Why the Wild Goose Festival Matters

Last month some 1500 people or so gathered at a small campground in Pittsboro, North Carolina (about 20 miles south of Chapel Hill) for the first annual Wild Goose Festival. This gathering, modeled after the successful and long-running Greenbelt Festival in the UK, featured a wide array of musicians, speakers, artists, and worship leaders gathered around the themes of Justice, Spirituality, Music, and Art.

Carl McColman speaking at the Wild Goose FestivalMusicians included Beth Nielsen Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Jennifer Knapp, Sarah Masen, the Psalters, and Chip Andrus; speakers included Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, T-Bone Burnett, Shane Claiborne, Phyllis Tickle, Tony Campolo, Vincent Harding, Brian McLaren, and Lynne Hybels. But these names represent only a fraction of the artists and presenters who contributed to the three-day event. In addition to the multiple events occurring pretty much non-stop from 7:30 in the morning until late in the evening, the festival featured programming for kids and young adults, plenty of food, books and CDs for sale, and several dozen vendors and exhibitors (most of whom represented ministries involved in various issues related to social justice). All of this under the blazing early summer sun in the Carolina woods (meaning that some of the most unpopular “festival goers” were the ticks and the chiggers!).

I had the privilege of being one of the presenters at this inaugural gathering; alas, because of family commitments I was not able to participate in the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival. But I saw enough of the event to believe that the Wild Goose Festival could easily become one of the most important annual gatherings of Christians in the United States. And here’s why:

  • The Wild Goose Festival defied stereotypes. Was this a gathering of Evangelicals? Mainline Protestants? Emergent-Church types? Folks alienated from the church, but not from the promise of Christian spirituality? All of these groups were in plentiful supply at the gathering, along with enough Catholics and non-Christians to give the community a truly ecumenical flavor.
  • The Wild Goose is shaped, but not limited, by a clear political vision. No one would accuse this festival of being sponsored by the Tea Party. At one of my talks I asked the audience what issues they were the most concerned about, and the replies ranged from “care for the environment” to “justice for the poor” to advocacy for women, people of color, and the LGBT community. “Love your enemies” mattered more at the Wild Goose Festival than “Cut taxes.” But what I found refreshing about the festival was how it seemed to be relatively free of political posturing. Maybe that’s because of where I spent my time (I was more drawn to speakers addressing interfaith issues or the relationship between faith and science), but I felt the tone of the festival was marked by hope and celebration, never ideological aggression or defensiveness.
  • Richard Rohr, speaking on "Contemplation and Action" at the Wild Goose FestivalThe Festival Created Space for Conversations that Matter. From Tony and Peggy Campolo wrestling over conflicting ways for Christians to think about human sexuality; to Patheos CEO Leo Brunnick pondering the relationship between spirituality and technology; to Paul Knitter articulating a meaningful way to integrate Christian devotion with interfaith exploration, the Wild Goose Festival seemed to foster a safe and respectful atmosphere where Christians could engage in some deeply necessary conversations. The last day of the festival I chatted with a woman who teaches science at the middle school level. We talked about how the relationship between faith and politics, between faith and science, between Christianity and other faiths, and between activism and spirituality were all seriously explored over the course of the event. Any one of these conversations is vital for the church. To have all four conversations going on in the same place, simultaneously, seems to me to be evidence of the Holy Spirit at work (which may not be too surprising, since the “Wild Goose” is an old Scottish metaphor for the Holy Spirit).
  • Ultimately, the festival was simply a lot of fun. One of Phyllis Tickle’s presentations (on the question of how authority will evolve in the church of the future) was nearly drowned out by a lusty old-timey hymn-sing-a-long taking place just through the woods… at the beer tent. Amid great cheers and good-natured conviviality, folks were singing “Just as I am” and “Blessed Assurance” and other traditional hymns, while enjoying good company and a local micro-brewery’s specially made “Wild Goose Ale.” While this might have scandalized some of our more ascetically-minded ancestors, it struck me as a fitting metaphor for the entire event: the Wild Goose functioned as a place where we could affirm just how deeply our faith mattered to us, and therefore so did our political, spiritual, and social concerns — but we also recognized that, ultimately, Christianity is a faith of joy and celebration, worthy of lifting a pint with friends. 

Plans are already underway for a second Wild Goose Festival in 2012. No dates have been announced yet, but a festival insider told me it will almost assuredly remain in central North Carolina, at least for next year. If my schedule at all permits, I'll be there. There are too many essential conversations which need to continue.