Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wild Goose festival

As if Veeka and I hadn't endured enough camping in the rough at the Papa festival, last weekend we headed south to North Carolina to cover yet another Christian music festival (although the term 'Christian' applies quite loosely here); the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills about 30 miles from Chapel Hill, NC.
I had talked the Economist into letting me cover this gathering of 1,500 people because it was a copy of the UK’s longstanding and successful Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, which premiered in 1974. Some 20,000 attendees show up at Greenbelt and the American organizers seeking to copy Greenbelt hope the numbers will get that large here too.
I dunno. It was America’s first-ever such gathering for theological liberals from June 23-26, on 72 wooded acres in Bible Belt eastern North Carolina. To get more to attend, the conference was open to all manner of post-Christians, non-Christians, disaffected evangelicals, the usual musician-and-artist cohort, gays and lesbians and a liberal evangelical subset known as the “emergent” church. I had thought the emergent folk faded out about five years ago but no, they were in full flower here. A lot of older liberals: Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr and Phyllis Tickle, the high priestess of the emergent movement, were quite present at this conference and most were pushing their books. I did find Tickle's assertion - that the present emergent movement is up there with the Reformation and the Great Schism of 1054 in terms of importance to Christianity - to be quite a reach. Then again, she calls John Wimber emergent so her boundaries include basically anything that's occurred in the world of religion in the past 30 years.
Others, such as gay San Francisco Episcopal rector Paul Fromberg, were on several panels and I'll say this up front; I was quite unprepared as to how homosexual rights ended up as such an obsession at Wild Goose. Panels on sexuality and justice compared America's fight against racism to the current struggle for gay marriage et al to be legal. Interestingly, there weren't any panels on racism that I knew about. Ditto for abortion. For all the talk on justice, etc., the crowd was overwhelmingly white which goes to show that liberal religion doesn't necessarily play well in the minds of black Christians.
My favorite speaker was Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA cleric out of Denver who pastors House for All Sinners and Saints there. See the tatooed person in the photo of people celebrating Holy Communion? Yep, that is a Lutheran minister. She had some fresh insights and she didn't speak in cliches as did folks like Frank Schaeffer (who makes a living dumping on his dead and famous father) and Jay Bakker. Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, appeared as a fashion plate with a black vest over a white T-shirt (the temps were in the 90s), a chain draped over one hip, a scarf artfully arranged out of a front pocket and another coming out of a back pocket topped by a beret - it was a bit much. His rambling speech was so disorganized and self-centered, I snuck out after a half-hour.
Big regret is I didn't get to hear the musicians more but Wild Goose erred in putting the Psalters up on Thursday night, before many of us had gotten there. And then there was the Ethiopian-born singer who was leading folks in singing "Hallelujah Hare Krishna." Double take when I heard that one. Was wondering if I was going to even see a Bible at this conference; finally saw someone sporting one but things like Bible studies and praise/worship music did not happen there. There was a beer garden, however.
I was told conference organizers had wanted to invite Chuck Colson in to talk about prison reform so I'm not saying they aimed to have an unbalanced conference but most of the panels were clearly stacked towards a liberal point of view. The kids ministry portion was very well done and Veeka was very happy to be making all manner of knitted stuff out of yarn. Note the purple cat painted on one of her cheeks in our photo here. And the little blue thing on her head that she knit. Also notice how hot we both look. I pinned up my hair the entire weekend.
The last night of the festival, people were so noisy, I was up til well past 2:30 a.m. I walked outside the tent and saw the loveliest sky with a sliver of bright moon hanging amongst the stars. The night was warm and the crickets were chirping loudly. The volunteers who kept the conference running were a most gracious group of people and I didn't meet one grouchy one, which is amazing considering how steamy and buggy it was. The site had been used for bluegrass festivals so it wasn't totally virgin land like we had at Papa. Thus ends Veeka's and my camping experiments for this summer. We are done with tents, bumpy grass, critters that crawl about the tent and poison ivy.
Here is the link to my piece in the Economist.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

PAPA fest

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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Myself as brand

June is certainly 'bustin out all over' with steamy hot days, which mean we've had the air on for several days straight. It has to be pretty hot for me to resort to AC all day but even the kids in Veeka's day school are kept in during the afternoons because of the temps.
These days I'm going through boxes of old files from work, realizing that I'll not be doing stories again on most of these items. It's kind of bittersweet to go through years of documents over the Episcopal/Anglican breakup, which I chronicled as much - if not more - than any other US religion reporter for the secular media. Then there are the files on sexually abusive priests; also gay priests, gay bishops who hid the activities of their gay priests and sooo much material on church officials whom I - and many other reporters - knew were corrupt but we didn't quite have enough to go on for a story. Re-reading some of those files made me sad that so many bad people got away with ruining the careers of good priests who dared to speak out against them.
It's so sad to see the evisceration of the religion beat. So many friends have fled to academia to teach or get doctorates or take refuge in fellowships that allow them to travel the globe. So few hires are happening these days and the stories are as important as ever. Many of these same bishops and cardinals remain in power. The Episcopalians and the Anglicans are still fighting it out in court.
I've been working around the house a bit, painting the stone border around the crape myrtle in the back yard. Pictured is Veeka posing atop the stones which took forever to get done. The week I applied the primer was when there was a thunderstorm every afternoon mean that my paint job would get wiped out. Am working on other stuff; just started a "social media boot camp" where you learn how to analyze traffic and demographics on various web sites. Today was my first day and it was sure interesting hearing the lecturers say you can't just have a presence on the web; you need to stand out. More sobering for my occupation; social media such as Twitter and Facebook have leveled the information-sharing play field that journalists once owned. Now everyone can and does provide information. Whether or not it's accurate is another thing altogether but the presence of so many citizen-journalists has decimated the ranks of the professionals.
I tried measuring how many people read this site and the number was so low, the counting mechanism showed nothing. Hmmm - I have signed onto a different web site host so hopefully within a new months I'll have a refurbished site that I'll have a hand in designing. Guess I'll recreate myself as a brand, right?

Friday, June 3, 2011

More parties

If I ever get morose over the job situation out there, I can always meditate on one thing: how everyone likes my daughter! I have lost count as to how many birthday parties Miss Veeka had this spring. Am including a video from one of many held at an Italian restaurant last month. The woman holding Veeka is Grace Vuoto and the rest of us are caroling away the familiar birthday song.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Well, it's been a year

June 1 will long be a day of infamy for me as that was when, a year ago, when I walked into my office with one foot in a cast and one hand holding onto a sickly Veeka. I had planned to be at work merely an hour to gather up some papers and work out of my home so as to be with my little girl. I found myself getting hauled into the editor's office and informed I was being laid off. Being that it was five months after everyone else got laid off, I knew this was a hostile action directed at me. Still, I had to pack up 14+ years worth of effects in about four hours while Veeka languished about the office. Fortunately, a WaPo photographer caught the whole mess on film as I was packing my car and a few days later, news of my leavetaking appeared atop the Style section.
So much has happened since then, including the fact that the yoyo who executed this decision himself got tossed out the door by the Washington Times a few months later. I decided that I'd spend enough years working at 3600 New York Avenue and it was time to turn my energies elsewhere and so I have, with my best work appearing in the Economist and in various places around the Washington Post.
Naturally all this happened simultaneously with an epic downgrading of the religion beat nationwide meaning that those of us who have reams of experience, clips, awards and contacts in denominational offices and religious groups everywhere are having a tough time selling our wares. Nearly everyone is hiring political reporters faster than they can say "2012" even though the average American is already sick of the thought of Obama running against Mitt, Newt, or Sarah. But bring on someone who explain what kind of theology made Osama bin Laden tick or why the Arab Spring has turned into a winter of discontent for religious minorities? Not on your life. One hears all the excuses from news organizations: the budget, the economy, hiring freezes. And yes, the economy has been horrible to my occupation. But doggone it if they don't go and hire another political writer.
In all this, I must give thanks to my parents who have supported me throughout all this and without whom I'd be on my way to losing my home. You really learn who your friends are when you're down and I certainly have made some surprising discoveries. People who I thought would stand with me have disappeared into the ether. Others have cone in out of the fog. Being unemployed or rather underemployed is not glamorous and let's just say the phone is not ringing off the hook with offers to bankroll my next book. Which is why I really appreciate folks (and you know who you are) who have tossed freelance assignments my way because that is truly putting food on the table for me and my 6-year-old.
Speaking of her, these photos are from her kindergarten graduation ceremony last week and a pizza dinner she had beforehand with Raffie, her little boyfriend. After that, we went to Pittsburgh for the weekend, she to spend time with some old family friends who have a little girl her age. As for me, I got to go on a retreat for the first time in four years. It was only two nights but at least it was something. And now we're gasping through multi days of 95-degree weather. And now I am back to sending out job application after job application....