with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

An Unusual Tea With the Ladies

As part of the outreach program and women’s ministry of Brent’s family’s church, his mother, Lynda Kay, is one of the main minds and bodies behind a very unusual tea. It is a women’s tea held every month or two at the church’s huge social activities center, and it is only for women, though the occasional man does pitch in. This, in and of itself, is not unusual. What is unusual is that there is a breakfast, then three mini-workshops/classes then a luncheon tea and a guest speaker. What is even more unusual is that more than 500 women show up for this “tea”.

Oh, there is plenty more unusual to be found, but for them, this is “how it is done properly”.

Tea tables fill the huge basketball court hall, photo by Lorelle VanFossenEach church member participating invites friends, family, and whoever they meet to the tea. They decorate their table(s) with their own table cloth, china, glasses, napkins, and centerpiece, making each table unique. There is usually a theme and this time was “festivities” to go with Thanksgiving and Christmas, and cover the next two months until the next tea. The tables for this tea were phenomenal. Each one was unique with some featuring huge Blue and snow men adorn this lovely table, photo by Lorelle VanFossenvariations on santa Claus, angels, bouquets of floral arrangements, small Christmas trees, tea pots from ancient times or dolled up to be fancy pots, wreaths, you name it. One of my personal favorites was one decorated with a white fuzzy cloth cut to look like it was dripping snow and ice off the edge of the table, and it featured a total snow scene with a two foot tall snow man in the middle, complete with stick arms. Snow flakes in Styrofoam and plastic decorated everything. It was amazing.

Tea table adored with gold and glitz, photo by Lorelle VanFossenAs I walked around to check out and photograph the tables before the hoards showed up, everyone was eager to show me their different tables. I noticed one table with a striking metallic gold ribbon that reminded me of Mrs. Kelly’s (my “adopted” grandmother) Thanksgiving centerpiece from my childhood and commented on how lovely the texture was. The woman grinned and announced proudly that this was her favorite thing. “I got that on a present over 20 years ago and, lordy, how many things I’ve found to use it on.” She went on and on about the uses, from decorating the table, mantle, centerpieces, doors, etc., but what amazed me is that of all the beautiful things on the table, this metallic gold ribbon, beginning to look a little overused, was her personal pride stone. She was totally thrilled I’d noticed. I told her how I also loved the use of the fake red roses to make the centerpiece and how, after living in Israel for so long, Christmas would now be associated with the ever-winter blooming roses (instead of blooming snow), and she said, “Isn’t that nice. You know, I thought about putting the ribbon in the roses but decided to line the table with it. I think it was the right decision.” I could do nothing else but agree with her and her love for her ribbon.

A tea table adorned with holiday words, photo by Lorelle VanFossenAnother woman involved with the production of the event, Joan, is an absolute sweetheart and she found me just as I had finished my inspection of the tables. I told her that I’d looked at all of them, but she insisted on hand holding me through them again, pointing out specifics, and specific people, as we went, so I got the royal tour as well as my self-guided one. I have to admit, though, I saw many new things on my way back through as each table features so many details, you just don’t get to see them all at once.

Some of the left over cakes made over several days by Lynda Kay, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThe food for the tea is provided by the women of the church. Brent’s mother and a few other ladies had been cooking for the past two days solid and all morning. Lynda Kay baked 15 cakes the first day and another 10 or so the next, along with making up the salads and main course. Besides being one of the official cake makers, she is the official cutter and slicer, she says. No one else likes to cut the onions, celery and carrots and stuff, and when they do, they go for the bigger chunks to speed up the process. Not her. They are cut finely and perfectly and while it takes time , they are done right, so they leave her to it. The hours standing and slicing and dicing takes its toll on her back and feet, so right after the tea was done and we got home, she was under family orders to sit and do nothing. And she did…sorta. She can’t sit still for very long but I held her down as best I could.

Lynda Kay and her daughter, Lisa, pause for a moment during the tea, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThe whole thing was a family affair. Brent’s sister, Lisa, helped her mother decorate their table together and Kent, Brent’s dad, pitched in along with Lisa for the clean-up afterwords. Everyone helped. To feed 500 people and accomodate all of the activities, workshops, and food going on around, it takes an army of volunteers.

The food was incredible. There was breakfast muffins and juices for the early attendees. The lunch was buffet style with a lovely chicken casserole, two green salads with fruits and vegetables, cherry/cranberry/marshmallow salad, and a bread roll. Deserts were a chocolate cake with white Kent helps with the cleanup after the tea, photo by Lorelle VanFossenpeppermint candies frosting and a fantastic yellow cake covered with an unusual tasting cherry mixture. Very excellent. The lines for the food went fairly quickly and everyone seemed to have more than enough food, which was a nice change from some of the skimpy food things I’ve been to.

Before the lunch, though, there were three 25 minute workshops – more mini classes. The idea behind the mini-ness was to provide a “taste” of the different programs, events, and people within the church. I attended a charming “introduction to international holiday tea traditions” and another one on cookie decorating for the holidays. I asked Lynda Kay if the church offered classes on tea and cookies and she said “no”. Same answer for the rest of the programs presented. So I told her I was missing the “sample of what’s available in the church” part of the message. She explained that it didn’t matter as long as people had fun and saw what was possible, meeting the people and feeling the energy and commitment to the church. Okay. Setting an example. This I understand, but the tea and cookie class could have been three hours long and I would have loved Our tea instructor, photo by Lorelle VanFossenevery minute. Most of the programs had a serious religious slant, and I’ve had enough religion to last quite a while. They included “books as gifts” (religious), “saving money tips” (family and religious oriented – god will provide but you have to clip the coupons), “gifts from the heart” (religious hand-made gifts), “making holiday traditions” (new ways to bring religion into your family), etc.

The tea traditions around the world was fascinating, but unfortunately the speaker spent 10 minutes praising god and the women’s tea program and not enough on tea itself. But I heard she got better as she progressed through the three repeated programs. The cookie speaker created fabulous cookies, but unfortunately apologized every time she opened her mouth before saying anything of value. She had so much good information to share and we’d have to wait through the apology for whatever she was about to do or say, and then she’d spill out the info.

At least four times she repeated, “Now, I’m sorry to say this, and it is to help me remember and not you, and I’m sorry but I have to remember that making cookies is not about perfect cookies. I’m sorry but perfect ones I do later for the neighbors. When working with my kids, I’m sorry but I have to remember this for me, it is about quality time with the mommie and the children and not about the perfect cookies. Sorry for saying that.”

I wanted to slap her silly after the second time, imagine how frustrated I was after the fourth!

But she had great information and really did amazing cookie decorations. I’ll provide the recipe she gave along with info on tea in the next blog entry.

Brent’s sister, Lisa, who was also helping with the tea and co-hosting the table with her mother, and I decided to bag out on the third workshop and check out the pretty tables. The only other program of interest to me was the money savings one and Lisa had just come from it and she said that while some of it was interesting, it wasn’t much new information. Mostly dedicated towards people with young children with tips like find the restaurants which give kids free meals and eat there, and only order water with your meal because the sodas are really expensive and you can drink 4 at home for the price of 1 at a restaurant. I think sodas are a big money waster anyway as they are bad for you and expensive, so we rarely get more than gas water or water with our meals anyway, and I don’t have kids, so she admitted that little of that program would have been of interest to me. I agreed and we went to check out the tables.

Being around so many American women, I was thrilled to see so many southern religious women have given up the puff and bad hair days. But there are still a few who insist on four hours of back combing and ratting to create these horrendous beehives from the 40s and 50s – 1700s – layered with enough lacquer (hair spray) to wall off a herd of cattle. Shoot, the Israelis should build the security fence out of this kind of hair spray. It’d be one very strong but almost invisible fence. Boy, I saw some big bad hair. When will all those brilliant make over shows grab these women and slice their big hair off? These are probably the same women who hate men’s hair pieces but refuse to give up their own.

But everyone was nice and kind and very surface social. I’d tried hard to forget about the surface social crap. “Hi, how are you?” “Fine, you?” “Fine.” “Nice day, isn’t it?” “Oh, just lovely.” And it is piss pouring outside but these people are repeating verses they don’t even listen to. It is just part of the ritual without true meaning. I hate it. Besides the “fines” it was nice to visit with people I knew slightly and others new. I sat next to Brent’s Aunt Dorothy, and while I tried to make the conversation interesting, she followed the surface stuff as is appropriate to the social situation. There were a lot of distractions, and I know she loves a good debate and intellectual conversation, so I just went along for the ride, too. The food was good. And I loved how Dorothy could identify immediately what the flavors in the cherry desert were. We were all trying to guess and she had it in one bite. Amazing.

The organization of the child care for the tea was also a work of art. The older kids were all collected up and taken to a nearby high school for a swim. The babies were taken care of in special rooms dedicated to this in the church, and mothers were given pagers so they could be notified if there were any problems. Amazing coordination. Very professional.

All of it was professional and well done. Donations were accepted in baskets near the door and you could put in whatever amount you felt appropriate. This method does some interesting things. One, it actually does pay for most of the costs. They also sell books and other gift items to help offset the costs. According to Lisa and her mother, this totally pays for itself and no money comes from the church. Any left over goes to the church, though. By accepting donations, they keep the group as a non-profit and it also keeps the food inspectors away because the women don’t have to have food handling permits and meet all the rest of the requirements for food safety, though they are fanatical. More so than most restaurants. You don’t have to pay and you don’t have to eat, so everything is voluntary. Neat trick.

The fact that this is a self-supporting ministry is amazing. Over 500 ladies attended from all over the state, not just from Tulsa. They estimated that about 30% were church members and the rest non-members. Their hope is to set such an example, people can’t help but want to join. According to Lynda Kay, about 15 people have moved themselves and their families to the church over the past four years of these efforts. To me, that isn’t much of a return on such an incredible investment of effort, but what I found in reality is that this effort raises the public awareness of this particular church, its efforts in the community, and creates a bond with other churches. Creating a church “community” is really important, and I see this as a tremendous PR effort on behalf of that. And it also provides a service, time for busy women to socialize and come together, though I’d have like to see a little more social and a lot longer workshops, but it worked, which is even more amazing.

It was fun to be there and I met some really interesting people. I’m glad I went. I don’t know how Brent’s mother survives it, but then I’ve done similar exhausting things, but they didn’t involve food. So I understand, appreciate and emphasis with the exhaustion level.

Tulsa, Oklahoma

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