Paul Santillo grew up Catholic and remembers attending mass every week with his grandfather. Early in his teen years, he began seriously contemplating priesthood. Then, at age 16, he befriended what he calls the “wrong crowd.”
Thoughts of becoming a priest all but disappeared as drug addiction dominated his life between ages 16 and 22. Hope was lost for the young man who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb as his involvement in a local gang intensified.
But in early January, 1999, at age 22, Paul was intrigued as to why his former girlfriend was attending church.
“I wondered why she kept going while I was high on drugs,” said Paul. “I had no convictions, but I wanted to investigate why she kept going.”
So, Paul walked into church one Sunday and says the beginning of 1999 “really was a new year for me.” The young father of a toddler placed his faith in Christ that same day and the change in his life was both sudden and radical. That same day, Paul received a vision: he knew God wanted him to be involved in ministry.
“I remembered then what happened at age 16 with my calling [received at my grandfather’s Catholic church], even though I didn’t understand as a kid what the Christian Church was all about,” said Paul. He began to pursue this new calling as his local church pastor explained the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s love for people and God’s Word was instantaneous.
“I went home and began reading my Bible and went through the New Testament at least five times,” he said. “I taught my first Bible study just three months after I got saved. Those three months were [full of] defining moments in my life and my calling.”
His life change was dramatic. He quit taking drugs, drinking, and smoking “cold turkey.” His conviction through the Holy Spirit never waned.
Rev. Santillo has been a pastor since 2005, and he is in the process of transferring his ordination to The Wesleyan Church. He and his family have recently attended My Church, a Wesleyan church in Sahuarita, Arizona. Today, Paul is pastor of Hilltop Christian Fellowship, a brand new church plant in Rio Rico, Ariz. It is still extremely young, just having started meeting in August. The church, which began in Paul’s living room, is already averaging 35, and 50 people attended the August 26 service. On September 16, the new church began meeting at a local elementary school.
Rev. Santillo is encouraged as Hilltop’s official launch weekend approaches, October 28.
“Recently, we hosted a community event, ‘Greet and Eat,’ where 400 hot dogs, chips, and water were served to the community,” he said. In Rio Rico, a town of 20,000 in west central Arizona, many residents in the hilly area are taking notice of the newly formed church plant. Presently, 42 children are involved in Awana, a national children’s program known for its emphasis on leading kids to know, love, and serve Christ.
The small congregation consists of both English and Spanish speakers, and both languages are present at weekly services through translators’ assistance. Rev. Santillo is determined to transcend culture and language differences and feels they are effectively connecting so far.
What a different life from the drug and gang days 13 years ago in Los Angeles. Paul Santillo is excited to be able to live out his amazing calling from God in the rural hills of Rio Rico.
Pictured: Paul Santillo and his wife, Nikki