I recently celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary with my wife, Jessica. We asked a friend who’s a chef to prepare a private meal for us. I also contributed by preparing a fantastic… mix tape. OK, OK. I’m not that cool. It was a Spotify playlist, and good thing it was. I had over 100 songs queued up to serenade us during the meal! But it was more than creating a mood to enhance our candle-lit evening. Each song marked a specific season or experience in our relationship, and stirred us to retell every story as they played.
Album cover for Neighbor Songs
The Porter’s Gate worship project, founded by Isaac and Megan Wardell, seeks to do that for the church: write songs that connect with our life experiences and communities, and stir up our stories as God’s family. In 2017, they released a collaborative album titled Work Songs that focuses on worship and vocation. Last month, they released their second project titled Neighbor Songs—another collection of songs focused on loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Our annual Patriotic Celebration received more buzz than ever this year as we celebrated 50 years of honoring our military heroes and thanking God for the true freedom we have in Jesus Christ.
To help recognize the big milestone, we invited all former choir and orchestra directors back for the celebration. We’ve had six directors in total during that time:
Bruce Erickson (1970-1983)
Otis Skillings (1984-1989)
Doug Thiesen (1990-1998)
Renee Cooper (1999 to 2001)
Kristyn Thor (2002)
Eric Walker (2003-2007)
Renee Cooper (2008 to present)
Renee Cooper, who serves as our classic worship director, was our director again this year and is the longest-serving director in the group. Bruce Erickson, our first director, attended this year’s festivities, and a few others were unable to attend but did send us videos sharing wonderful memories of the event.
According to Bruce, Patriotic Celebration started in 1970 as a way to bring together a divided country/community during the Vietnam War. It was a positive offering and initially took place at the Sinnissippi Park Music Shell – sometimes after the Fourth of July and sometimes in June. The celebration began with one night, was eventually expanded to three nights, and then scheduled for two nights once it moved to the current First Free Rockford main campus.
In addition to special outreach for past directors, we also invited all former choir and orchestra participants to celebrate with us this year. We had people join us from many states, including Texas, Florida, Michigan and South Carolina. More than 200 volunteers total helped organize and participated in the event, and over 2,100 people attended the celebration performances.
The color guards from the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department and the Rockford Police Department presented the colors both nights, and our procession of veterans was once again a highlight for the crowd. A freewill offering collected during the program are being divided between three local veterans’ nonprofits: The Veteran’s Drop-in Center, the Oscar Mike Foundation and Brightening Veteran’s Lives (Vietnam Veterans of America – Chapter 984 Rockford).
Mom’s Day Out — a special ministry for children and families at First Free Rockford — celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
The ministry started as a pilot program in 1989, created as a part-time, Christ-centered child care resource for parents. Three decades ago, moms mostly did the sign-up, but today, fathers and even grandparents are involved in the program, too.
“We’re seeing second generations coming through now,” said Patti Clauson, Mom’s Day Out Director.
Patti has been here since the beginning. She said a First Free member first saw a similar program in the south back in the 1980s and brought the idea back to Rockford.
Mom’s Day Out classroom at First Free Rockford – Rockford, Illinois
Families today can enroll their children starting at 1-year through pre-kindergarten age from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays and/or Fridays.
Mom’s Day Out is open to anyone in the community – not just church members. Patti said the program draws people from all backgrounds, including families from outside the U.S. who have relocated to Rockford to work in such industries as aerospace, manufacturing and health care.
Patti Clauson, Director of Mom’s Day Out
“What’s so cool is we’ll have moms who don’t know anyone in town, so they seek out a church that will be a safe place. After a few years, they’ve got play groups, the kids are enrolled in summer day camp,” Patti said. “Our goal is to bridge families from not knowing anyone to finding a home and an extended family here.”
About 120 children attend Mom’s Day Out each day. Bible-based learning aims to teach kids about good values such as sharing, helping each other, comforting a friend and much more. A typical day may include songs, counting, learning days of the week, crafts, a Bible story, and playing in the gym or on the playground.
Crucial to the program’s success has been the ongoing help of church staff and members who volunteer their time to help with activities. Mom’s Day Out also employs more than 20 teachers, meaning it’s a good opportunity for educators looking for an alternative to full-time work.
That’s how Patti got started, in fact. She was a teacher looking for care for her young daughter at the time. She started teaching, then became assistant director and then director.
“It was all God’s planning,” she said. “This is where I was meant to be.”
Mom’s Day Out runs a similar schedule to the school year calendar, starting the week after Labor Day and ending the week before Memorial Day. Registration for the next session starts in May. Visit momsdayout.net for more information, or call 815-877-7046.
Registration is now live for First Free Rockford’s Big Day of Serving, a special time dedicated to volunteering and community connection.
First Free has partnered this year with the Rockford Park District, the Rockford Rescue Mission and Rockford Public Schools to help with cleanup and maintenance work at several locations. Volunteers will gather from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 18, at Sinnissippi Park, the Rescue Mission and the STEAM Academy at Haskell for the work.
This annual event is open to the public and typically draws more than 150 people to help. It’s a great opportunity to invite family, friends and neighbors to participate, and it also emphasizes the importance of serving, which is central to First Free’s mission and vision.
“We see the value in partnering with our community to go, tell and show the love of God in the city of Rockford and around the world,” said Meredith Domanico, First Free’s director of student ministries and organizer of Big Day of Serving.
“It’s important to give back, and Big Day of Serving creates an opportunity to do that, to defeat the apathy of just being here and letting things happen around us. This is a chance to be part of something, to take ownership of the place where we live and do our part to help make it beautiful.”
Site leaders will oversee the work at each location. Domanico said there are jobs for anyone who’s interested in signing up no matter your skillset or physical abilities.
Click here to register for Big Day of Serving times, locations and T-shirt sizes. Volunteers are asked to wear closed-toe shoes and casual/work clothes, and bring work gloves. All other equipment will be provided at the individual sites.
Call First Free Rockford at 815-877-7046 for more information.
First Free Rockford Hosts Community Choir Festival Experience
Event caters to both singers and the public
ROCKFORD, Ill. (Feb. 7, 2019) – First Free Rockford invites singers and the public to worship through music and song during its annual Community Choir Festival taking place this month.
Singers, who need not have a choir affiliation, will practice together on Friday, Feb. 22, and Saturday, Feb. 23. They will then present a free concert that’s open to the public at 6 p.m. Feb. 23.
Dr. Gary Bonner, an internationally recognized conductor and trainer of conductors, will lead the rehearsals and the performance. First Free is excited to host the event to bring together singers from across the region, said festival coordinator Renee Cooper, First Free’s Classic Worship Director.
“Church choirs aren’t what they used to be – a reflection of the resources needed to run them and the amount of time people have to be part of them,” Cooper said. “We are so blessed to have a choir here at First Free, and we want to encourage anyone who loves to sing to be part of a choir again.”
Choir members will practice and learn about a dozen songs – a process Cooper called challenging, exciting and fun. Bonner chooses the music, which is typically a mix of traditional and contemporary Christian songs.
“It pushes people out of their comfort zones,” she noted of the experience. “You don’t have to be a great reader of music, though. It’s amazing what you pick up with the group around you. We laugh a lot, have fun and work hard.”
The event is expected to draw singers and attendees from around the Midwest. Rehearsals are scheduled from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 22 and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 23.
Rehearsals and the performance will take place at First Free Rockford, 2223 N. Mulford Road. Cost to participate as a singer is $30 for adults and $20 for students, which includes lunch on Saturday. Admission to the performance is free.
First Free Rockford is proudly participating in the Angel Tree program again this year, delivering gifts and the message of God’s love to children in the Rockford area whose parents are in prison during the holiday season.
Our church has participated in this program for more than 25 years in partnership with Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit Christian organization whose mission is to restore those affected by crime and incarceration. There are more than 2.7 million U.S. children who have a mom or dad in prison, according to the organization, and churches and community organizations throughout the country have already committed to serving more than 275,000 kids this year.
Angel Tree Coordinator Susan Schumacher, a Belvidere resident who’s been attending First Free for nearly 30 years, found a personal connection in this project. She had a loved one in prison and saw the devastating effects an experience like that can have on families.
“We do this out of compassion for the children,” she said. “The program gives us an opportunity to share God’s love by helping to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.”
You can help by picking a tag off the Angel Tree in our lobby. This year, we have 17 families with 45 children we’re helping. Each child will receive two gifts – an article of clothing and a toy or other fun gift, as well as an age-appropriate booklet about the gospel provided by Prison Fellowship. The families give us suggestions to help personalize the gifts even more.
Grab a tag, shop for gifts, wrap them and turn them in by Dec. 11. We’ll package the gifts on Dec. 12 and deliver them to families on Dec. 15. Let us know if you’d like to volunteer in any way. It’s a beautiful tradition we are excited to participate in again this year!