The Cliff DiMascio who came to give a Lenten sermon as a kind of audition at First United Church in 1986 had long hair and a beard and looked more like a hippy than a preacher.
Strangely, the blue collar congregation liked this non-conformist minister and eight months later DiMascio began his ministry at First United on New Years Day.
“Part of me was scared to death,” DiMascio said.
On April 29, members of the First United Church of Christ will put on an all day celebration to honor Rev. Cliff DiMascio for 20 years of service as their pastor. Longevity has given DiMascio a unique perspective on how he, his congregation and this village have changed in that time.
“They’re good people,” church staff members told him when he first arrived. “They’re kind of blue collar, and the money will be there if you need it, but you won’t get it on an annual basis.”
Blue collar the congregation was. When he arrived at First United, 75 percent of the congregation was over the age of 60, there were eight kids in Sunday school and there was no youth group.
First United’s pastor acknowledged that one of his first goals was to outlive those elderly elders whose main purpose seemed to be resisting change. He began his ministry by listening to his members.
“My vision was simply to come and see how things were and develop some programs,” he said. “I figured that it was important for me to listen to them and hear what they wanted to say and do, rather than coming in with my agenda and pushing it down their throat. I wanted to earn some capital, some leverage with them.”
DiMascio said part of the reason he was so open to suggestion was this church on the corner of Harvard and Elgin streets was almost exactly the opposite of what he had prepared for. He spent the previous 10 years honing his skills for a career as a youth minister.
DiMascio graduated from Governor’s State with a bachelor’s of science in human services, and created a large youth ministry at St. Mark’s United Church of Christ in Chicago Heights. He worked 30 hours a week at Bloom Township High School leading peer discussion groups and developing a Wednesday evening youth group, which 70 kids from six different high schools attended.
“I think I’ve worked in every aspect of youth ministry,” DiMascio said, “except the court system.”
Pastor Cliff was comfortable working with adolescents, because in many ways he was as rebellious as they were. He hadn’t started out that way. His father and mother were “go to church every Sunday” kind of people. They sang in the choir and worked with kids. By the age of 9 though, DiMascio said he was certain that he wanted to be a minister.
But things changed when he was in junior high and he was turned off by what he described as “traditional ministers.”
“Most of the stuff that traditional pastors had taught me really got in the way,” DiMascio said. “I kind of put that stuff aside and decided I would do things my way.”
Today, the church is much different than it was in 1987, DiMascio said. Younger folks with a variety of backgrounds became members. At least eight members have a master’s degree and a CPA sits on the council. When DiMascio arrived, the entire congregation was white. Now the church sees Vietnamese, Indian, and black families.
To help his church make the transition, DiMascio created new programs such as a young adults group. He challenged the church to become a site for the PADS homeless shelter, and members responded by being the first church to act as an overnight host to PADS. Another accomplishment was the trip to Biloxi, Miss., last summer on which kids and adults spent a week helping victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita rehab their homes.
DiMascio said he feels good about his congregation having made progress, but he sees several challenges in the near future. Twenty years ago the average Sunday attendance was 90. Now it’s closer to 50.
“We know we need to gain 10 people the next two or three years in a row to stay ahead of deaths and people moving away,” DiMascio said.
The need for more money to pay for the rising cost of utilities and maintenance is a constant worry as well. DiMascio also estimated the church has lost five or six “real good families” to fears of having to send their kids to Proviso East High School.
Nevertheless, First United’s pastor remains upbeat about ministry in Forest Park. With the goal of establishing a dynamic evangelism ministry at the church, DiMascio is reaching out. He conducted a restaurant blessing at the Harrison Street Cafe, and has blessed homes and pets.
For almost 20 years now, First United has done its annual blessing of the Medinah Shriner clowns. He has done a blessing for a handicapped van and hopes to create a ritual for young people when they get their drivers’ license.
“The more God can speak to people outside of the church, the more people outside the church will know God is there,” DiMascio said.
His appearance 20 years ago may have been that of a rebel, but underneath it all there was a man who wanted to please his parishioners. The rebel has matured.
“What you see now is pretty much what you get,” DiMascio said. “I probably tried to fit a mold more in the beginning but I’m pretty comfortable in my skin right now, and in my soul.”