From Connections: Darlene's story: One flew over the deacon's wife

By Darlene Warren

BIG SANDY, Texas--It was something I will never forget, the inhumanity of it all seared in my mind forever. It is only now, after all these years, that I can even begin to talk about it without experiencing the nausea that often comes with witnessing a traumatic event.

I've spent a lifetime working through the psychological issues that have clouded my spirit since the incident occurred. I feel I have dealt with the situation as well as anyone could have, given the circumstances. Yet I have come to realize that the healing road is a never-ending one. I have my good days and bad days.

A change in picnic protocol

I was a witness to a mass murder. Not only a witness, but a participant, albeit unwilling. It wasn't for the money; it wasn't for the high that some killers get from the taking of a life; it wasn't a crime of passion. It was a systematic, cold-blooded, premeditated killing--all in the name of a church picnic.

On the surface we were like any other church congregation. Every summer we planned at least one picnic where everyone got together and grilled hamburgers and ate watermelon.

But this particular summer was different. Somehow (this is where the details become sketchy) one of the deacons in our congregation procured 400 chickens (live ones), and, "sure," the minister said, "we're having a picnic, but we're not having hamburgers this year. We're having chicken."

Firstfruits under the table?

I should have seen it coming. I should have said something. But I was young and naive. I did not yet realize the implications until it was too late.

Looking back, I think it should have been obvious to any and all that the minister was on the take. There were firstfruits involved!

(For those of you who didn't grow up in a church area with lots of rural brethren, back in the '60s and '70s it was common for church members to present the minister with the first yielding of vegetables from their garden and sometimes livestock from their herds as a sort of tithe.)

If the minister could arrange a transaction with the deacon and purchase the chickens with money out of the local church activity fund, the deacon might feel obligated to skim a few extra birds off the top as firstfruits.

(Of course, this part is all speculation. It has never been proven, and time has erased all evidence that might have, at one time, led us to the real truth.)

Like I said, it has been a never-ending road to recovery, but I finally feel I can tell the story without fear of prosecution.

Work parties are fun, fun, fun!

As I recall, the Sunday before our scheduled annual picnic we had a mandatory work party. (At least it was mandatory in my family.) We arrived at the scene early in the morning. Church members' cars already lined the deacon's driveway and then some.

As we walked around the house and continued down to the barn area, there was a huge, black cast-iron pot filled with scalding water sitting atop some sort of gas burner adjacent to an old tree stump.

People were lined up receiving instructions from the deacon, and as we arrived on the scene we were all assigned a job.

It was an assembly line of monstrous proportions. I took it all in, much the way a camera captures a picture. The men in the group began grabbing the animals by their legs and pulling them out of their pens. They then handed them off to the young people in the group to hold (by the chickens' feet) until the lovely Mrs. Deaconess signaled to have the chicken brought to her as she stood by the old stump, where she summarily cut the bird's head off. (She was so sweet at services.)

I know why the caught bird fights

Before I knew it, a man thrust a chicken at me. (Excuse me for a moment. I still have trouble dealing with this part of the story.)

Not knowing what else to do, I took it by the feet just like it was handed to me. It immediately raised its head to peck my hand. I immediately dropped it.

Mrs. Deaconess stopped her executions only long enough to glare and yell at me--an otherwise lovely woman standing there drenched in blood, an ax in one hand, a chicken in the other, glaring at me.

(I guess the problem was that a loose chicken is hard to catch. What if we all dropped our chickens?)

Another young girl tried to coach me in the finer points of holding a chicken that knows it has only moments to live.

"They calm right down if you rub their stomachs," she said.

Well, there was no way I was going to rub a chicken's stomach. I didn't care how many firstfruits the minister was getting. Where was he, anyway?

I was not on Mrs. Deaconess's good side by this time, and I don't think I ever returned to the crime scene. I don't remember much at all after that. I can testify only that I seem to recall trying to find another way to help out.

The funny thing is, I can't even remember the picnic. But the lesson I learned that day at the work party I'll never forget; it helped mold my future. To this day I've never attended a church picnic that requires a work party that involves deaconesses with axes.

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