I just got back a few days ago from a campsite outside of Asheville, N.C., the site of the third annual Wild Goose Festival. For those who are unfamiliar with the event, imagine and old-fashioned days-long outdoor revival, combined with Bonaroo and a traveling circus. For several days, authors, activists, artisans, musicians, and seekers converge to engage in spontaneous community, share ideas and to inspire one another.
It's not every day that you can walk by a makeshift tent and listen to Phyllis Tickle succinctly summarize the history of Christendom in 45 minutes, and then wander over and pick up a vegetarian pita sandwich while on your way to hear the Indigo Girls perform. Impassioned conversations emerge all on your walk about everything from child trafficking to the state of the institutional church in the 21st century. And you're only momentarily distracted by the guy on stilts, wearing a hat covered in goose feathers who wanders by for no apparent reason.
Welcome to Wild Goose.
I woke up this morning in a damp sleeping bag to the sound of a rushing river. I heard the laughter of children and could smell bacon being fried in a tent not far from mine. I opened the tent flap and walked outside. As I looked around, I saw dozens of men and women who had also just rolled out of their sleeping bags and RVs to welcome the new day. I saw rainbow flags flying next to signs that read “Who would Jesus Torture?” and “Pro-Peace, Pro-Life, Be Consistent.”
As I began the short trek from my tent to the shower-house, I was greeted by dozens of people who I had never personally met but felt like I knew intimately. All of us had gathered to encourage and provoke one another to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Over the course of this weekend, dozens of presenters spoke to crowds who listened intently to their dynamic messages of reformation, renewal, redemption, and action. From the testimony of a tattooed Lutheran pastor to the ground-breaking theological theories on non-violence from a highly regarded gay Catholic priest, from the wisdom of one of the founding fathers of the Civil Rights Movement to a quirky live radio show hosted by one of the founders of the Emergent Church movement, hundreds of people from across the country and indeed around the world had converged for this little slice of heaven on earth known as the Wild Goose Festival.
Amy Ray’s smile opened itself to wrap love around the couple thousand fans who’d weathered a soggy soaker of a spiritual festival to wait for their 10 p.m. Saturday set. “Y’all have advanced way past kum-bah-yah,” she quipped. “That was a deep album cut.”
For 90 minutes, Ray and her musical partner Emily Saliers couldn’t stop praising the Wild Goose Festival crowd. It’s as if they’d trekked to the misty mountains of western North Carolina just to see us render their greatest hits the new hymnal for progressive and inclusive Christianity. The stellar setlist covered all the ground, a collection of tracks both new and old spanning a career that jump-started itself in the same 1980s Georgia music scene that gave us the likes R.E.M. and Widespread Panic.
The Indigo Girls catalog knits itself into our daily lives in such a way to make them the perfect band for a campfire singalong at a radicals’ revival like this. But what else was obvious here could not be pinpointed in the mere practice of song. The best-selling grassroots folk duo found something in our makeshift festival that’s been true of their career — past all the great lyrics and legacy of activism, past the DIY-ethics and indie entrepreneurs' edge, past all the albums and compilations, past all the accolades — exists the chewy center of hope. We see the Holy Spirit at work in such a down-to-earth humbling and fiery fashion. The Indigo Girls headline set at Wild Goose 2013 healed the audience and sealed the festival’s cultural location in a jubilant justice movement for ecumenical and evangelical convergence on the funky fringes of mainstream Christianity.