By Woody Woodrick
Across the Mississippi Conference, church groups are rehearsing special programs for Christmas.
Choirs are putting in extra hours; musicians are practicing at home; children are learning lines and adjusting costumes.
Not at Friars Point United Methodist Church, where most Sundays see 20 or fewer in worship. On the night of the Christmas program, the participants gather about 30 minutes before the performance. Costumes are handed out. Any child who wants a part gets one. No rehearsal, no practice. And the church is packed with about 200 people.
“Everybody just shows up and does it,” said the Rev. Matthew Pharis of Greenville, who grew up participating in the program. “They come in 30 minutes before, and it just happens. Whatever part needs to be played someone has played in the past or somebody learns it that year. It’s sort of like a homecoming.”
Mildred Pharis, Matthew’s mom and the play’s director, said the unique program has been presented for more than 20 years. The Rev. Luther Robertson, who serves the church, pointed out that some folks have been coming back to see the program since they participated as youngsters.
“We have all the grandkids,” said Mildred Pharis. “They love to come get in the Christmas program. Whoever shows up, we put a shepherd suit or angel suit on them, and it turns out good. We might have two wise men or three wise men. We usually have more angels.
“I love working with those kids. They’re all happy. They come in looking for me to get a suit.”
Robertson said the program is popular in Friars Point and said it reflects the church’s attitude toward its community.
Matthew Pharis admits that sometimes newcomers don’t always know their part or are too young to recite lines perfectly. That’s part of the charm, he said.
“Everybody in the crowd gets a kick out of seeing somebody do something different. The littlest angel a lot of times will just wander around and pull down lights or something will fall. We’ve come to expect the littlest angel will do something like that,” he said.
Pharis, who serves at Hope Ministries, said he thinks the reunion aspect keeps the program going. “It’s a time for people who have been connected with the church over the years to come back together and see each other,” he said.
Many of them bring their children to participate, as Matthew Pharis does.
Of course, the spontaneous nature of the program means folks have to adjust on the fly, as Matthew learned when he returned one Christmas from seminary.
“As soon as I walked in, a lady walked up 12 minutes before it was supposed to start and said, ‘Here, you’re in charge.’ In 12 minutes we had the whole thing cast, dressed and it happened,” he said.
Some folks hang onto parts for a long time, and that also makes it special.
“We used to have one guy about 6-foot-6 who was mentally challenged. He used to walk down the aisle carrying the star on a pole. He could hold it up high. That was his part, and he loved to carry that star and hold it up over Jesus,” Matthew Pharis said.
After the program, the church holds a reception with homemade cookies, cakes and candy. Sonny Pharis, Mildred’s husband, plays Santa Claus and hands out small gifts to the children.
Since graduating seminary, Matthew Pharis said he’s taken the concept to other churches. Hollandale UMC tried it, although a bit skeptically at first. He said the members couldn’t believe a Christmas program could be pulled off with no rehearsal. But they tried it, and it did work.
Mildred Pharis says she knows why. “God always shows up first,” she said. “When he shows up, it makes a difference.”