Crap. A festival. I’m not a festival kind of gal. In fact, my teenaged daughter counts this as a major parenting defect. I have taken her to Indonesia, Peru, and several parts of the U.S., but I refuse to take her to a festival. There’s a popular festival held twice a year just outside of Asheville. Officially, it’s called the Lake Eden Arts Festival, but everyone refers to it as LEAF. All the cool, hip, environmentally-friendly folks in the Asheville area attend, which amounts to a good number of people. At some point, however, a parent really has to draw the line. I have no interest in the grit and grime of a spirited outdoor weekend bash. My daughter, being the competent, independent young woman that she is, managed to get invited by friends this time around. I think it took three showers over the course of six days for her feet to finally look clean.
And now, here I was, registered for a festival of my own – the Wild Goose Festival. It’s a celebration of the various ways that environmentally-friendly, inclusive, social-justice-conscious Christians live in the light of God. Like all good festivals, this one has numerous stage acts, exhibit booths, food vendors, kid-friendly activities, and places to pitch your tent. Unlike other festivals, it also hosts a designated chapel and a space for healing and recovery. The program was chock-full of ritual leaders, authors, artists, and speakers all of whom were eager to share their enthusiastic vision for finding God in today’s world. I just hoped that wearing shoes wouldn’t be frowned upon.
The name of the festival comes from the Mary Oliver poem, Wild Geese, which provides some insight into its theological tendencies.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
This year’s theme, Living Liberation! (exclamation point included), offered countless opportunities to talk about, think about, and brainstorm solutions to oppression in all its ugly manifestations. It was all about removing the roadblocks that keep us from living in a connected way – with the divine and with one another. We delved into issues about race, gender, sexuality, culture, the death penalty, labor injustice, economic disparity, and food. We explored new approaches to prayer and worship through movement and the arts. And we learned to celebrate all that is sacred in a more open-hearted, open-minded way.
As many of you know, I am interested in the liberating potential of the Bible. I’m interested in living a life that is free of the textual and ritual constraints of traditional Christianity. And I’m interested in helping others do the same. It’s not surprising, then, that two of my favorite activities at the festival were multi-faith in nature. On Thursday evening, my friend, J. Dana Trent, spoke about her new book, Saffron Cross. Dana was raised in two different Baptist churches. As a young girl, she attended Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC, an urban progressive community. As a teenager, she attended First Baptist Church of Reidsville, NC, a small-town evangelical congregation. In her early 20’s, she was ordained by the Southern Baptist minister at First Baptist before heading off to Duke Divinity School. One afternoon, while in her late 20’s, Dana decided to seek her love match through e-Harmony. After completing their incredibly detailed survey, she was paired with a young man who had been a devout Hindu monk. They eventually married, and Saffron Cross is the story of their courtship, their marriage/honeymoon, and their commitment to living an interfaith life. Dana’s talk was truly inspiring, but so was the audience. It was full of folks interested in and committed to interfaith work in their communities. We shared stories long after Dana’s talk ended and when we crossed paths while wandering the festival grounds over the next few days.
On Friday evening, I attended a Shabbat service led by Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist community in Atlanta. The chapel at Wild Goose is…well…a pop-up canopy with a few chairs underneath. It’s a great reminder that places of worship are created by people not architects. This idea is a prominent one in the Jewish tradition since the backdrop for many, perhaps most, of the Torah stories consists of make-shift tents populated by desert nomads. The Jewish people even celebrate this part of their history with Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, a fall holiday that finds observers eating, and sometimes sleeping, in a temporary shelter called a sukkah.
The Wild Goose Shabbat service centered on simple chants interspersed with brief teachings. The rabbi focused on Miriam, sister to Moses and Aaron, who represented water to the Israelites who were wandering in the desert. As some of you know, singing is my favorite form of spiritual practice, so I was ecstatic. Plus, we were frequently singing in Hebrew – which is so much better than English for me. Not only was the service inspiring, but the chapel was packed with people standing well outside the canopy borders. Some of the worshippers clearly knew Hebrew, but most attendees kept their eyes rather tightly focused on the handout. It’s possible they were Jews who managed to avoid learning even the most basic of Hebrew phrases, but I suspect that most of them would self-identify as some version of Christian. We lit candles, we offered peace, we chanted, and we prayed. In some ways, it was your typical religious service. In other ways, it was completely unique.
And therein lies the beauty of the Wild Goose Festival. Powerful gatherings do at least three things: they push boundaries, they break down barriers, and they foster relationships between people with similar interests. The Wild Goose Festival does it all, and it does it well. I didn’t just hear about motivated leaders working in other communities; I felt their commitment. I didn’t just learn from others passionate about acknowledging the similarities and differences among the world’s faith traditions; I connected with them. And I didn’t just ponder the huge range of grace-full faith practices; I experienced them.
But all this reflection, inspiration, and shear brilliance took place, not under the harsh fluorescent glare of hotel conference rooms, but under the waning sunlight of the Blue Ridge mountains with the French Broad river gurgling in the background. Each of us – with our various perspectives, quirks, biases, and denominational tendencies – nestled in the loving arms of the Great Mystery. And the best part of all? I still got to wear shoes.
Oliver, Mary. Dream Work. NY: Atlantic Monthly Press. 1986. Print.