Today’s “harvest parties” are the Christian version of Halloween. You dress up in costumes, go to your church, play a bunch of cheaply constructed games and are rewarded with candy. Evangelical kids are so lucky these days. When I was younger, we never had anything like that. Way back when, you were either scared (witches sacrificing children! Razor blades in candy bars!), or pious (“Oh, we don’t do Halloween. Too many demonic connotations.”). I think in our case my mom honestly just kept forgetting about it. I remember her absentmindedly noting that it was almost October 31st, and then bundling us all into the car to go to the store. Once there, my two sisters and I were allowed to each pick out our own bag of candy. I remember thinking: this is the best day ever. Our mom never, ever let us eat candy.
But, things have changed. Like so many, Christian parents find themselves battling the enormous cultural pressures surrounding holidays. Churches now feel compelled to offer safe alternatives to pagan celebrations. And so, harvest parties were born.
Two years ago I took three Somali Bantu girls to one such event at my new church. Hali was the oldest, at 15, dependable and serious and extremely naïve. Manoi, age 10, was a typical middle child—intuitive, shy, complicated, artistic. And then there was Abey, age 9, who was a whirlwind of questions and laughter and tears, both exhausting and charming. I had been working with these particular girls for the past six years, focusing my efforts on helping their family any way that I could: English lessons, homework help, grocery shopping, welfare forms.
I was excited. It was our first big outing at our new church. My husband and I had recently settled on attending this particular fellowship after much deliberation (this one was too liberal, this one was too boring, this one was too sad, this one had too many ironic mustaches). We liked this particular church because people sang like they meant it, they clapped off beat and the preacher shouted sometimes. Also, there was a picture of Black Jesus on the wall, which I thought was cool and edgy.
It was this Black Jesus, with his kind eyes and dreadlocks, that gave me the false sense of security that we all would be welcomed at this harvest party. We had heard it said from the pulpit several times that this event was for the community. We were the community! And I felt sure we would be extra liked, for we would be bringing the diversity. Everyone would feel awesome.
I had to talk the girls into going. Their family believed that going into a Christian church would cast a curse on them. I had found this out the hard way several years earlier when I had taken car-fulls of Somali Bantu kids to a harvest party at a church near my Bible College. Once there Hali mentioned the curse thing, but I brushed it off (I was studying Islam in school, after all, and I had never heard of such a thing), and bribed them all to go inside (candy!). When the parents found out, I was in big trouble, and even blacklisted for a while. The only other time I ever saw a Somali Bantu in church was at my own wedding, when the three girls were my flower girls.
So I was a little nervous. But I mentioned the candy situation several times, and with a surprising lack of drama their mom said they could go. I asked them what they wanted to dress up as, and all three said, without skipping a beat: “Princesses.” I tried to be cool about it, but this was rather disheartening. “Why do you want to be princesses so badly?” I asked.
“We love Cinderella and Snow White sooooooo much,” they sighed. “They are so so so beautiful!”
This was especially discouraging because I knew that they meant it. I made some pointed remarks about how I thought Jasmine and Mulan were pretty cool, only to be met with scorn. Finally, I rummaged around in my closet and found a bunch of Punjabi suits from my missionary stint in India at age 17 and shouted: “Bollywood princesses!” It was one of my proudest moments ever. I whipped up a couple of crowns with cardboard and copious amounts of glitter, put a bunch of gold eye shadow on them, and dressed them up to look Indian (we did keep the headscarves on, naturally). They loved it. They begged me to take pictures and hammed it up for the camera, as unselfconscious as I had ever seen them. My husband, due to his overgrown beard and penchant for flannel, took up a toy ax and instantly became a lumberjack. I went as myself: the embarrassingly earnest volunteer.
And then we got there, and we were definitely the uncool kids at the Jr. high dance. Everyone stared at us. You would think they had they never seen a young couple in their 20s hanging out with a bunch of oddly dressed African Muslim girls before. Also, we seemed to have missed the memo that the party was geared towards toddlers. My girls stood around, towering over all the little white kids running around, becoming increasingly aware that everyone was staring at them. My social anxiety kicked into high gear, and I started babbling to any parent who eyed me quizzically about the importance of “safe spaces” on nights like these. The girls tried to navigate the strangely complex system of traveling to different stations to play different cheap games in exchange for stickers, which they could turn in for a bag of candy once all the stations were done. It was stupid. Nobody talked to us. Nobody welcomed us. We were alone in a sea of people who all looked alike and who all seemed to know each other, all in their mid-30s with highlights in their hair and children named Aiden.
The girls were smart, and they knew they didn’t fit in. And as they recognized their Otherness through the views of these church people, they shrunk into themselves a little bit more. I could see the change, see it in their eyes when they stopped feeling beautiful and instead felt foolish.
In an instant, my embarrassment turned to rage. I hated all those rich white kids with their store-bought costumes. I hated that picture of Black Jesus and all those people who sang so lustily on Sunday mornings. I hated that they tricked me into bringing these beautiful girls into this place. For the past six years I had been trying to explain to these lovelies that they weren’t that different, that we were more similar than not. We were neighbors, we were friends, we were family. But instead this place, my church, I had called it my church, made them feel like the Others, just like everyone else.
We assessed the situation, stole some stickers when backs were turned, and were rewarded with tiny bags of the cheap stuff, the Tootsie Rolls and such. I made a decision then to reject what this place had offered us that night, and grandly refused the candy. We ushered the girls into the car and drove to the nearest grocery store where we let them each pick out a big bag of their favorite candy. Their eyes grew wide and they started to giggle again.
On the way home it was pretty quiet. Eventually from the back seat Manoi made an observation: “All those people were looking at us. Everywhere we go, people are staring.” And I felt crushed at having been the one to subject them to this situation, and for trying to solve the looks and whispers with my fun size candy bars. The harvest party was just another experience in alienation, adding to the relentless pounding of a message whispering in their ears all the day long, “you are different, you are different, you are different.” I knew that pretty soon they might decide to surround themselves only with those who are different in the same way, different just like them.
And trying to protect my girls from this withdrawal from others, I realized that this is what harvest parties are all about. The church, me and my kind, had become so focused on taking care of our own that we would neglect all those who didn’t conform, who weren’t in our club. And I remembered my own mom, and how maybe her carefully orchestrated ambivalence had been her own way of protecting us from this withdrawal. Maybe my mom had been trying to soften the blow of our Otherness, of our separateness, of our nonobservance of an increasingly ridiculous cultural holiday.
I had done the opposite. I had drawn attention to the differences in a misguided attempt to make us all feel good: the girls, to have a good time, and me, to be seen by the church as a good person. I hadn’t protected them, because I am just as inward-focused as all those people I go to church with.
Supposedly St. Augustine once said, “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.” That about sums it up. I am like a cynical teenager, embarrassed by the terrible music and haphazard politics of the church. But I am also amazed at her steadfastness, her patience and perseverance throughout all these long years. I love her when her arms are wide open, and despise her when they shut. I forever am running away and then always come back towards her.
Because as different as I feel sometimes, I know I am a part of her.