When you ask, “Why do you do such and such this way?”, how often do you get the response, “Well that’s the way we’ve always done it.” How long do you keep doing it the way it’s always been done? In Rockford, the answer is 37. 37 years. For 37 years we did our Firemen’s Breakfast essentially the same way. This year we dared to change it!
The Rockford congregation’s ties with the North Park Fire Department go back many years. In the late 1970s a baptismal service was planned but when it came time to fill the font, the pump wouldn’t work. Since a person can’t be baptized in an empty font, Jack Ehlenfeld called the local fire department and they gladly came and filled the font for us. North Park was predominately a volunteer fire department located a few blocks from the church and some of our members had family in the department. Their willingness to help was instrumental in Jack’s decision to volunteer to be the chaplain for the fire department which he did for 20 years, until his death in 1996.
In 1980, Jack suggested the congregation serve breakfast to show our appreciation to the firefighters who willingly volunteer their services for the community. We fed them biscuits and gravy, sausage, and scrambled eggs along with coffee, juice, and milk. Following breakfast, they shared a little time with the kids (and adults) who wanted to see the trucks and to get their picture taken. The firefighters would then go on their way while we cleaned up and then had our own breakfast before the usual worship service.
After Jack’s death, it became “The Jack Ehlenfeld Memorial Firemen’s Breakfast” and even after the fire districts were redrawn and North Park was no longer our fire department, we continued to invite them. When our chief gravy maker moved several years ago, she made sure that her recipe was in capable hands so that it would be made the right (same) way. But the actual breakfast process didn’t change. We cooked, the firefighters came, we served them, they ate, we took pictures, and they left.
And for 37 years it was good. We looked forward to serving our local heroes as much as they looked forward to “their favorite breakfast of the year.” We enjoyed the comaraderie we shared while scrambling eggs and stirring gravy. We always had more than enough help, even on the early cooking shift. We never heard (too) much grumbling about needing to be at church so early, either. We enjoyed showing our appreciation and in turn receiving their appreciation for our efforts.
But this year, we dared to change, just a little! This year, the Brownie troop that meets in our building was invited to help serve. They were so excited to get to eat breakfast with “real, live firefighters” and judging from their plates, the sausages were quite a hit too. This year, Lydia and Briana Bendorf invited the firefighters to join us in our worship service and they were happy to do it. Lt. Timothy Dutcher shared his experiences of how he sees God’s hand in the work they do. Matthew Johnson, Toru Nogami, and Capt. Lauren Schultz joined Lt. Dutcher in answering our questions. Following the service, they spent another 15 or 20 minutes visiting with us. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave and we didn’t want to let them go. The question I kept asking myself was, why did we wait so long to do this? It was such a good experience and was meaningful to everyone. More than one firefighter commented that it was nice to get to know each other a little better.
Because we dared to change, we got to meet the Girl Scouts that have been using our building and they’ve been invited to join us for “Tires and Tacos”. I dare say they will be back for next year’s breakfast as well. (Note to head cook…buy more sausage!) I hope that including the firefighters in our worship service will become a new tradition and that we will look for other ways we can continue to foster these new relationships.
So when it comes to changing traditions in your congregation, I hope you won’t wait 38 years. Dare to do it now. It just might be worth it!
Diane Taller is the pastor of the Rockford congregation. You can reach her at email@example.com or check out the Rockford congregation's website at www.rockfordcofchrist.com.