State College

With spirits bright, church sings in the season

Pastor Gene McCallips hands Page Winterich, 4, an ornament for being the youngest attendee of Sunday’s Christmas Day gathering at Fairbrook United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania Furnace.
Pastor Gene McCallips hands Page Winterich, 4, an ornament for being the youngest attendee of Sunday’s Christmas Day gathering at Fairbrook United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania Furnace. psheehan@centredaily.com

In the quaint but bright room, the members of the small congregation bowed their heads, folded their hands and prayed.

“Thank you,” several said. “Thank you” for curing a friend who was ill. “Thank you” for those who are serving overseas. “Thank you” for the ability to be here and celebrate the day.

After the prayers ended, they lifted their heads and smiled. It was time to sing.

Page Winterich, who turned 4 just a few days ago, swayed on her mom’s lap during the song, trying to keep in step with the rhythm while shaking the curls from her brow. She had unwrapped her present, a Cabbage Patch Kid doll, earlier that morning. Another, a pearl white ornament of the Nativity, was given to her before the service ended.

“We have one to give to the oldest and youngest person here,” said Gene McCallips, the church’s pastor. Page received one and so did Betty Deibler, who turned 87 this year.

On Christmas morning, the social hall of Fairbrook United Methodist Church rang merry, with McCallips playing Santa for just a few moments to both young and old, and working his day job for the other hour or so. He didn’t mind: The formal work was done the previous night.

“For our Christmas Eve service, I had my sportcoat on instead of a sweater,” he said, chuckling.

On Sunday, most around the room wore red sweaters like McCallips’, and if they didn’t McCallips implored them to loosen their collars, laugh and enjoy the day.

“It’s an informal service,” he said, beaming. “If you have a tie, feel free to take it off.”

The members laughed and sipped their coffee. After a few more songs, McCallips asked around the room if presents were unwrapped this morning, and if so, what was inside.

Nearly everyone raised their hands. Dave Wolfgang, who greeted everyone as they arrived, said he received snow tires. Mike Noe, 11, received a toy robot. Ken Johnston, Noe’s grandfather, received a round of laughter.

“I got a surprise from my wife that I won’t mention,” he said, sheepishly, eyes twinkling behind a pair of glasses.

McCallips grinned, jibing Johnston to fess up as the room chortled. The holiday surprise?

Flannel sheets.

“Yeah, my wife and I like those, too,” McCallips said.

The service continued along those rhythms, happily, with warmth, a mix of gratitude and laughter. A song from the pop group Pentatonix was interspersed with old standbys like “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” Scripture was saved for last, along with McCallips’ blessing.

For a few moments, the problems of the world would melt just like the patches of snow outside. In this church, nestled by a bucolic stretch of Whitehall Road and windswept countryside, the members shared good tidings for those both inside and out.

“Please be with those who are alone,” one prayed. “Be with those who can’t be here.”

A former county planner, McCallips turned to the ministry after a talk with his wife one day. He loved serving the community. But he thought there was more he could do.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to share this with others?’ ” he said, smiling. “I didn’t grow up in the church, so I didn’t think of being a pastor.”

Life has changed since then. At one point during Sunday’s service, he asked “what’s your favorite Christmas present?”

On this morning, giving itself seemed to win out.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy

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