you know more about Patrick, you see how this heartfelt response is shaped by his unique history.
He wasn’t always a gung-ho children’s ministry leader. At Patrick’s lowest, he says he was “one friend away from not having anywhere to go.” The bank had foreclosed on his house. He was separated from his wife. His driver’s license was suspended. During his darkest hour, he sat in a living room with a shotgun, contemplating taking his own life. That was five years ago.
Today, though, Patrick’s remarkable journey to children’s ministry leader is one that speaks clearly of God’s redemptive work in all our lives.
Patrick and Annie met in high school. Shortly after high school, they married. Patrick was just 19 years old; Annie was 20. Not long after they married, Patrick says he began experiencing significant inner turmoil. He admits being a people-pleaser who would conform to his friends’ interests and personas to gain their acceptance and affirmation. (He joked with me that if he had become my friend at that point, he would’ve had to get a cool hipster haircut and tattoos.) Patrick realized he was having an identity crisis—as in, he had none.
“I just didn’t know who I was,” he says. “My whole life I’d been someone else.” Patrick’s unhappiness soon infiltrated every part of his life, including his marriage.
At work, Patrick met someone who was also unhappy and dissatisfied with her marriage. For the next year, Patrick says he engaged in an emotional affair with this coworker. By the end of 2010, the affair became physical and Patrick left his wife.
“Annie was devastated,” remembers Patrick. “She was angry and sad.”
What neither Patrick nor Annie knew at the time was that Annie was pregnant. After hearing news of the pregnancy, Patrick moved back home with Annie to attempt to work things out. During a routine checkup 12 weeks into the pregnancy, devastation set in. The doctor could find no heartbeat or signs of life and told Annie it was unlikely she’d ever be able to have kids.
“That felt like the final straw for us,” Patrick says. Things fell apart and he moved back in with his coworker.
From Bad to Worse
It didn’t take long before Patrick spiraled into a deep state of depression. By the end of 2010, he decided to move out of his co-worker’s home and back to the house he owned where he thought Annie was currently living. He describes the night he returned.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I came home and the furniture and everything was gone, and I just lost it. That night I contemplated killing myself.”
That night was the breaking point for Patrick. He decided to get counseling. It was only then that he really began to seek God.
Patrick attended a church in Franklin, Tennessee. “It was the first time in my life that I went to church for myself and not anyone else,” he says. “I was looking for God.”
It was a slow turnaround for Patrick, but a turnaround nonetheless.
In the spring of 2011, Patrick quit his job and lost his home to foreclosure. His truck was repossessed, and he moved in with a friend. That was the start of many nights of couch-hopping from one friend’s house to another’s. After not paying a traffic ticket, his driver’s license was suspended and he was eventually arrested for driving under a suspended license. Despite a slew of poor decisions and their consequences, Patrick clung to hope that things would improve.
Home Sweet Home
Then a friend invited Patrick to The Experience Community. Patrick says, “It immediately felt like home. I knew I was accepted here. I didn’t have to be someone else.”
Patrick attended every service and plugged into Five Thousand, a homeless ministry at The Experience Community. Five Thousand (so named because Jesus fed 5,000) provides breakfast for the homeless community in Murfreesboro every Sunday morning at a local park. Patrick admits it was an ironic situation because he himself was still homeless, but he immensely enjoyed serving in the ministry.
Eventually, he became involved with Experience Community Children’s Outreach simply because the church needed another volunteer.
“I was probably that annoying guy who was always around,” he jokes. “ ‘Just give him something to do,’ they probably said.”
But as the church grew, Patrick’s role became more significant. Eventually, Patrick and the others who consistently volunteered decided it was time to dedicate all their volunteer time to ECCO rather than splitting their time among the various ministry areas. That’s how children’s ministry became the primary focus for Patrick.
Suddenly, Patrick found his life filling up with the things of God. Relationships, responsibilities, and faith overflowed. Yet in his heart, he still felt a void. He missed Annie.
Reconciliation with Annie
At Catalyst, a church leadership event, Patrick sensed God calling him to reconcile his marriage. This seemed unlikely, considering all he’d put Annie through. Plus, they were officially divorced now. Still, Patrick worked up his nerve and met with Annie to express his desire to reconcile. It was no surprise that Annie was quite reluctant.
“She didn’t want anything to do with it at all,” says Patrick. “She was actually mad that I even approached her.” But Patrick’s obedience to God was steadfast, and he continued to pursue Annie.
Over the course of the next year, Patrick landed a part-time job at Children’s Place, a clothing store for kids. Someone generously gave him a car, and he paid his traffic violation and renewed his driver’s license. By the summer, he had a bed and a room to call home.
He and Annie began counseling that summer with the lead pastor at The Experience, Corey Trimble. In October of that year, Annie and Patrick renewed their vows. God’s punch line to Patrick’s story is perfect: Nine months later, on July 13th, 2013, their son, Aiden Levi, was born.
How does Patrick’s story influence his approach to children’s ministry?
“It really made my heart bigger,” he says. “It gave me more compassion. When you become a Christian, you really just love people more.”
Considering Patrick’s background, it’s not surprising to hear him say he’ll always have a heart for the homeless. In fact, The Experience Community is strategically located in the midst of low-income housing, so many of the kids who attend ECCO are either homeless or on the verge of being homeless.
When Patrick first became a Christian, he says he felt God calling him to work with teenagers because he wanted to help kids who were going through the same battles he went through during his teen years. Then that calling changed.
So why does he dedicate his life to serving kids? Patrick’s answer is a great example of his obedience to God.
“As I got involved with children’s ministry,” says Patrick, “I felt like God was telling me, ‘You have an opportunity to reach those kids before they even get to where you were.’ ” That realization galvanized Patrick.
At its core, ECCO is a highly relational ministry. The new parent newsletter states, “We will never sacrifice relationships for content and entertainment.” ECCO emphasizes a relationship with Jesus, kids, and teachers. Patrick believes that investing and building a relationship with people first helps them be more open to accepting the gospel of Jesus.
“One thing we really push is that the Bible isn’t just some fairy tale. It’s real. Those things happened and God is alive in that book,” Patrick stresses.
Relationships drive ECCO. After large-group time on a weekend, children have small group or relational time with their teacher. Here they may talk about the lesson or simply about what’s going on in their lives.
To Patrick, “seeing the kids connecting with their teacher” is one of the most exciting parts of ECCO. For instance, one teacher “moved up” with a child after the child became upset when he aged up into a new room. Tears filled this child’s eyes twice—once when he learned about the move and again when he learned the teacher decided move with him.
Protecting this relational culture and atmosphere is most challenging to Patrick. It’s too easy to get caught up in gimmicks and events to draw kids in, he says. So Patrick and his staff work hard to hold true to their values. That means a good old-fashioned high five is a staple for every child who comes through the doors at ECCO. These days, Patrick and his staff are high-fiving an average of 350 kids each Sunday— and that number is growing.
God’s Unfailing Redemption
Once homeless, Patrick is now home; and all because God is a God of redemption. A God who makes great stories out of broken people. He brought me to Patrick’s doorstep when I needed him most, tailing hope in my car on a dark night.
“Having nothing really makes you appreciate when you have something,” says Patrick. For someone who once had no hope at all, it’s miraculous indeed that Patrick stands tall as a beacon of hope to hundreds of children today.
Devin Arinder is a freelance writer who today lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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