ST. ALBANS — Nearly 30 years ago on a dark, wet morning, Bruce Patterson was thrown into a ditch. It was here, lying with his face in the dirt, that his life changed forever.
As an avid runner, Patterson had set out on an ordinary morning run outside his Fairfax home on Main Street. He remembers it clearly.
“I was coming down the hill on the left hand side of the road facing traffic, the white line was on my left, and I was just inside the line. That’s when I heard an 18-wheeler coming down behind me,” he said.
Patterson didn’t think much of it. They pass by all the time. What he didn’t know was a Lincoln Continental had just pulled out from behind the truck to pass. The car, picking up speed down the hill, lost sight of the jogger on the road, and by the time Patterson came back into his view, he was just inches away.
“I remember it in slow motion. My left foot landed in the gravel, and just as my right foot was coming down, I got hit by the car’s mirror. I should have been crushed under his tire,” Patterson said.
The force of the car’s mirror threw him several feet, and that’s how he found himself in a ditch.
“Immediately, I knew I should have been dead, and it was there on my face in that ditch where I told God that he had me. Wherever he wanted me to go, I’d go. Whatever he wanted me to do, I would do,” Patterson said.
The promise made in the ditch that morning was what led Patterson to leave a 21-year career in teaching, and embark upon the quarter-century legacy he now leaves behind at Northside Baptist Church.
Patterson has never had a seminary degree, but he’s been the senior pastor at Northside since May 1994.
“Someone questioned me about that once, and I said well the Apostle Paul never went to Bible college either, and he had a pretty good career,” Patterson said with a smile.
His experience in preaching started long before he was voted as lead pastor. Shortly after he was introduced to his Christian faith in 1979, Patterson and his wife, Sharon, began attending Northside. The couple was baptized there, and became members in the early ‘80’s. His work in ministry started shortly after.
“I was sitting in the back row of church one morning, when one of our ladies asked us to pray for inmates in a ministry she was involved in. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m never going to pray for a murderer or a rapist – this lady is crazy’. Then all that day the Lord just convicted me of that statement.”
The promise Patterson made in the ditch reigned on his heart.
“So I went to that lady and asked her for a name. She gave me a name, and I started praying for him, started writing to him, and I even visited him. He ended up getting saved,” Patterson said.
For the next nine years, Patterson led a prison ministry at both the St. Albans and Burlington correctional facilities.
“I joke when people ask me, ‘If you didn’t go to seminary, where did you learn to preach?’ and I’ll say, ‘in prison’, with a complete straight face,” Patterson said with a smile. “They kind of look at me and I say ‘I even learned to play the guitar there too’. Then we’ll have a discussion about how I wasn’t actually an inmate.”
Patterson led the prison ministry while he was still a full-time high school teacher at BFA-Fairfax. Sometime in between he began serving as the church’s assistant pastor, a position that, at that time, served as more of a title than a responsibility. In 1993 Northside’s lead pastor left, and the church was thrust into a sudden lack of leadership.
Having just sent both their daughters off to college, Patterson’s financial needs were reaching a peak. Patterson had just completed his master’s degree in administration, and for the first time was looking at a salary at the top of the totem pole.
“That’s when the Lord said walk away,” Patterson said.
In September 1993, Patterson took over as interim pastor at Northside, while continuing working full time as a teacher.
“It took me awhile to make the decision to leave, and the church didn’t push me. They took a vote of confidence in January 1994; agreeing that if I wanted to be the pastor, they wanted me. It wasn’t until May 1994 that the Lord made it clear that I was supposed to be pastor here,” Patterson said.
So after 21 years of teaching, Patterson stepped down to begin his career at Northside.
“It hasn’t always been easy, but we’re a family,” Patterson said of his congregation. “We’ve gone through bad times, and we’ve gone through good times, and we just deal with it like any family: we stay together and work through it.”
Something that wouldn’t be possible, Patterson said, without his wife constantly standing by his side throughout his ministry as well as his mentor in faith and fellow church member, Dan Fiske.
One of the highlights of his time as pastor was the actual construction of the Northside building back in 2000. The church built the current structure together by hand, based off plans personally designed by Patterson himself.
Seeing everyone come together and work so sacrificially, Patterson said, was just amazing.
“Some people were there four nights a week, and all day on Saturday, it was just a true sacrifice,” Patterson said.
As senior pastor, Patterson has made international missions a key focus of the church. The congregation supports over a dozen of their own missionaries overseas, while Patterson himself has taken multiple trips to the countries of Jordan, the Philippines, and Mexico. He says he’s handed out more than 160,000 New Testament Bibles to kids in several of those countries.
Though retiring from Northside, Patterson plans on continuing these missions. He already has plans to return to the Philippines next fall, is on the list to teach a Bible college in Jordan in December 2020, and is working with a fellow missionary on planning a trip to Wales to preach and visit different churches.
He also plans to continue serving as an assistant pastor at Northside, and offer any support or guidance needed to Dan Frost, who is set to take over as senior pastor.
Frost, who was hired at Northside seven and a half years ago, was an instrumental part of Patterson’s decision to retire.
Frost, who grew up in Central Vermont, was serving as an assistant pastor at a church in Virginia. When the job opened up at Northside, Frost and his wife jumped at the chance to move closer to home.
“The church was looking and praying for a youth pastor, but I was praying for my replacement,” Patterson said. And that’s what he told Frost when he came up for an interview. “I knew in that moment that this was the man that was going to one day take my place.”
“We’ve served together as a father and son for the last seven and a half years, and it’s a blessing to now pass this torch on to him,” Patterson said through tears.
On Sunday morning that torch was passed. Patterson preached his last sermon, and now he and his wife have packed up their camping gear and begun what will be a two-month vacation in the west.
Frost is excited for the future of the church, but will miss Patterson’s leadership.
“His genuineness is what overwhelms me the most. You always know where you stand with him, and he’s just such a loving and understanding guy. One of the things that always stuck out to me is every time I had an opportunity to preach he would always tell me he was praying for this to be the greatest message ever preached in this church,” Frost said.
It was an illustration of a man who wasn’t chasing after his own success or led by a quest of recognition, but rather being guided by a promise made to a higher power.
A promise made in a ditch.
“Since that day, the Lord has just taken me to a lot of places, and the only reason why I’ve gone to some of those places is because I made a promise.” Patterson said. “So for the last 30 years I’ve tried to keep that promise.”