This past weekend I was in Hot Springs, North Carolina, attending the Wild Goose Festival. This was the 9th year of the festival and my second time there (I previously went in 2017 while I was on sabbatical). The name of the festival, as the lore is told, comes from the wild goose as a Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit not as the demure dove we normally think of but as wild, untamed, and unpredictable. Now, as I’ve been home less than 24 hours, I want to tell everyone about this wonderfully inspiring experience. I’m going to divide this into two parts. Part one will be about the atmosphere of the Goose (as they shorten it for those in the know) and part two will be some short reflections on some of the messages I heard.
The festival is part Progressive Christianity conference and part music festival, all held in a Woodstock-like way. It was created, so we’re told, as an American version of the Greenbelt festival in Great Britain. Since I know nothing about Greenbelt, I’ll just take their word for it. What I do know is that the Wild Goose Festival is a truly energizing and inspiring collection of speakers, talented musicians, and dedicated, progressive Christians and activists. Some folks are well-known names and many aren’t.
The festival runs from a Thursday evening until noon-ish on Sunday. As Hot Springs, North Carolina, is about a ten hour drive from my home in Southwest Michigan, I took two days to get there, driving seven hours, staying in a hotel and then making the final three hour drive on the day the festival opens. The festival is held at a campground so if you want to get the full experience you’ll want to camp with 3000 or so of your new friends. I don’t actually know how many people were there but the number I’ve heard thrown around is three to four thousand. Both times I’ve went, I rented a tent and air mattress from a very friendly lady who does all the set up and tear down and also has a bonfire every night for her campers who want to get away from the big crowds and just sit and chat. Not having to worry about the tent and air mattress, I was able to go with minimal equipment. If you go, don’t forget to take, besides clothes, a water bottle, flashlight, rain gear, and a camp chair (or you can also rent a camp chair from the same lady if you go that route). I ate out of the half-dozen food trucks that were there so no need to lug along a camp stove and food unless you want to. Of course, you may also want to bring a notebook, pen and maybe reading material for the downtime you probably won’t have 🙂 The other thing about camping… there aren’t nearly enough showers or regular toilets for so many people so plan on getting a little ripe and doing nature’s business in a porta-john. That’s part of the camping experience, though. But you will look forward to the Sunday evening hotel stay and a real shower. Also, no vehicles are allowed on site from 4 pm Thursday until after closing services on Sunday. Everyone parks in a huge field across the street from the campground. Cell service is also sketchy on site, we were told. I don’t know because I chose to leave my cell phone turned off and locked in my car all weekend. There is a charging station setup for those who just can’t leave their electronics behind. You can also walk a short distance into town for wifi if you need to.
Most of the folks seemed to be either “main-line” protestants or evangelicals who’ve grown away from conservative theology. It’s a great mix of old and young, queer and straight. I’m encouraged that so many (the majority?) of the folks seem to be from the South. Living in the Midwest, I think we get a skewed view of our brothers and sisters in the South and start to think they’re all conservative fundamentalists. That’s just fake news 🙂 Loving, welcoming Christians are everywhere! Of course, you’ll also find people at the festival from the East and Midwest and all over, really. The festival could use a little more diversity, though, in that it was mostly white folks. People of color were well represented on the main stage as far as speakers and musicians, but the audience, although there were people of color too, was mostly white.
The festival begins on Thursday evening with some music and an opening speaker. This year the opening speaker was the very dynamic Rev. Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC in Chicago. After he spoke, a band did a set. Each night after the evening band(s), there was also Beer & Hymns. Not so much my thing, but for many Beer & Hymns is one of their favorite events. It’s just what it says: you get a beer from the beer tent (or not), walk 20 feet over to another tent and sing your favorite hymns with a bunch of other people.
Mornings at the Goose begin with a key-note speaker and more music. Friday this year, the speaker was Diana Butler Bass and Saturday it was Rev. William Barber. Barber in particular is one of my favorites. After the key-note, there are more well-known speakers on the main stage until noon but there are also other seminars and workshops going all day. One tent, the Cafe, is setup for musicians to play all day long from 10 am to 6 pm so that’s about 16 different acts over two days in an intimate setting. I really enjoyed just popping in a couple of times over the weekend to soak up some music from people who I never heard of before but who were really talented. There are also 7-8 or more other tents where workshops are run in one hour blocks during that same 10 to 6 time frame as well as another tent they were calling the Convo Hall where folks were gathered in smaller, more conversational meetings. So, basically, if you do the math, there is so much more going on than a person can possibly participate in. You have to pick and choose and just give up your schedule to the Spirit (or the Goose?). The workshops and talks are led by a wonderful mix of people who you might consider famous as well as dedicated and passionate people you’ll be hearing of for the first time. There’s also a book store tent that sells books from all the different speakers and presenters. Musicians also usually have merchandise at the bookstore or at their performance(s).
Some of the talks I heard:
“A Bold New Religion Called Love. Period.” – Jacqui Lewis
“Holy Envy” – Barbara Brown Taylor being interviewed by Sojourner CEO Rob Wilson about her new book
“Doing (Responsible) Theology in the Age of Trump”
“Reverend Sex and the Gospel of the Erotic”
“Why Would Anyone Still Be a Christian?”
“The 701 Club with Helen Holy” – satirical comedian
“Best Practices for New Writers” – Barbara Brown Taylor and Brian Allain
There were dozens of other things going on that I missed because not only are things happening at the same time but I also made time for eating, napping, book shopping and taking in some of the music.
Friday and Saturday evenings were all about music. The main stage takes a break starting at 2 pm as they work on mic checks and getting things ready for the evening. Beginning at 6 pm and going until 11 pm, different music acts are featured. Someone performs a set on the main stage and when they’re done someone else performs on a side stage while they get the main stage setup for the next act. This way, you pretty much get constant music for those 5 hours. The big headliner on Saturday this year was Beth Nielsen Chapman, who was about the only music act I had heard of before (but they were all great). And, while all the musicians were within the ethos of Progressive Christianity, some were overtly religious acts and many weren’t. The only bummer about the music was that both Friday and Saturday they had to shut the main stage down for a while as thunder storms rolled through. It caused only a delay on Friday but it cut Chapman’s set short on Saturday.
Sunday morning happens all on the main stage as the festival wraps up. It began with a panel discussion with Brian McLaren, Christy Berghoef, and John Pavlovitz about “Prophetic Voice or Civil Discourse,” followed by a message by Stan Mitchell (who was unknown to me but now I’m a fan) which I found particularly moving, and ending with a message by Yvette Flunder – all with a little music thrown in here and there. I actually left before Rev. Flunder was done speaking. Her message was great, but at noon she was still going and I was ready to hit the road. I did miss closing communion by leaving early. If you bring enough camping gear that you need to bring your car to your camping site to load up, then you’re kind of stuck and can’t leave early (but maybe that’s a good thing). They don’t let cars on site until after the final service is finished. And, although I left early, I left fully energized and looking forward to next year. Yes, I’ve already bought my tickets for 2020!