Ten members of First United Church of Christ, which meets for worship at 1000 Elgin, gathered in the church basement after the service on Jan. 16 to share memories and emotions in anticipation of closing their congregation for good next Christmas.
The 10, all of whom are eligible to be AARP members, had accepted the reality that the faith community they loved could no longer survive because their treasurer Lotus Moy had informed them many months ago that income had simply decreased to the point where they were unable to pay the bills.
Psychologists refer to what they are going through as anticipatory grief, part of which is sharing memories.
Eilene Pennington remembered 30 years ago when the church would be full on Sundays with lots of children around. “I especially liked vacation Bible school,” she said. “We had crafts and Bible stories. I was always happy to be the nature teacher. I loved being in the choir, and singing ‘Silent Night’ in candlelight on Christmas Eve.”
“Now,” Lotus Moy added, “the congregation is much older. Many of the members have passed away and we have not been able to bring in younger people.”
The members talked about relationships. “I’ll miss coming to church,” said Lorelei Pytlik whose father had served as president and whose mother sang in the choir. “We got to be a little family.”
“I’m going to miss this church,” added Carolyn Lewis. “I love my family here. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s going to be hard to find another church like this.”
Developmental psychologists tell us that as people near the end of their lives they tend to look back and ask, “Was my life worth living?” One of the things these 10 were proud of is their participation in the PADS homeless shelter.
Marty Moy and his wife Lotus recalled that First United was the very first church to host a PADS overnight shelter back in 1992. “We had the recreation room all set up with mattresses and a hot meal prepared,” he remembered with a laugh, “and no one came.”
That, of course, changed and First United continued to be the Friday night site for two years. When that involvement ended, the members continued to participate in the shelter program by making and serving meals.
One thing the members are both proud of and feel blessed by is their partnership with Engage Christian Church. Five years ago, Rev. Dawayne Choice was looking for a location for his new church, called Engage, and First United was experiencing extreme financial challenges.
Long story short, First United sold their building to Engage with the agreement that the original owners would continue to worship in the basement while Rev. Choice led worship in the sanctuary upstairs.
“These are good people, man,” he exclaimed. “We couldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for their generosity. We’re going to be forever grateful for what they’ve done, making sure we can get this building.”
The new owners hung a big banner on the north side of the church building on which First United Church was given equal billing with Engage Christian Church. When asked why, Choice responded, “As much as it looks like we’ve been good to them, they’ve been good to us. They left a foundation in this community. We want to carry on whatever impact they’ve had.”
Rev. Marietta Hebert-Davis, who has served as interim pastor for about a year, said, “My position here as interim pastor means being able to walk with the congregation as they are making their transition — looking back on the good times and helping them walk toward the future, the blessings and the pain.”
In one of her sermons, she talked about the five stages of grief — denial, bargaining, anger, depression and finally acceptance — for the purpose of helping the members name the stages of anticipatory grief they are going through with the goal of experiencing acceptance when they have their final service on Dec. 25.
First Church was founded in 1865, three months after the Civil War ended. The congregation has been served by 21 pastors during their long history, the surnames of many reflecting the German heritage of the faith community, names like Heinemann, Kalbleisch, Kunzler and Keiker.
A history of First United states, “Charter members of the congregation were middle-class people of German origin and adopted the name First German Reformed Church of Chicago. As their Chicago neighborhood changed and members were moving west, the congregation bought property in Forest Park in 1915 and built their present building at the corner of Harvard and Elgin in 1927. They changed their name in 1959 to First United Church of Christ of Forest Park.”