More than 50 years ago, Pat O’Brien’s knuckles and athleticism helped him survive the mean streets of St. Louis, Mo., including a runaway past and brief semi-pro football career.
River Rock Church, a church plant in Concord that was founded in 2011 with support from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, is giving O’Brien strength to face an even tougher challenge – his wife Evelyn’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Diagnosed in October 2001 after ending a long career as a flight attendant for USAirways, Evelyn today can’t walk or say much to O’Brien who feeds, bathes, clothes her, transfers her from living room chair to wheelchair, and puts her to bed.
A good day, he says, is Evelyn sleeping all night.
“To see someone that was once this and now is this is the worst thing in the world,” O’Brien, 71, says. “Without the Lord, I couldn’t do this.”
He certainly knows from years of trying to do it on his own, remembers River Rock’s pastor Steve Davis.
River Rock members Ed and Claudia Zawada live next door to O’Brien, and had told Davis about him – prompting the first of many visits by the pastor. Living out River Rock’s mission of passionately pursuing Jesus Christ, they had already begun to soften O’Brien’s heart with their missionary lives and service.
“I have been talking to Pat about Jesus for some time,” says Davis, who once brought the church to the O’Briens to sing Christmas carols. Pat recalled one of his last memories of a lucid Evelyn, “She sang every song.”
What Davis didn’t know was going on between all the visits: that Evelyn’s Alzheimer’s and Pat’s own health problems – one bladder and three lung cancer surgeries, including one in January 2012 – were stirring big questions.
These questions included the meaning of life, of suffering, and the hope of heaven.
And they included one other big question: why the Zawadas on one side, and neighbors Joy and Jeff Stewalzki, other fellow believers, on the other, were so different and loving O’Brien in his darkest hours. They brought meals, helped lift Evelyn when needed, and constantly encouraged him and let him know he wasn’t alone.
Eventually, O’Brien said, the Holy Spirit used all of it to finally convince him that yes, even at age 70, he could personally know the peace “that surpasses all understanding” and lay his life’s heaviest burden at the feet of the cross.
Pat O’Brien, center, was 70 when he accepted Christ as Savior. He was baptized last June.
“Not long after the visit from River Rock, Steve asked me if I wanted to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior and I said ‘yes’ and wanted to join the church and be baptized,” O’Brien says.
Davis waited until O’Brien recovered from his gallbladder surgery (March of 2012) and then set the baptism for last June.
O’Brien took the plunge in River Rock member Diane Jordan’s swimming pool, with Ed Zawada and Jeff Stewalzki in the water with him and Davis. Evelyn looked on poolside in her wheelchair.
“Buried with Christ in baptism,” Davis said, lowering Pat under the surface. What happened next surprised everyone. As soon as Davis lifted Pat out of the water and said “raised to walk in new life,” Eveyln’s voice broke the quiet.
The woman, who grew up in church and whose heart never left it, clearly said, “Amen.”
A new man in every sense of the word, O’Brien said he begins each morning with devotions and prayers and then gets to work taking care of Evelyn. “My faith has made me more patient and understanding,” he says. “Without Jesus, I know I wouldn’t know what to do.
“The doctor recently asked me what my goals were with Evelyn and I said, ‘To keep her home and keep her comfortable. That’s what I am going to do as long as I can.’”
O’Brien admits he has no idea how long that might be. But if Christ does come again soon, he hopes to be found loving the Lord by selflessly serving his wife.
“As old as I am, I know that someone accepting Christ at my age is kind of unheard of. And everything was going wrong – not right – in my life, and everything we had planned to do together in retirement was going out the window.
“But the more I heard about Jesus, the more I saw how my neighbors lived their lives, the more He became real to me,” O’Brien says. “I tell everyone I know about Him now, and can now talk to my neighbors about him.”
“From the day I was saved, my life has changed. It’s hard to be a Christian but also good to be a Christian. I’ve learned to trust the Lord. I’ve learned to pray. I’ve learned to forgive people. It’s just a different way of life, and I thank God for Steve, River Rock, my neighbors and all the people and situations He used to change my life forever.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This story was provided by River Rock Church in Concord.)