PITTSBORO, N.C. (ABP) — From Ontario, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta and dozens of towns and cities between people pulled into the dusty pasture in rural central North Carolina to see if four days chasing the wild goose in community with others could crack barriers and deepen their spiritual lives.
The Wild Goose is a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit. It is also the adopted name of a young organization and of the first event it sponsored June 23-26 that drew some 1,500 to Shakori Hills near Pittsboro, N.C. The Wild Goose Festival is fashioned after the Green Belt festivals in England that have drawn crowds for 37 years.
Far from being a Woodstock with Christian music, the Wild Goose Festival drew an eclectic crowd of various faiths, primarily Christian, who ranged in age from toddlers to totterers. While they were diverse, their common accouterments were sandals, water bottles, hats and personal collapsible chairs.
“We wanted to create a gathering to promote justice, spirituality and art, with the hope to nurture a community of people who want to live out a more just and creative life,” said Mike Morrell, publicity director for Wild Goose.
Stages and tents dotted the 72-acre art festival and concert venue, shading big name authors and musicians. Special interest venders ringed staging areas, knowing they found a receptive crowd.
Social justice and the arrest of various evils such as torture, war, bad water and gender discrimination found articulate voice from volunteers who engaged anyone who would catch their eye.
Engaging people was easy. Beneath the shade of every tree and tent spontaneous conversations ignited with a simple look or comment about the words of the latest speaker or the song of the latest singer.
Families tossed a softball during breaks and mingled easily among friends they’d yet to meet. In one tent folks hoisted mugs and praise in the manner of Martin Luther during a “beer and hymns” hour.
The four-day international lineup would be a draw wherever they might gather. Just a sampling: Tony and Bart Campolo, Michael Hardin, Phyllis Tickle, Steve Lawson, Tom Prasada, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Lynn Hybels, Margot Starbuck, Jim Wallis, Abdullah Antepli, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shane Claiborne, Ed Dobson, Tom Sine, Paul Knitter, Frank Schaeffer and Nancy Hastings Sehested.
Musicians such as Jennifer Knapp, The Psalters, Derek Webb and Billy Jonas kept thoughtful, fun and worshipful music strains seeping through the oaks and riding the breezes almost constantly from several venues.
Contributors were names familiar to those who just read a newspaper or watch the evening news and many more familiar to more narrowly defined niches in the well-read crowd. All waived their appearance fees.
To a friendly audience, Brian McLaren explained how he’s dealt with criticism of his work. He said he’s just glad it came when he was mature enough to handle it.
“The Christian environment is such an unsafe place that people fear to speak their mind,” he said. “It shouldn’t be such a cruel and terrifying place.”
He’s realized that often his critics don’t even understand what he’s saying and criticism comes from “people paid to be guard dogs. When a stranger is at the gate, they’re to bark.”
Jim Wallis spoke of the “idolatry of politics” and Frank Schaeffer of the calamity of wealth concentration in the hands of a few. In the United States, he said, just one 10th of 1 percent of persons control 25 percent of the wealth.
Wallis said the problem with current politics is that it offers no solutions. Big problems have easy solutions, he said. To fix global poverty, “invest in women and girls.” To fix domestic poverty, “fix the scandal of education.” To fix the deficit “treat the budget as a moral document.”
Organizers would say there was neither “performer” nor “audience.” Everyone was either a “contributor” or a “participant,” according to Garreth Higgins, a native of Northern Ireland who is executive director of Wild Goose.
The Wild Goose board was formed just two years ago, although the idea has been percolating much longer. Higgins, who lives in Durham, N.C., was hired in March 2010. Wild Goose is chartered in Kansas City, basically because that’s where board chair Mike King lives. He and Morrell are members of an Alliance of Baptists and United Church of Christ church start known as Trinity’s Place.
“The Spirit of God flows, and we just stepped into the flow,” Higgins said.
The outdoor venue, rather than a conference center or hotel, provides a reminder not to “take ourselves too seriously,” he said. Everyone is “sweating together,” sharing food and portable toilets. Many camped in tents on the grounds for three nights.
The lone commonality among participants is likely their universal search for a spiritual reality more creative and gripping than what they’ve found in a local congregation.
“Religious institutions historically have been bad in modeling creativity,” Higgins said, while acknowledging exceptions such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and ancient sculpture and cathedrals. “Too much about the way religion is done is imposing rules.
“I want this space to tap into the source of inexhaustible love, which is God,” Higgins said. “I want people to go through the next year full of love and inspiration – to love ourselves better and others more.”
Morrell said one goal of Wild Goose is to “create a reconciling space by way of Jesus.”
“Our goal is not to convince anyone of anything,” he said. “But if we all have dignity the world will be a better place.”
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.