Last Sunday Elder Mike Crawford said the words the 35 people assembled in the basement worship area in the building at 1000 Elgin knew were coming for a long time: “We declare that it [our congregation] is no longer the First United Church of Christ of Forest Park and is now disbanded.”
Back on Jan. 16 the congregation which had owned the church building for more than a century, had an average of just 10 members at worship. They gathered for a service to share memories and emotions in anticipation of the closing of their congregation.
The 10, all of whom were 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 that income had simply decreased to the point where they were unable to pay the bills.
Three days ago, the time had come to make it official. But the service, which could have felt like a funeral, was framed by its planners as a Legacy Worship and had a celebratory tone. One form or another of the words “thank you” were repeated throughout the service. The Legacy Service program packet contains the list of the 21 pastors who have served the church during its 167-year history.
A Litany of Thanksgiving was part of the service which featured 8 petitions including “as the founding congregation prayed its prayers, their children have sung your praises with friends, neighbors and strangers, and your Spirit has blessed countless worshippers,” to which the 35 people responded with “We give you thanks, O God.”
The Rev. Dr. Marietta Hebert-Davis, who had served as the small congregation’s interim pastor for the last two years, said in a written statement, “Thank you to every one of you from the bottom of my heart. I could not have had a better congregation than First United Church of Christ of Forest Park.”
When the time for testimonies came, one person after another recalled good memories. One thanked Rev. Cliff DiMascio, who served as the congregation’s pastor from 1987 till 2007, for his ministry with the young adults.
Another focused on being part of three generations who had been baptized in the church. Others recalled the choir who “sang like angels,” and one person remembered the days when they had to set up folding chairs to accommodate the overflow crowds on Easter Sunday.
The memories shared were all good and often came from the 1950s when congregations throughout the country were booming. In 1957, for example, the congregation’s building of an education wing revealed their belief that the wave of success would continue into the future.
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, members continued to participate in the shelter program by making and serving meals.
Indeed, the congregation does have a long and storied history. Founded in Chicago in 1865 just three months after the end of the Civil War as the First German Reformed Church of Chicago, the congregation decided to move to the suburbs and in 1915 purchased the property at the corner of Harvard and Elgin.
Rev. Dawayne Choice is the pastor of Engage Church which purchased the building at 1000 Elgin in 2018 at a bargain price and responded by allowing the previous owner to hold services in the basement worship area.
He praised the shrinking congregation saying, “Regarding the closing of First United Church, it has been kind of strange for me. I felt heavy knowing this was their last month as a church. I hate to see any church close. But First United Church is a precious group of people.
“I said it before and I will say it again and again. We couldn’t do the ministry we do without the generosity and forward thinking of First United Church. I’m really going to miss having them around.”
A banner hanging above the altar in their basement worship space seems to capture how the congregation feels about itself even at its closing—“We are small and powerful in and by faith.”