This weekend, I traveled with my house church, Transmission, to the Wild Goose Festival, a Christian social justice and arts event in North Carolina near Raleigh. I didn’t know what to expect: I was mostly going to get away from New York and enjoy some nature. I was astounded by what I received. Over 3 days, some 50 hours of total programming, there were at least three to five different events happening at every waking hour.
I slept little with all the activity, yet amazingly, no matter how sleep-deprived, sweaty or exhausted I got, I was never cranky. By the end of the first talk I attended on Friday, I could feel a quiet energy, a kind of spiritual adrenaline, coursing through me. I found myself feeling like a freshman student, eager to soak in all the experience I could, and Wild Goose was eager to feed me.
The festival offered new energy for my spiritual and political beliefs, along with intellectual challenges, great conversation, and awesome music. All within the beautiful Shakori Hills farm, where blue skies and starry nights made for a gorgeous weekend.
The farm was divided into several different spots: a large main stage and lawn for concerts, several big tents for popular speakers, a coffeehouse or “coffee barn” for poetry readings and small group discussion, and smaller tents for art and writing workshops, and various Christian causes looking to recruit volunteers. My favorite spaces were the Social Justice Gazebo discussion space, and the Spiritual Direction Trolley Car. That one was supposedly a spot for individual counseling, but it spent most of the weekend as a jungle gym for the little kids.
The festival attracted a wide swath of personalities: teenagers, college kids, families with newborns, elderly couples, straight, gay and trans, and plenty of tattoos and piercings along with Bibles and crosses. However, the turnout was also rather racially uniform, aside from a few speakers from minority races.
It was harder to tell if those present represented the country’s variety of political views: all I know for sure is the presentations sure didn’t. The talks all had a progressive bent, looking at HOW to move on the agenda, rather than what our agenda ought to be in the first place. At one point, my friend Isaac remarked that if we were truly being all-inclusive that there would be at least one talk on whether homosexuality was a sin to match all the talks on LGBT equality.
However, I needed the nourishment the festival offered, even in its uniformly progressive tone. As the saying goes, you may be preaching to the choir, but sometimes the choir needs to hear some good preaching!
It was great to see firebrands like Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo and Jim Forbes stirring up the crowds, calling for a reflection on our nation’s and our churches’ priorities. I also discovered new voices like Mark Scandrette and Carl McColman, who preached respectively on how small group experiments and contemplation can fuel our justice efforts.
Among the mostly comforting and energizing talks, there were only a few truly provocative moments. Brandon Sipes gave a challenging talk about avoiding adversarial relationships even with those we consider oppressors; he discussed the difficulties of reaching out to American military members even when angered by their actions. I was impressed by how grounded Sipes was in experiencing the shades of grey of modern politics, and how difficult it can be to label who our enemies are.
The most provocative and contentious discussion was led by Tony Jones, a radical Christian apologist, who hosted a talk called “Why Pray?” Jones argued that our usual motives for praying to God - either changing God’s mind or trying to effect changes in ourselves -- don’t hold up under scrutiny. The first doesn’t seem to work in daily life (prayers go unanswered all the time) and the second isn’t in line what Jesus taught.
Jones managed to both challenge and somewhat annoy just about everyone present by insisting on the need for a rational apologist argument for prayer. Among the many challenges to his claims, there was one I loved. An older gentleman said that Jones’ question reminded him of when his young daughter had once asked the purpose of he and his wife making love. He replied, “There’s no reason. We just do it because we love each other.” And so with prayer.
Unlike other big moments in my spiritual life, I didn’t have any one great spiritual high at Wild Goose, no one discernible moment where I heard God speak to me. However, what I experienced here was just as important: the miraculous power of the spirit moving his people gathered together. All of us hungry, all of us open, all eager to find better ways to love and love deeply our God and neighbor.