By Cassandra Lawrence*
After two year of attending the Wild Goose Festival I still am amazed at the variety of people there.
The youngest with wisps of curls and the elders with their graying strands sit between a mix of braids, dreads and close-cropped cuts typically not seen in the same room.
“These are people I would normally put in boxes that I fear and avoid. Here, I’m able to see the common light and common struggle. I’m going to take that with me,” one person said to me.
And, that is what makes Wild Goose so different.
Searching for people engaging the message of Jesus
I was a youth leader tired of being uninspired at youth ministry conferences. I was weary of flashy stage productions that promoted sales instead of conversation and programs that seemed to promote social justice as an add-on, a five-week program to do around Christmas.
I was turned off by theology that did not speak to me, in need of a gathering that challenged and inspired me.
So, I searched for people engaging the message of Jesus and social justice in new ways.
Our culture, especially our youth, is increasingly breaking down the borders between teacher and student, breaking down the consumer-driven model that so many conferences embrace.
As United Methodists, we stress that every person is called to be a minister. A minister is to teach and to listen. Therefore, every person is both student and teacher. Kid President sums this up in a recent video.
A deepening and shifting conversation
With this in mind, I began my search for an event that would integrate social justice, conversation, re-imagination and experimentation. I wanted to participate in an exchange of ideas and inspirations.
I scoured the Web, following every click and link around the Internet to draw me deeper into the emergent conversation and across denominational lines. The emergent discussion for many years has been forming online and in small local clusters. People were experimenting and playing with the boundaries of what doing and being church looked like. As the conversations grew, people who were no longer within the church community also joined, deepening and shifting the conversation. All of this meant that few people were hosting large gatherings.
The Wild Goose Festival, just forming for its inaugural year in 2011, emerged as a possible place and moment where these conversations were happening. The mission statement said the festival would occur at the intersection of art, music, spirituality and justice.
It draws on the image of the wild goose as a sacred Celtic metaphor for the unpredictability, beauty and grace of the Holy Spirit.
The number of theologians, activists and musicians scheduled for the festival was enough evidence for me that the metaphor would be realized in North Carolina.
If I could hear these voices together on one weekend, among the hundreds of voices without national followings, I knew that the learning was going to be dense, unpredictable and amazing. As an artist, I also appreciated the inclusion of art as more than just something to gussy up a Sunday bulletin or cork board.
A willingness to meet respectfully across lines of difference
I arrived thinking this would be a relaxing festival with some great speakers and music. It was that and so much more.
I was booked nonstop throughout the day trying to take in every word. I agreed with some voices, a few gave me pause and others amazed me with their clarity.
The festival’s mission reminded me of The United Methodist Church: “…there is no litmus test beyond an open heart. There is no creed required beyond a willingness to meet respectfully across lines of difference, to share wisdom and listen to each other’s stories.”
Vacation Bible School for adults was how festival attenders described the first year — a safe space filled with fun activities and conversations informed by and designed around sharing the message of the Gospel.
In the years since, the festival really has become camp for the people who return each year. Melissa Cooper, program coordinator for a Florida United Methodist Annual (regional) Conference camp and retreat center, says she is rarely able to experience the very moments she works hard to create. For Cooper, the festival is a safe space, exposing her to new experiences and ideas, all toward growing character, allowing her to learn from people who are transforming the world.
In 2013, while enjoying a rousing hymn sing called Beer N’ Hymns, Claire Clyburn, a United Methodist pastor from Raleigh, N.C., met Hollie Woodruff Duncan, a Disciples of Christ pastor, also from Raleigh. More than 130 people attended their first Beer N’ Hymns in Raleigh on Nov. 3, 2013, as a way to continue the conversations and relationships formed at Wild Goose.
They join a growing group of people experimenting with music and church through the Beer N’ Hymns model, a sometimes boisterous gathering of people who sing hymns loudly and lustily, just as John Wesley instructs. NPR aired a story on the growth of Beer N’ Hymns gatherings around the country. The story sparked a debate within the community about the purpose of these gatherings with a response written by Caedmon Michael.
The Wild Goose Festival is a chance for local clusters of people experimenting with church to gather in person, to share and stand on the same sacred ground. To continue the conversation, as the media begins to take notice of the shifting American Christian experience.
Clyburn has spent her ministry building ecumenical relationships, mostly with other mainline churches. She now thinks that the Wild Goose widened that ecumenical community, bringing her into relationship with evangelical and non-denominational groups who usually are not present in ecumenical conversations.
A big change from the first year was the media presence at the festival. The American Baptist Press, the United Methodist Reporter, NPR, PBS and others were covering the festival. Frank Schaeffer, festival organizer and author, commented on his blog that, this year “we’d turned a corner and were on the media map.”
NPR’s Krista Tippet, who also attended the festival, interviewed several festival speakers and performers, for her show, On Being. Interviews with Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Indigo Girls are available online at NPR.
Grasping the meaning of justice
Two months after the festival ended, the conversations continued.
Paul Philips, director of Hope+ Africa, drove with his three daughters from California for the festival. Philips, who had never attended, believed that this community gathering would show his daughters an expression of Christianity they often don’t see in conservative rural California.
Driving cross country again this fall, visiting friends and supporters, including those formed at Wild Goose, Philips described conversations happening, spare rooms shared, meals eaten and possibilities dreamed.
Philips reflected that at Wild Goose he “felt as if I could talk about and process the push button issues of gay rights and nonviolence. In the mainline evangelical world, the people don’t quite grasp the meaning of justice.” Philips’ son, who wasn’t even at the festival, now lives in Los Angeles with a couple Philips met at the Wild Goose, another example of the depth of relationships formed.
‘A week in the cradle of heaven’
Religion comes from the Latin religio, meaning to bind or connect. This year, the Wild Goose theme was “Remembering the Body.” One way I read that was re-membering the body, which is to reconnect the body. To bring people together, who have been divided by distance, by old theological debates, and hurt. I had conversations with atheists, agnostics, conservative evangelicals, mainline liberals, cynics and any number of people who, because of these conversations, no longer fit within our previously determined definitions.
I left the festival feeling like I had just spent a week in the cradle of heaven. I danced, I listened, I conversed, I formed new friendships and I reconnected with the body of Christ.
Tickets for the 2014 Wild Goose Festival went on sale Nov. 29. The festival will return to Hot Springs, N.C. on June 26-29, 2014. I will be there.
*Lawrence is a freelance journalist living in Washington, DC. A former professional youth leader, she writes about interfaith leadership, nonviolent engagement, the global church, religion, and conflict.