A Calling: Pastor, Firefighter & Advocate for Older Americans

If there’s one thing the Rev. Glenn Bergmark has learned in his 85 years of service to others, it’s that one never stops rising to the challenge. After 30 years of meeting those challenges as a member of PLOWS Council on Aging, Bergmark has made the difficult decision to announce his retirement as a member of the board this year.

“PLOWS and the entire community are incredibly indebted to Glenn’s many contributions. If it wasn’t for Glenn’s passion, strength, vision and commitment to service, PLOWS would not be where it is today – a leading south suburban organization that is a resource and lifeline for older adults and individuals with disabilities,” said Kenneth Grunke, Executive Director of PLOWS.

During those 30 years, Bergmark, a retired ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastor, currently serving as a supply pastor with the Metro Chicago and Northern Illinois synods, served on various committees including Executive, Finance and Programs and Services, as well as serving in each officer position (President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer) multiple times.

He will remain a member of PLOWS’ vital Adult Protective Services Multi-Disciplinary Team (M-Team), Bergmark recently reflected on the lifetime of opportunities and challenges that helped forge his legacy of compassion and service across the south suburbs.

Like many of the challenges that have arisen under his tenure, Bergmark said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a call to “get creative” for those in the field of helping others.

“What can you do when you can’t have that vitally important contact with people?” he said. “You find new ways and means to connect, and PLOWS has done exactly that.”

As an ordained pastor, Bergmark’s career began busily and increasingly picked up speed.

His first assignment was as pastor of a two-point parish, First Lutheran Church in Granville and Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica in North Central Illinois.

Seventeen miles apart, the position required him “to be in two places at the same time,” and prepared him for a future filled with equally daunting challenges.

A few years later he was called to fill a position in Lemont. Having grown up in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood, he was familiar with what was then a sleepy southwest suburb of about 4,000.

The council at Bethany Lutheran Church told Bergmark they needed their new pastor to be involved in the community, to be visible and to help any way he could. He figured that could mean putting out some fires, and he would — literally.

Within days of moving in, he was recruited by Lemont’s then-volunteer fire department.

“Two gentlemen in fire uniforms came to the door,” he recalled.

One was the chief; the other was his new next-door neighbor, who was holding a helmet and boots.

Bergmark learned they needed a chaplain and the chaplain’s duties included answering calls during the day when most of the other volunteers were at work.

He’s been involved with Lemont Fire Protection District for 55 years, as spiritual leader, fire fighter, a commissioner and, currently, an elected trustee.

News of Bergmark’s devotion to the region soon spread and he was asked to form the Lemont Environmental Advisory Commission, on which he continues to serve, as well as the Lemont Lions Club, former Mount Assisi Academy’s development committee and Franciscan Village’s ethics committee.

He said his “most interesting story” is how he became involved with PLOWS in the midst of all his other work.

An older couple in his parish told him about the organization that helps supply meals and services to older Americans in need. He reached out to PLOWS and quickly realized its importance.

“People grow older and have needs. You have to have a way of dealing with that,” he said.

Bergmark served first on the board of PLOWS in 1994. In 2000, he was President as PLOWS was moving from Oak Lawn to its current location in Palos Heights.

“It was a tremendous move” that was both practical for space reasons and symbolic as it followed the southwest migration of much of the older community.

The moved paved the way for growth, in terms of services, budget, employees, volunteers and clients.

“It expanded everything we did,” he said. “I was so happy to be a part of that.”

Though he departs his seat on the board, Bergmark said he plans to continue his work with the organization’s M-Team, which brings together people with different specialties, including law enforcement and social services, to investigate individual cases of elder abuse and self-neglect, and discuss solutions. In addition to helping people 60 years of age and over, the team is also available to adults who are disabled and in need of help.

He was honored for his work on M-Team in 2017 by AgeOptions, suburban Cook County’s agency on aging. Before that he was named Citizen of the Year by the Lemont Chamber of Commerce and Senior Citizen of the Year by the 3rd Congressional District.

In many ways, the pastor said, PLOWS is a ministry.

“And it’s as busy as it’s ever been,” he added.

COVID-19 has led to an increase in the number of people turning to PLOWS for help, he said. Whether they need home delivery of meals, protection from emotional or physical abuse or access to financial assistance for utilities or property taxes, the pandemic has increased the strain on many older Americans.

“Many people who never thought they’d need that kind of help were suddenly confronted with it,” he said.

Because of the safety limitations presented by social distance recommendations, PLOWS staff and volunteers have had to get creative in finding ways to fill needs, he said.

“The pandemic has been the greatest single challenge PLOWS has had to face, but at the same time it has reminded us of how important PLOWS is to this community,” he said.

The agency’s ability to adapt has laid the groundwork for a bright future, he said.

He cited its strong, growing relationship with Moraine Valley Community College as one example of ongoing expansion.

“PLOWS always has the task to be aware and be alert to coming challenges. Every time we think we have it nailed down, something changes at the federal or local level. The future is being open to the possibility of changing ways and means of dealing with needs in our community,” he said.

“Our history tells us there’s only one way we’re going to go and that’s getting closer to meeting more needs in the years ahead,” he said.

Bergmark met his wife MariLynn when both were students at Augustana College. They’ve been married 62 years and have three children, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Though they are “staying home” like much of the country, both remain engaged in the community.

MariLynn is a prolific master quilter who at one time turned 100 quilts a year with other members of her church. She recently participated in a quilt dedication at Christ Lutheran Church of Clarendon Hills to benefit Lutheran World Relief, an organization that lost containers of quilts that are repurposed as knapsacks, room dividers and shelters when their storage facility was destroyed during the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon.

Bergmark says he has grown in tandem with PLOWS. He credits his experience with the service organization with helping him “learn how to grow old.”

“As I have grown, I have become more sensitive to those kinds of challenges that people face as they age – socially, physically, financially, healthwise,” he said.

Empathy and understanding are just some of the benefits he has experienced from his work with PLOWS, he said.

Pastors, he said, “are not simply people who preach the word and administer sacraments. A pastor is someone who relates directly with people on an intimate and personal level. We are enablers, people who are trying to help people in a special way. That’s what I think ministry is for me.”