From Rockford to Fort Dodge
Clerkin is new associate pastor of First Covenant Church
After serving the community of Rockford, Illinois, for 15 years, the Rev. Anthony Clerkin was ready to move his family to a more rural area.
“We wanted to move somewhere smaller,” Clerkin said. “Rockford is a very dangerous city. Our neighborhood was in a pretty rough area. We wanted to move to a place where our kids could run a little more free. My wife (Heather) and I are from a small town and we wanted that experience for our kids to be in a smaller town.”
Clerkin moved to Fort Dodge about three months ago to become an associate pastor at First Covenant Church.
So far, the transition has been about what he’s expected. And for the most part, he said that’s been a good thing.
“It’s different going back to small town, for sure,” he said. “Everyone is so nice — I almost find it frustrating sometimes. I was joking about four-way stops. Someone has to take control and wave the other person along. Everyone is so kind, no one will take the initiative to go.”
That slower-paced lifestyle has been an adjustment for Clerkin, who has spent so much time in the third largest city in Illinois.
“I miss being able to be in a hurry without being perceived as rude,” he said. “If you are in a hurry people perceive you as rude it feels like. Just going to Hy-Vee is an hour-long process because you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know.”
He added, “In Rockford, even if you see someone you know you just give them a nod, but in a small town it’s, ‘tell me how is everything in your life.’ It’s nice and sweet and wonderful and is exactly what we wanted, but trying to get back into it has been a shock to the system.”
Clerkin, who was raised in a small town near Madison, Wisconsin, said he followed a path in ministry because he wanted church to become a place where people wanted to be rather than a place they thought they should be.
“I grew up going to a Catholic church,” Clerkin said. “We went to the Catholic church once in a while. We didn’t go every weekend. I remember I went to confirmation and my friends were all so excited about graduating from church, like their parents would never make them go back. And I thought that was really dumb. A week before the confirmation ceremony I stopped going.”
He wound up meeting a youth pastor at LifeChurch in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. And there he felt more connected.
“It was such a cool place,” Clerkin said. “They had ping pong tables and pool tables. They had probably 60 kids that went there. I became kind of his (youth pastor’s) right hand man. It felt like the kids there genuinely cared about their faith. They wanted to grow closer to God and each other rather than just wanting to get out of church. It was a different vibe.”
Clerkin, who admits he was a bit of a troublemaker, was able to fit in there.
“They didn’t seem to mind,” Clerkin said. “The folks at that church seemed to love me anyways. When I was about 17 years old, God was telling me the same, to show those kids who feel like they aren’t loved or cared for, I want you to care for them. I want you to love them.”
But when Clerkin was finished with high school in 1999, he had to make a decision on the next steps of his life that would support him financially.
So he joined the U.S. Army Reserves.
“My step dad was pushing me, how are you going to pay for college? What are you doing with your life?” Clerkin recalled. “And finally I said I’m joining the Army, almost out of spite.”
About four years later Clerkin landed in Rockford as a youth pastor and young life area director at Bethesda Church.
There, Clerkin wanted to help others fit in and find God along the way.
“It was a really cool experience,” Clerkin said, referring to his time at Bethesda Church. “I worked with the same lead pastor for 15 years.”
At Bethesda Church, he encountered children from all walks of life.
“Any sort of diversity you could have was represented in that church,” he said. “We had six kids with a Swedish last name on a couch next to a broken air hockey table. We were busing kids in all over the city.”
Many of the events Clerkin hosted on the church campus would not be considered traditional.
“We were hosting metal concerts — screamo,” Clerkin said. “We were having those kinds of concerts in the church basements. We would have 200 kids moshing in the basement and spend all of Saturday cleaning it up so there wasn’t a trace of it for the Sunday service.”
But Clerkin said he was able to reach a larger group because of the activities.
“It all paid off,” he said. “We were able to impact over 1,000 kids during our time in Rockford.”
Clerkin decided to adopt two children.
“We ended up taking in two foster daughters,” he said. “We just thought if someone could give them some love and support, they could be amazing people.”
Clerkin wanted to create a place where children felt at ease.
“Rockford is about the closest place to Chicago,” he said. “You end up with Chicago culture and Chicago gangs. We built a youth ministry for kids who didn’t feel comfortable in a traditional church setting. We had a cool little house on the back of the lot. Our house was always full.”
Although able to have an impact on several of the youth, violence in the city became a challenge.
“We lost two kids to gun violence over the years and another to suicide,” he said.
Clerkin tried to do his part at the church by reminding those who crossed his path that they matter.
“Just telling them they matter and that their life has meaning and purpose and value,” Clerkin said. “Their economic status isn’t where their value comes from. Their value comes in that they are children of God.”
Clerkin added, “That’s one of the best things a church can do is a be a place where people care if they are there or not and create a place where they matter. And of course that they matter to God.”
Clerkin said a lot of children that came to the church were borderline homeless.
“They would sleep on a cousin’s or a friend’s couch,” Clerkin said. “Every week we would tell them you matter to me and you matter to God. Your life has meaning and value and purpose. To hear that when your life is almost screaming the opposite, can be pretty transformational.”
Clerkin said his experience in Rockford makes him appreciate diversity.
“The more diverse the church is, the more it resembles the image of God,” Clerkin said. “The group wouldn’t have been better if it was kids from all the same background. I think it’s less representative of God. Diversity is beautiful and represents God’s nature.”
This past June, after the lead pastor at Bethesda Church retired, Clerkin decided it was time to make an impact elsewhere.
“The church was going through a change and I didn’t want to be in the way,” Clerkin said. “When my wife and I started to pray about it, we felt like we were allowed to ask ‘what do you want?’ And part of what we wanted was more of a hometown. Part of a smaller hometown and that’s what we found in Fort Dodge.”