When Robin Cole was a child growing up in Southeast Washington, Halloween meant dressing up like an angel and skipping along Mississippi Avenue with her friends to trawl for treats.
But Cole's 11-year-old son won't repeat his mother's outdoor idyll. Instead, tonight, Cole and her son will go to their church, First Baptist of Suitland, where they will join as many as 200 children dressed in upbeat costumes -- no ghosts, goblins or devils -- for a Halloween party with plenty of games, music, sweets and Bible stories.
"Times are much different than when I was a child and went trick-or-treating," said Cole, 40, an apartment complex manager who lives in Fort Washington. "Today you have people putting razor blades in apples and abducting children."
Even with the recent arrest of two suspects in the sniper shootings, she said, "people still don't feel safe with their kids outside."
In the District, Maryland and Virginia, a growing number of churches in diverse neighborhoods will open their doors tonight to sponsor alternatives to outdoor trick-or-treating, similar to those at First Baptist. Many have attractions for a wide range of participants, including preteens and teenagers.
Bringing people to church on Halloween is more about safety than religion, church leaders say, but if they end up saving a few souls, so much the better. After all, Halloween had its start as a rowdy prelude to Christianity's All Saints' Day, which is tomorrow.
At Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, tonight's event is dubbed the "Harvest Festival" and will feature "Big Foot," a singing gospel clown for small children. For teenagers, there will be the Urban Nation Hip Hop Choir and the gospel Go-Go Band "In His Image."
"In the wake of the sniper shootings it would seem that this is a reactive move, however, we are just being proactive," said Adamio Boddie, youth minister at Nineteenth Street. "There are many snipers taking shots at the hearts of our young people on the radio, on TV and through sexual promiscuity. We just wanted to provide an alternative."
Ricky Payton, director of the Urban Nation Hip Hop Choir, said that church involvement in Halloween alternatives is relatively new, but should have happened long ago.
"The churches are finally stepping to the plate and giving young people a positive alternative instead of complaining and saying to them, 'You can't go out.' "
For Dawn Ford, a resident of Calverton, the decision to take her children to a church fall festival tonight, complete with hayride, is a result of her worries about child abductions and the recent sniper shootings.
"The question is at what point are we going to feel safe with our children out in the streets," said Ford, who will attend Forcey Memorial Church in Silver Spring. "It is not safe to walk around in your neighborhood like it was when we were children. It is not just on Halloween, there is a difference in society now."
Ford said word of the event has spread. Her daughters are 8 and 5, but last year more than 600 people showed up who spanned the generations. "By giving teenagers an alternative, this really keeps them off the street on Halloween," she said.
Kristin Cooke, 18, a resident of Silver Spring, has attended many of the church festivals. "Being here is safer than being on the streets. This is where everybody can come and be at ease," she said.
It's a similar story at New Beginnings Community Church in Mitchellville, where the fifth annual "Harvest of Fun" has become so popular that it is being held off-site tonight at nearby Kingsford Elementary School.
And at Fairfax Church of Christ, Lisa Bosley, director of the church's children ministry said that last year, the event attracted about 300 people, more newcomers than regular church members.
"We decorate every door in our church building for trick-or-treating," Bosley said. "There will be lots of face painting, balloon animals and storytelling. This night is for our neighbors because it provides them a safe environment for their children."
Bruce Black, minister of Fairfax Church of Christ, said shifting Halloween from the streets to church was an inevitable sign of the times.
"Families are really under a lot of stress, and having a wholesome activity in a safe place is something people are looking for," Black said. "People came out of the woodwork. They are searching for more than a night of candy, they are looking for wholesome fun."
At First Baptist of Suitland, education director Robert Hardy said that the idea for a spiritual alternative to Halloween was born several years ago, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more people started attending. He expects the that sniper shootings may also cause a spike in attendance tonight.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist, said: "In the wake of everything going on and particularly in light of the sniper shootings, people are just looking for someplace safe to go on Halloween. We have taken hold of a holiday and tried to do something positive with it."