How do I even start to tell you about the thirty-seven years of tradition that came to an end last night?
My husband and I were married in July of 1981. I still had another year of college ahead of me, so we moved into a trailer that was provided for married student housing. As it so happened, quite a few of my friends from Africa days were attending the same university. Now that we had our own place, one of the first things I wanted to do was have everyone over for chai.
So we put out the word and I spent all afternoon making samosas and then everyone came and crammed into our tiny living room. I think we had a total of seventeen people. To newlyweds, that seemed like a lot! And I was amazed to find that a gallon of chai was not enough.
For the rest of that school year, we continued to have this same group of friends over every month—all of them African MKs or international students. Then my husband graduated, and we moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia for two years. During that time our friends PJ and CO Cooley kept the tradition going. (Both of them had gone to high school in Kenya with me.)
We moved back to East Texas in 1984, and our house once again became chai party central. The focus was still on MKs and international students from Africa, but after a while some other students became envious. We started getting questions like, “Can an MK from South America come?” “Can I come even though I’m from Papua New Guinea?”
I admit, I had to adjust my thinking a little. I had always thought of chai parties as our cozy little African group, and throwing it open would of course change the dynamic. On the other hand. I am so egalitarian by nature that I won’t even join an organization that I feel is exclusionary or snobbish in any way. So I could hardly defend the idea of keeping chai parties exclusive to Africans if others wanted in!
Almost overnight, it seemed, attendance jumped from fifteen or so to thirty or forty. We had a bigger living room now, but it was still strained to the limit. Those were fun days. Sometimes we’d pull out the kids’ Lego and let the students build with it. Other times we played games or made paper airplanes.
In 1993 we left again, this time to serve in Zambia for eighteen months. During that time, our friends and next-door neighbors Dave and Sylvia Ramaly hosted the chai parties at their house. Dave was an MK from Central America and Sylvia from the Philippines. When we returned in 1994, we went to a chai party at their house and they asked us if we’d be willing to take over hosting again. How could we say no? We had rented a house in the same neighborhood, still within easy walking distance from campus.
Our first chai party in the new house we realized we had a problem. Our living room and dining room were completely filled with people. You could not see the floor or walk through the sweltering room. The air conditioning couldn’t keep up! That night we made the decision to move the parties outside. We had a nice brick patio, a carport where we could set out serving tables, and a yard that was spacious enough to hold a hundred people or more.
Once we moved outdoors, some new traditions began—like having a fire for the students to sit around, and a grill where they could roast marshmallows. In 2001 we moved to this house (which shares a backyard boundary with our old rental house) and had even more yard space to share. My husband had salvaged some old wooden folding tables and plastic chairs the university discarded, and we have given them an honorable second life.
Students came and students went—hundreds of them. Some of them became like members of our family, only to vanish when they graduated, never to be heard from again. Some drove for hours to come back and attend chai parties after they graduated. Many contacted us at some point to tell us that our chai parties had been their lifeline in college—the one place where they felt accepted and welcome.
We even had the police called on us a couple of times over the years. You can imagine their bemusement when they showed up to check us out, only to find a yard full of wholesome college students drinking tea and singing worship songs!
At the “height” of our chai party years, we averaged 80-120 college students at each event. I often had to make 15-25 gallons of chai in one evening. Snacks became simpler because of the large numbers, but we always made brownies and rice krispy treats. Future married couples met and some later got engaged during chai parties. We feel a special fondness for them!
When we started in 1981, our guests were our own personal friends. Later, we were kind of a big brother/big sister to the college students. By the time our own kids started college, the relationship was more of a surrogate parent dynamic, but it still seemed to work.
Over the last ten years or so, however, things began to change. Attendance began to decline. The university at long last began doing more to acclimate and include international students. Social media made it possible for MKs to stay in touch with their home culture and thus avoid the traumatic re-entry that I and so many others experienced. More and more we realized that we were no longer meeting a true need. Chai parties were a fun thing that students came to if they had no other more exciting plans. They didn’t need them anymore. And with our own kids grown and no longer on campus promoting chai parties, attendance fell even more.
It was hard to make the call. After thirty-seven years, how do you stop? Instead of just announcing after the exam week party in May that we would no longer be doing them, we decided to do this one last “farewell” party this summer—and I’m so glad we did. I put the word out early and often. Almost right away I heard from our friends Marlan and Rachel in Albuquerque, saying they planned to drive in for the chai party.
A couple of days before the party, I received a message from a girl who was planning to drive in from Denton with her husband. Her church had given them several large pans of food and she wanted to know if she could bring them to the chai party. So we really went out in style with a sit-down dinner. She brought massive pans of sliced turkey, beef brisket, broad beans, and coleslaw (with barbeque sauce and a couple of quarts of jalapenos too). We added some buns and paper goods and we had a great buffet set up!
Based on the Facebook responses, I was hoping for about 50 people. In actual fact, we had over a hundred during the course of the evening. It was one happy surprise after another as various friends from past chai parties walked into the yard. Marlan and Rachel arrived in good time and we were able to enjoy dinner on the patio with them before it became crowded.
Missionary friends came. Students who had attended ten or twenty years ago came, many of them with kids in tow. So. Many. Children. This is what happens when college students get married and have families and stay in the same area as the university! One mom told me her oldest son was very disappointed to realize chai parties would not be available to him when he attends the university in a few years.
We even received a couple of surprise gifts! One was a bar of heavenly-smelling handmade soap. The other was this beautiful inscribed tray:
A gift from the university’s Office of Global Initiatives. Isn’t it beautiful? What a lovely memento.
The evening was so full of fun and laughter and good fellowship. Since it was also Bastille Day, we brought out some sparklers and passed them around after most of the very young children had left. Late at night Jasper and his buddies had a jalapeno eating contest. Jasper won.
Shortly after midnight, when we were getting ready to shut the party down, our friends Femi and Kristina finally arrived with their son Josef, so we stayed up to visit some more. I didn’t make it to bed until 2:00. Good thing we had already decided not to go to church this morning . . .
I don’t know what the next thing is. I can’t imagine not trying to do something to have a positive impact on our community, but I haven’t figured out what that might be yet. Meanwhile, I am just so grateful for the last amazing 37 years. That’s more than 300 chai parties and untold pans of brownies and gallons of chai—but most of all, it’s the people who came into our lives and enriched them, year after year. If you ever came to one of our chai parties, thank you. We’re so glad you came.