December 28, 2009
Cortland pastor savors Christmas season, career change
The Christmas season presents a contrast for the Rev. John Gay, pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Cortland.
At two Christmas Eve services on Thursday, the four weeks leading to Christmas and two services on Sunday, the church’s senior pastor tried to remind people that the holiday is about more than giving presents and taking time off from work.
“Part of my job is to stand up at Christmas Eve and say to all these people who come to church once a year, this is the way it is,” he said. “The peace of the season is not in food, in presents, in your job, it’s in Christ. And that’s a really hard thing to say.”
His sermon Sunday, which he pointed out was the last Sunday of the year, was about growing into one’s faith.
Gay said Christmas is “a rough time” for many people, who find their lives lacking in some way as everyone around them celebrates.
“We have been taught to expect this amazing, mystical, wonderful time of year, and it’s not like that for everyone,” he said. “They might have had someone die recently. Maybe they don’t have children and they’ve always wanted them.”
So he tries to find words to make everyone feel blessed, sharing his deep faith.
The irony is not lost on the 37-year-old Washington state native, who was an atheist in his youth and entered the seminary six years ago only after several years in the Navy and a series of jobs.
John Gay and his wife, Jennifer, just had their fourth child, Maggie, on Nov. 30. She joined 9-year-old Rob, 7-year-old Michael and 3-year-old Tom.
The Gays moved to Cortland in November 2008 from Madisonville, Tenn., where the church’s congregation numbered about 100 — less than one-third of United Presbyterian’s 330 active members.
“I was not from East Tennessee and that was a problem,” John Gay said. “I had a lot of problems there because of that. Luckily I got the job here. We love this city, this region and this church.”
Gay replaced the Rev. James Hicks, who retired. He has been the only pastor at the church since last spring, when Associate Pastor Matthew Medford became senior pastor of a church in Ohio.
Gay enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in 1991 in Anacortes, Wash., on Fidalgo Island in Puget Sound. He said he was an excellent student but was not accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy right away, so he enlisted and trained as a nuclear technician, then was accepted to the Naval Academy Prep School and to the academy.
“I was a good student but I would never say I was scholarly in any way,” he said.
He met Jennifer Gay at Annapolis and they served on different ships after graduation in 1997, out of Norfolk, Va. John Gay was a strike officer on a battle cruiser, in charge of launching missiles if he needed to. Jennifer served as a gunnery officer on a destroyer.
“I liked my job — I was the one who pushed the button,” he said. “I didn’t like going out to sea, that was boring, but I liked that.”
The couple were discharged after John Gay developed asthma, something he could not have if he served on a ship, with its many smells. He held a number of positions in sales, custodial supervision, management at World Kitchen in Corning. He said he and his wife felt their Christian faith growing during those years, as they started a family. They had been baptized as babies, but they decided to become Christians in 1999.
John Gay was trying to figure out what career suited him.
“I heard the call to the ministry but I ignored it,” he said. “Then I got laid off from my job as a car salesman in Mt. Vernon, Wash., two days before Michael was born. So we had two kids and I had no job.
When he told his wife he was going to apply to seminaries, she said it was about time. John Gay was accepted to the seminary at the University of Dubuque, Iowa, and studied for three years while he held part-time jobs. The congregation of his church back in Washington also raised about $4,000 to help him.
His study at the church is lined with theology books. He has begun preparing to study for a doctorate in divinity from the University of Dubuque. He begins thinking about his Sunday sermon on Monday, reading scripture, sometimes translating it from Hebrew or Greek, and mulling over what it means to him. Saturday is his day off. On Sunday morning, the sermon comes to him, and he delivers it without notes.
Gay’s weekdays consist of managing the church, with a part-time secretary and sexton, and helping church members any way he can. The church has committees, bible study groups, Sunday school, a board of elders that governs it. Gay visits people in hospitals and nursing homes. He counsels church members who come to his office.
“It could be a teenager with school problems, or an adult with a decision to make,” he said. “When somebody needs me, it’s a powerful experience. Somebody in the hospital who is scared of having a surgery, maybe. To share the peace, to tell them God is in charge, to hold their hand and pray with them — that’s powerful.”
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