The drive from MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn to First United Church of Christ in Forest Park takes less than 10 minutes. But for Rev. Dean Kucera, life’s twists and turns stretched the journey over 52 years.
Kucera was recently installed as the new pastor of the congregation, replacing Cliff DiMascio after 21 years with the church. December marks his first full month behind the pulpit.
“I haven’t lived a perfect life,” Kucera said in his direct manner. “I’m a man first. I have sin in my life.”
Before he began sleeping in the home next to the small Forest Park church, Kucera traveled through tobacco fields, funeral parlors, some mean streets in Chicago and even Hungary. He was born in Berwyn and grew up in Downers Grove. He planned to be a funeral director after graduating from high school. For the longest time, Kucera said he kept resisting what he now sees as God calling him into the ministry. He remembers one night when he walked outside his house, raised his fist to the sky and declared, “I don’t care how many times you knock on the door. I’m not going to answer.”
God eventually won that argument, said Kucera, and he enrolled at Judson Baptist College in Elgin. His imposing height and dark features were a bit too spooky for the grieving families who turn to funeral homes, he said.
When friends heard of his decision to enter the ministry, they were doubtful. According to Kucera, people asked how he could be a minister when he failed to graduate from high school. He never talked much, which could hamper any Sunday sermons, and Kucera had never expressed an ambition to be a minister.
Judson accepted him on probation, and he completed a summer course, which made him eligible to begin classes in the fall. After graduating from Judson, he studied for three years at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and then transferred to the Presbyterian seminary in Dubuque. He was ordained in the Congregational Church, one of the predecessor denominations of what is now the United Church of Christ.
He worked two summers in a small town in northern Wisconsin in a Methodist Church as a youth worker and then as a student pastor in Westby, Wis. Kucera’s life took an unexpected turn when he left Westby after only a year and a half, because, he said, he became disillusioned.
“When I was in seminary I had this illustrious vision of me being a successful pastor, with people breaking down the church doors to see God, and of my church being packed,” Kucera said.
When reality didn’t measure up he left the church and questioned his calling. He came back to Chicago and worked at Sears as a customer service rep, at Eastman Kodak as a retouching artist, as a farmhand in Wisconsin chopping tobacco and at times living in Germany and Hungary with his family and friends.
“It was a good experience because when I worked out in the world, I got to learn how real people lived,” Kucera said.
He decided to study psychology and earned a master’s degree in counseling, but left the graduate program and bounced from one church to another, completing short-term commitments.
Kucera again returned to Hungary-the country his family hails from-and studied with the Seventh Day Adventist, before finally collecting his doctorate in ministry from the University of Chicago.
He pastored a church on the north side of Chicago and resigned after 13 years.
Kucera came to First United Church of Christ on Elgin one Sunday in the summer thinking that he would fill in just once for DiMascio, who left in August, and that would be the end of it. God and the congregation, he said, had other plans. The members of First United asked him to come back a second time. They liked him so much that they asked if he would be their full-time pastor and, to his surprise, he said yes.
“I consider Forest Park therapy for us Chicagoans,” Kucera said.
Kucera was attracted to ministry in Forest Park by the people, who are real and unpretentious, he said. As an example of the company he prefers to keep, Kucera said he once turned down an invitation to eat with guests at a wedding he officiated and instead went in the kitchen and ate with the people who had prepared the meal.
Kucera is also an artist and paints with oil, creates stained glass windows, sculpts and loves folk dancing. He loves his ethnic heritage, speaks Hungarian and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Hungary. His style from the pulpit, he said, is that of a Baptist minister who holds a Presbyterian theology.
Editor Josh Adams contributed to this report.