It’s been a slow process getting folks together for the Church of Christ project. I’ve got some folks that are preparing some thoughts, so we’ll get back to those again in coming weeks. I put this together for a cultural immersion experience paper I had to do for Fuller and thought it was worth sharing here.
When I learned that I would be in Los Angeles on Halloween night, in planning for my trip West, I began searching for Halloween experiences that were uniquely Southern Californian (and also cheap!) I quickly came across the annual celebration that takes place on Santa Monica Blvd. right in the heart of West Hollywood. Several websites I visited stated that the Halloween party in West Hollywood is the largest Halloween street party in the world. Admittedly, I did not know much about West Hollywood or the celebration itself, but with organizers expecting a half million people and admission was free, so I figured it was a pretty worthwhile trip.
Following class on Monday, October 31, I got in my car and drove towards West Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd. until I reached the point where they closed the roads for the celebration. The closer I got to the party, the denser traffic became. Because the area of the celebration is a commercial area surrounded by houses, there were no garages or large lots so it took some time to find a parking spot. I eventually parked at a meter (I was unsure of exactly where I was going, but as I saw more people walking, I assumed I was getting close enough to park and walk), got out of my car, and began following the crowds.
The publicly posted times stated the hours of the carnival were from 6:00 pm until 11:00 pm. Having left immediately after class, I arrived on the scene as things were just getting started. The closer I walked back to Santa Monica Blvd. from my meter, the more people in costumes I saw. The celebration is, after all, a costume party. Darkness was just beginning to fall on the strip, and vendors were in abundance. I got to Santa Monica Blvd. where the road had been closed, and I walked from one end of the strip to the other just observing a culture that was so vastly different from mine.
I would later find out that nearly half of the residents of West Hollywood are gay or bisexual males, although I came to that conclusion on my own fairly quickly through my people watching of the evening. Throughout the strip there were food vendors and other vendors typical of an outdoor carnival. Although I was not planning to spend much money – mainly just people watch – I did need to eat dinner, so I chose a hamburger place that claimed via a large banner hanging outside, “Almost Every Day People Tell Us We Have the Best Burgers in Town” (Hamburger Haven). I decided to award them my patronage for nothing else other than the cleverness of the sign and crammed into a hot restaurant packed with people in costumes awaiting our burgers. While we were waiting in line, this older gentleman was kind enough to allow me to take his picture.
Throughout the street festival there were stages set up where costumed participants could show off their costumes to the crowd. I stopped for several minutes to watch the different costumes parade across the stage where one flamboyantly gay man was emceeing. He welcomed to the stage men in drag, women in leather and lace in addition to children and families. He invited each person to talk about how they made their costume and several admitted that they had spent several months working on them. It is easy for me to focus my attention in this paper on the more unusual sights of the strip where the large gay male population used the event to express themselves in provocative women’s clothing (or no clothes at all, like the large, overweight man laying in the middle of the road did) or women who expressed themselves equally in sexually provocative costumes as all of these individuals certainly made a memorable impression on me. I would be remiss not to mention the most memorable costume of the evening – a giant penis whose austerity of appearance was matched only by the water that squirted out of the top of the costume raining down on the crowd.
Certainly Halloween night in West Hollywood has an overt hedonistic shadow cast over the evening, and there was a time in my life when I probably would have been unable to see beyond that. But on this evening, there were two things that stood out to me from this experience beyond the exploited attention that some were trying so hard to receive.
First of all, while I did not feel out of place for not wearing a costume, I do remember being impressed by the large percentage of people who were participating in wearing costumes. Yes, there was a large gay male population that chose to wear their best dresses that night and a few women wearing little more than lingerie, but there were also children and more traditional families present wearing the more traditional children’s costumes of cartoon characters. There were gay couples and there were straight couples. There were groups of teenagers, and there were families with little children. There were groups of friends hanging out together, and there were more than a few older couples – almost all in costumes.
Second of all, the night was filled with laughter and fun. It was a fun night – even though I was there alone and didn’t really talk with anyone. There was a noticeable lack of mean-spirited people and naysayers. The diverse crowd described above had gathered to have a good time together – and all were welcome. This quality was especially endearing to me. As I headed back to the campus of Fuller Seminary, I reflected on the experience I had just had. I realized that I had just taken part in what the people of West Hollywood would consider to be their religious or spiritual festival. My mind was taken back to the Old Testament and the pilgrimages taken during the seasons of feasts and festivals. Surely the environment must have been similar to the one that I had just had in West Hollywood. Then I considered the last time that I had “fun” at a worship festival or feast. I am not trying to be unnecessarily cynical, but the reality is that most of the church gatherings that I am a part of are just not as fun as the West Hollywood Halloween party was.
It is easy to focus on what is wrong with an event like this and it seems as though Christians are predisposed to such negative criticisms, but in reality, I came to realize that there was a lot right about this event. My wife didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until Wednesday, but if she had been able to be there with me, we would have had a fantastic time together there and I believe it would have been one of the highlights of our trip. It seems to me that we are always undergoing a balancing act between celebration and reverence. Far too often the church has chosen to focus on reverence to the neglect of celebration. This cultural immersion experience has reminded me of the importance of teaching Christians how to celebrate and not take themselves too seriously – and especially has helped me to remember not to take myself too seriously. Thank you West Hollywood.