Now the story can be told.
About 15 years ago my friend Linda suggested to me that it would be really cool to make care packages for the college kids in our church. I think what gave Linda the idea was that she was receiving care packages from her “home” church back in Missouri because she was going to seminary and she knew how good it felt to get a package . That, plus the fact that her own kid was about to go into college and she wanted to get his bases covered. We decided to do it around All Saints Day with a Halloween theme. By the end of October the glow of being in college has worn off and you start thinking about home.
We would typically gather at Ann’s house because she lived on a private lake on the edge of one of Garland’s suburbs. Until I moved out here to the boondocks, it was the only house in our group that was close to being in “the country.” This was important because one of our favorite parts of gathering together was a giant bonfire we would have. Once the boxes were assembled we would eat a chili dog and go outside and have a big old bonfire.
Charlie and Ann would save up any brush or timber they cut on their five acres over the preceding year and create a gigantic pile of wood for our fire. I’m not sure Texas A&M’s annual bonfire could beat ours. One year I remember we had a torrential thunderstorm that night. We ended up on the balcony outside Ann and Charlie’s bedroom watching the storm. I have never seen lightning like this in my life. It was pink and travelled sideways. It was so remarkable, in fact that the newspapers and everybody in church the next day were talking about the pink lightning that travelled sideways. But even better than the lightning was the fire. It was so big and so hot that this torrential rain couldn’t put it out. Once the storm passed we looked down and noticed the fire was still glowing red. The flames flickered and returned to life. Our fire had battled the rain and won.
Sitting around that fire we would have some of the greatest conversations I’ve ever been part of. The group of women who gathered changed over time but it was always the best conversationalists I know. Early on I decided we could travel the alphabet to find topics for our evening. We started with A and advanced to the next letter every year. As if we might possibly run out of things to talk about. One great conversation, for example, was the C year when we explored the question: “If Jesus had served Girl Scout cookies at the last supper what flavor would he have used?” We had us some great times talking around those bonfires. Except for the year the cops came.
That year the pile of brush waiting for the All Saints bonfire ended up next to three new peach trees. Once Ann realized how close our bonfire would be to the trees she wetted down some bed sheets and draped them over the trees to keep them from catching fire. We lit our fire and sat back to solve a couple of the world’s problems. We were about half-way to the Nobel Peace prize when Charlie came down to the fire laughing his head off. The neighbors across the lake had sent the police to the house because there were some people “doing satanic rituals” at his house. I’m sure the white sheets on the peach trees didn’t help our case any. He told us he reported to the cops that we were just a bunch of church ladies and were “probably sitting around talking about the bible.”
Which, in fact, we were—in our own special way. I think this was our “H” year and we were talking about “Will Hitler get to heaven?” It might have been, “Did Jesus have a sense of humor?” But I think that one could have been the J year because now that I think of it the question was “Did Jesus tell jokes?” I remember we decided the answer was “yes” on the sense of humor. I think the jury is still out on Hitler. Most likely we gave thanks that it wasn’t our decision to make.
After that year we dubbed ourselves the Witches of Willow Lake and for the next few years our celebrations included witches hats in addition to chili dogs, care packages and conversations. And Ann started calling the fire department and getting permission for the bonfire.
We also became the best kept secret in Garland, Texas. For a few years I sent the boxes using my company’s UPS account and the kids had absolutely no way of knowing where the boxes came from. But eventually they checked with friends and figured out the church was the common denominator. I even overheard one teenager telling a new kid that when they got to college everybody got a care package at Halloween. After I quit working at the place with the UPS account the boxes would go out through the mail with only the church’s return address. But we were not an official function of the church. We were Secret Angels, albeit angels who wore witches hats and danced around bonfires on Halloween night.
About eight years into the tradition I was at a joint meeting of the session and the diaconate, the two governing bodies of our congregation. All the leaders were in one room, representing every committee in our church. We were doing some planning for the coming year. Someone said something about the care packages for the college kids. Someone else asked, “Yeah, whose committee does that?” Everyone in the room looked at each other in expectation. Membership said they didn’t do it. Christian Education said it wasn’t them. We had every single committee of the church sitting in a giant circle and no one knew who had been doing the boxes for the college kids. They had a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that something was happening outside of a committee; there was a ministry they didn’t supervise, didn’t have to worry about and didn’t control. It still makes me laugh to remember that moment. To this day, no one outside the witches knows exactly who was behind the boxes.
A few years ago about half of the group, including Ann, moved away and the effort started wilting. When we saw the tradition of the anonymous packages dying off we knew we had to give it a new life and invited a committee to take it over. We're still going to try to keep it relatively secret. And here I go blabbing it all over the internet. Maybe the kids won't read this.
The important thing is that the college kids will again receive a care package around Halloween after some off-years. Charlie called me last week to read an article in his newspaper that reminded him of our gatherings. But I still miss those years of friends and the bonfires.