- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In the fall of 2002, the Washington region was gripped by fear. Snipers indiscriminately targeted individuals in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Outdoor activities and homecoming parades were canceled for fear that schoolchildren would become sitting ducks for a sniper’s bullet. People crouched next to their cars at gas stations. And thousands of parents wondered how safe it would be to send their children into the streets to trick-or-treat.

By the time John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were finally caught on the night of Oct. 24 that year, 10 people had been killed and three wounded. The two have since been convicted; Muhammad faces execution in a few weeks, and Malvo is serving a life sentence.

With the snipers caught, trick-or-treating was able to continue as planned for most families in the Washington area, but some had already made alternative plans. One such group was Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Beltsville, where church members had come up with a solution to the safety issues surrounding Halloween: a “Trunk-or-Treat.”

“When we had heard that there was a chance of canceling trick-or-treat, which is a very fun time for kids, we thought that was not acceptable, so we came up with the solution of inviting kids to our parking lot, which is behind our church,” said Kathy Mellott, family life coordinator at Emmanuel. “It’s a secluded area, so no one really knows it’s there. It’s surrounded by neighborhood houses, so it’s not a big, open area. We invited neighborhood kids. We informed the elementary schools. We had it all in place, and then the sniper got caught, and we did it anyway.”

With Muhammad scheduled for execution on Nov. 10 in Virginia and the fears of October 2002 in the past, Emmanuel continues what has become a tradition for the church, one that has caught on elsewhere around the region, including New Hope Church in Lorton.

Emmanuel members park their cars in the church parking lot, decorate them, and distribute candy to children who go car-to-car instead of house-to-house. This year’s trunk-or-treat will take place Saturday from 6:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.

“Even though it started from a really bad thing, it’s become a pretty popular and fun thing for our church. It’s a community outreach,” said Ms. Mellott, who has audiology practices in three suburban Maryland locations. “A couple good things have come from it.”

She pointed out several church members who were first introduced to Emmanuel through the program, including a local family who started bringing their special-needs teenager to the church.

The church also offers English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and has about 50 students. Pastor Daniel Mejia, who has been at the church since July 2006, said that the program also allows those students to bring their children to participate in an American tradition.

Church volunteers “teach classes to people with no English skills at all, to people getting their citizenship,” Mr. Mejia said. Though he couldn’t say for sure, Mr. Mejia said that “close to half of them would come with their kids, if they have children, to participate and receive candy.”

Ms. Mellott said the best part of the event is the safety it provides for families.

“You don’t feel you have to x-ray the candy,” she said. “The reason we started it was safety, and I still feel that’s a big thing. I know we get some of the same families year after year, and they almost always have a little tiny kid in tow. And it’s so much easier going car to car.”

All trunk-or-treaters get glow sticks, distributed by the Boy Scouts, for safety during the event. Cars are backed in to the sidewalk so that children don’t have to run through the parking lot to move from vehicle to vehicle.

The program has become part of the overall church outreach, which includes summer family movie nights, food drives to feed the homeless, and a December presentation of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with proceeds going to charity. All of the events are open to the public.

“We’re trying to do things that will, in some ways, help us to connect with the community and then also have an element of service attached to the outreach,” Mr. Mejia said.

Children are encouraged to participate in Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, which involves asking those who give candy to make a small donation to UNICEF as well. Though very little of this fundraising happens at the trunk-or-treat itself, church members have found a way to include it as part of the Halloween festivities.

“Our Sunday school sponsors a morning, which is Nov. 1 this year, where the kids are encouraged to wear their costumes to Sunday morning worship and Sunday school,” Ms. Mellott said. “Then there will be a time when the congregation knows to bring change, and the kids will stand out in the hallway. And as the parishioners go by, they drop money in the boxes.”

Even though Muhammad will be in the news as questions loom regarding whether he will receive clemency from Gov. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, the fears that prompted the original trunk-or-treat are no longer a part of the equation.

“We’re doing the trunk-or-treat because we want to provide a safe environment,” Mr. Mejia said. “So from my perspective spiritually, I just see it as a fun activity. I try not to draw any spiritual conclusions from it. But again, I see the society doing it, having fun, so why not turn it around and make it a positive experience for the parents and for the children?”

Meredith Hulley is a freelance writer-photographer and University of Maryland student.

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