I had one of my more unusual journalistic experiences last week when I accepted an assignment from the Washington Post Sunday magazine to cover a Christian music festival about 90 miles away NE of Baltimore. In a soybean field in SE Pennsylvania, as a matter of fact.
The venue was the PAPA (People Against Poverty and Apathy) Festival, “a convergence of communities and movements,” it called itself. It was a zoo of causes and off-beat personalities. It featured the stars of the “new monastic” movement of under-35 Christians. These were the spiritual descendants of the 1970s Jesus movement hippies who lived in communes and shared everything in common. Their kids seek to live in quasi-communes, are non-violent, eat organic and are fixated on social justice issues. Among them are groups with names like ‘Young Anabaptist Radicals;’ the Psalters, an indie experimental Christian band out of Philly. I really liked the Psalters, by the way. They are kind of like a klezmer band ran amok.
Veeka loved running about and dancing to all the drums while I did things like standing in this sweltering tent minding a book table where I got into this discussion with a Christian anarchist. His name was Andy Lewis, he was part of Theillalogicalspoon, a band from Jackson, Mich., he lives with like-minded friends in a “decrepit old farm house” and he was typical of the young Christian I was encountering at this event. He was trying to explain to me that the book of Genesis is a political text.
“It’s political in that Genesis is remembering the fall into civilization,” he said. Paradise, he added was mankind’s original status as hunter-gatherers; the advent of agriculture, symbolized by Cain, the grower of fruits and vegetables, is what drove mankind toward technology, division of labor and hierarchy, which is anathema to anarchists.
Finally I’d had enough.
“Do you use city water?” I asked, starting on my list of technology’s benefits. “Public roads? Sewage disposal?” He nodded, but it was clear these were temporary necessary evils. He pointed me towards his blog, Land of the Living, powered, unfortunately for him, by unrighteous electricity.
Over the next few days, I met so many upper 20-somethings like him; generic Christians often of the Mennonite or Anabaptist variety with some Pentecostals, Episcopalians and Catholics thrown in, who were reluctantly in the world but seeking not to be of it and who spent the weekend agitating, planning, singing and talking about a better world.
Even though this gathering was 99 percent Christian, one could often not discern that. It was as if they worked hard not to emphasize the Jesus part of their spirituality except at high points like the photo I have here of the Sunday morning Communion service. Workshops had descriptions like “How can the church in the ‘first world’ shed its fear of indigenous traditions and join in the sounds of liberation (that) the elder cultures are singing without committing cultural theft or reinforcing false stereotypes”? Which is really different from Christian music festivals of yesteryear where one could not walk five steps without encountering an open Bible or a “One Way: Jesus” T-shirt.
I saw a grand total of one Bible at PAPA.
I was part reporter, part speaker, as I was leading a workshop on what can go wrong in community and all camper, as Veeka, myself and about 400-500 other souls subsisted for 2+ days in some hot and rainy weather in a borrowed tent. The highlight was a thunderstorm that nearly flooded the tent.
Camped nearby was Maria Kenney, who helped organize workshops for the event and drove 11 miles to get there from Kentucky. She lives in Communality, a 13-year-old community of about 50 souls in inner-city Lexington. While our two daughters played together, I took refuge from the sun under a tarp Maria thoughtfully put up. We chatted about living common purse; the most intense form of community whereby one contributes all one’s earnings to the community pot. I’d lived common purse during two years I spent in an intentional community in Portland, Ore., 30 years ago. Communality doesn’t go that far “but we have lots of idealists per square inch in Lexington,” she tells me.
A few tent spaces away was Joshua Swartwood, a black-bearded fellow with black earrings. He had driven down from Ithaca, N.Y., and has “Moses,” “Joshua” and a menorah tattooed on his arms. His mother was 31 when she had him, he told me, and she’d been told he had died in the womb. Then an ultra-sound showed he was alive and well; thus he was named Joshua, meaning ‘God saves.’
“It’s a reminder of God’s interactions with people in a supernatural kind of crazy way,” he said of the tattoos. Not only was his birth miraculous, each one of the births of his six children was connected to a dream or prophecy, he said.
I think you get the idea of how eclectic this event was. Now I have to write it up next week as THIS weekend (June 25-26), am heading to North Carolina to cover a similar festival – called the Wild Goose – for the Economist.
Don’t want to turn those freelance assignments down.