Rev John Kirkpatrick, the newly elected Moderator-Designate of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland shared some memories of growing up in Ballymena during his first official ‘press call.’
Although he was born in Limavady, John moved to the City of The Seven Towers as a three-year-old with his mother, two years after his father left the family to be with another person.
Growing up as part of a single parent family in the 1960s was tough for John and his siblings. He recalls that one of his sisters refused to accept free school meals as having to stand in the queue with a ticket would have exposed her to ridicule from her peers.
However, John and the girls were blessed with a ‘committed Christian’ mother who led the Christian Endeavour group at West Presbyterian Church on the Ballymoney Road. She also made her children attend afternoon Sunday School in Harryville, even though John freely admits that he did not always want to go.
John has ‘very fond memories’ of his time as a pupil of the County Primary School and he looks back fondly on life in the town that he still regards as ‘home’ in a pre-troubles era:
“Those were the days when you went to school and got the cane and well as a warm bottle of milk”, he smiles.
Circumstances took a difficult turn when John’s mum passed away from cancer.
Aged just ten years old, the self-confessed ‘holy terror’ was sent to boarding school and although he continued to have ‘conversations with God’, John hated being ‘marched in rows’ to Church each Sunday. To use his own words: ‘my life unravelled until I was about 19.’
It was during his second year at Greenmount College that John agreed to go to a Christian youth event with a friend from the farm on which he was working at the time.
He remembers: “Although I had encountered God as a nine-year-old at a Christian Endeavour Conference I drifted away in the years that followed.”
“At the youth event I visited at 19, I listened to the speaker for a while before heckling him. Then, suddenly, it was as if I had been slapped across the face and the words: ‘You are not just mocking this man, you are mocking God’, flooded my mind as I walked out.”
John continued: “For three months I wrestled with all the questions I had in my mind about God. Eventually, I tried to strike a deal with him, promising that I would go to Church if he left me alone.”
“Over the next eight weeks, I went to Church but found the services boring and dull until one night I heard a group of young people talking about what their faith meant to them. Their words sounded authentic and real. At that point, I said to God: ‘Ok, I give in, this will probably put an end to all my joy and fun, but you have got me.”
Ever faithful, God gave John a whole new life and sense of joy in his new life with Jesus.
For the last 30 years, John and his wife, Joan have served at Portrush Presbyterian Church. The incoming Moderator also enjoys beekeeping and has been Race Chaplain to the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland since 1994.
Remarkably, John also found the strength to forgive his father; the two met again over twenty years ago.
John says: “I have lived a life with a lot of mess in it. It is not one that has been ‘religious’ or ‘glossed over.’ Parts of my story have not been easy but these difficult times have given me empathy with other people.”
We pray God’s richest blessing on John and his family as he takes up the role of Moderator later this year