Earlier this week I spent a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wandering around the Heavenly Bodies exhibit. Every year the Met holds a huge fundraiser gala with a specific theme. This year the theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which garnered a lot of press attention with its curious combination of fashion and faith (or at least the Church). One of the costumes I saw reminded me of Princess Leia and an essay I wrote awhile back about two Halloween costumes and how they tell the story of at least part of my faith journey:
The first was a costume I wore in 1975. It wasn’t a “Halloween” costume, per se, because the large non-denominational evangelical church my family attended was having a “Harvest Festival” as an alternative to Halloween. I mean, why invite the devil in unnecessarily, right?
For some reason that I don’t fully remember (neither do my parents) or understand, for that matter, I was dressed as King Asa. Don’t know who King Asa is? Yeah, neither do I. I mean, I didn’t then, for sure. And I don’t now, really, except for the fact that I checked the reference sections of a few of my Old Testament textbooks from seminary and also Googled him recently. You can read up on him there, or in a Bible in the book of 2 Chronicles, which is kind of near the front of the Bible.
As it turns out, Asa was the third king of Judah, which was one of the two kingdoms of Israel resulting from a national split after King Solomon died. According to Wikipedia, “Asa was zealous in maintaining the traditional worship of God, and in rooting out idolatry, with its accompanying immoralities,” which, naturally, makes him the obvious choice of Halloween costume for a five-year-old girl.
My family attended New Life Community Church, which met in an elementary school in Orlando, Florida, where we lived briefly when I was five and six. The church worshipped in the school cafeteria, and the community was filled with many, many studiously polite white people who all looked vaguely the same to me.
And I loved going to church. I loved sitting in the tiny, yellow, plastic chairs in the Sunday School room. I loved listening to the Sunday School teacher talk about vines and branches and fruit, although it was not quite clear to me what relationship this had to either church or my own life. I loved the coloring projects and the gold attendance star I got on a big chart every single Sunday when I arrived to class. I loved everything about it, and loving going to church has not changed since then. Mostly.
My parents had four children by then, which in my opinion is way too many, because what they say about children never outnumbering adults should just be a generally accepted rule. In short, my parents had their hands full, and they had taken on the considerable challenges they had with a deep commitment to communicating their evangelical faith to us all.
I am the oldest of what would eventually become a total of five (again, why?), so I was the guinea pig and also the recipient of Parenting Intention that my younger siblings, just for the sake of hours in the day and energy alone, did not receive. For the record, I also have the best-filled-out baby book. This Parenting Intention took many different forms, but one I remember with deep affection is my father, coming in to tell me goodnight at bedtime, and helping me practice memorizing the gospel of Luke, chapter 19. It’s the story of a tax collector called Zacchaeus who was too short to see Jesus walking by, so he climbed up into a tree to get a glimpse, and then Jesus invited him to dinner.
We learned a song about Zacchaeus in Sunday School, and what I learned from the story was that tax collectors are short and being a tax collector is bad, though I didn’t then know what taxes were.
Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
And I learned that Jesus was really nice to invite Zacchaeus to dinner. And what I loved most of all was my Dad, sitting at the end of my bed, helping me practice over and over until I memorized the whole entire chapter, which I would then recite to anyone who would listen.
So I don’t think there was any complaint from me at all when it was decided that I would be King Asa for Halloween. And there really was no reason to hold back any enthusiasm as I marched into the Harvest Festival as the king himself. I wore a mustard-colored terry cloth bathrobe that must have belonged to my mother. It didn’t fit, obviously, but I kind of liked how it dragged on the ground behind me. Like a king’s bathrobe would, I presumed. My hair was slicked back and pinned to the top of my head so I would look like a mini male king. I also recall that I wore a Burger King crown which wasn’t adjusted just right and so kept slipping off my head sideways. Gold chains. There were gold chains in that ensemble, too. And maybe bracelets.
Why would a five-year-old girl dress up as an obscure, male, historical character from the Bible for Halloween (Harvest Festival)? Because that’s what I did when I first started learning about the Church and what it meant to me. We do what the Bible literally says (as the male pastor explains to us). We live our lives apart from the world. We admire and hope to be submissive followers of male leaders (and dress as them for Harvest Festival). We are nice and polite and for the most part look almost exactly the same as one another. We sing upbeat songs about Jesus while holding hands. And we collect gold attendance stars like they are precious jewels.
Three years later everything about Halloween had changed. My family was by then living back in Hawai’i, my father’s home, in a nice suburban neighborhood filled with families that looked like every color of the rainbow: Hawaiian, Caucasian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and so many more. My days were spent in the third grade classroom of Mr. Hass at St. Mark’s Lutheran School. And when Halloween rolled around, it was Halloween—not Harvest Festival.
My parents were then engaged in the work of starting a small evangelical church, so Sunday experiences for me were largely spent babysitting my younger siblings in a side room while the grownups held worship. My Dad would preach sometimes if the pastor was out, and my Mom played the piano. There was a lady who wore a lot of makeup who played the organ. Near the school chapel the little church rented there was a pond filled with tadpoles and bright orange koi fish, so that made going to church at least somewhat fun.
The church was also filled with all kinds of different people, and occasionally a volunteer would offer to teach Sunday School to the older kids, which were me and maybe one more if we were lucky. When that happened we met in the office of the school chaplain, whose walls were lined with books, some of them about SEX, I noticed.
Halloween that year had nothing to do with the rented chapel or the koi pond or the sex books. Instead, Halloween was a huge, neighborhood block party. The rule in the neighborhood was that all the kids would swarm up and down the streets, knocking on doors of houses with their front porch lights on, yelling “Trick or Treat” at the top of our lungs, and pushing each other out of the way to get our open bags filled with candy.
My siblings and I started plotting long in advance for that night, discussing costume choices in great detail with the kids who lived across the street. It was 1978, and I was eight-and-a-half years old by then, emboldened with agency. The outside world had begun creeping into my pristine, insulated life. I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and fell sleep every night with the covers over my head, covertly listening to the soft rock radio station on my newly-acquired Walkman. And the year before, the movie Star Wars had come out.
There was no way to shield us from Star Wars—it was everywhere. Luke Skywalker’s face was all over everybody’s square metal lunch boxes, and Princess Leia…Princess Leia. I deeply, deeply wanted to be Princess Leia. Not just for Halloween, but in real life, too. But definitely for Halloween that year.
To make my costume, I procured a white sheet from the linen closet at the top of the stairs and synched it with a belt from the top drawer of my mother’s dresser. I could drape it just right, but I was having trouble figuring out how to get my shoulder-length, very straight and fine hair into Princess Leia side buns. It was my mother who saved Halloween that year, by parting my hair down the middle and carefully bobby-pinning a balled up pair of her panty hose, one on each side of my head. I borrowed a green, glow in the dark lightsaber from the neighbor across the street and there I was: an eight-year-old Princess Leia.
That was the best Halloween ever. The pack of neighborhood kids traipsed up and down the sidewalks, strategizing about who was likely to have the best candy and what route might cover the most ground. We yelled our excitement and acted out the costumes we wore. And when Trick or Treating was over I went home, one unraveled pair of panty hose still firmly attached to the left side of my head but now dragging behind me, bag bulging with mini Hershey bars and my favorite: Baby Ruths.
Why would an eight-year-old girl dress up as Princess Leia? I guess what I learned that Halloween is: why wouldn’t she? I think that was when I began to learn about what it means to live in the world. Our lives are filled with all different kinds of people and experiences. Current events matter, and living a life engaged in responsive action to those events is important. I am beautiful, and I can choose to show up in the world that way (with the assistance of my Mom). Fighting for what is good and right is the point of life.
And I can wield a lightsaber, too.
These two Halloween (Harvest Festival) costumes are the best metaphor I can summon to explain my spiritual journey—both as a follower of Jesus and as a leader in the Church. All my life I’ve wanted to do the right thing. I love rules and following them well. I believe that God has dreams for our lives and standards for how we should live. And I was given a gift in my evangelical childhood: the gift of order and structure and clear expectations for what a woman of God should do and be in the world.
The problem was, as I kept growing into who I would become, I would constantly trip over the bathrobe of evangelicalism as it related to things like gender roles, exclusion of certain groups of people, lack of engagement in the world, the absence of a deep urgency to do the work of justice and be a radical voice for and with those who lack power. And eventually the bathrobe was too cumbersome for me. I found that I did much better with a draped sheet belted around my waist, two pairs of pantyhose pinned to the sides of my head, and a lightsaber in my hands.
I could be a leader and fight for justice.
I would take a different course than the one set out for me.
And I could love Jesus just as much as I did before, and probably even more.