Monday, July 18, 2016


Another Side of North Carolina

Geeta and I recently attended the Wild Goose Festival in nearby Hot Springs, NC. The Goose is a Christian peace-and-justice, LBGT-friendly festival of music, networking, workshops, preaching (to the choir), and relaxing in and by the world's third oldest river, the French Broad. Practically everybody stays in a very large campground, many sites along the forested beach by the river. 3400 people attended, a new record for the festival, now in its sixth year.

I am a liberal FGC Quaker and an Advaita Vedantist. Jesus is not my ishta devata, my personal master. But I felt right at home among fellow activists, passionate seekers, inquiring and open people together, sharing a sea of compassionate love. I did not experience any exclusionary practices or folk, though I was frequently uncomfortable, due to the honest ministry around racism in particular, which seems to be the lesson of the times for me. This began at the FGC conference last year in Boone, when I first recognized that I was racist. It was reinforced by an intense SAYMA yearly gathering in June, “Unraveling Racism,” and continued through this painful weekend which included two police murders of black men, an apparent lynching, and the killing of several Dallas police officers.

The retreat was thoroughly cleansing and rejuvenating. I had three opportunities to celebrate mass, one of them in the name of the Cosmic Christ, led by Matthew Fox. I partook of the Eucharist in that case, but it neither felt honest nor authentic for me to do so in two others. I lay in the river as the current rippled over me refreshingly, my hands braced on two perfectly-placed rocks, watching others around me building cairns, stretching forth their arms in prayer, perched on rocks reading. I felt like I was at a holy river in India as a South Asian woman removed her clothes and entered the river (a two-piece suit was underneath).

Geeta and I returned to the river Saturday for a poignant service of remembrance for the slain, led by powerful leaders from the Black community, Darren and Dele. We threw stones into the river on which prayers were written, and burned paper prayers in the fire, accompanied by two solemn teenaged girl drummers. Reverend Dele led us in song as the sun set. Though the long weekend's brutality against black men was painful, we were blessed to be in a community which could hold the pain, acting to make it meaningful. More than one leader had prayed from the main stage that these victims' deaths should not be in vain. Rev Dele remarked that our times were very like the 1890's, that we were frozen in racist patterns. Darren, a freelance priest and actor who had created a makeshift altar and called for our ritual, said the violence will never end. I spoke, saying that the slowly-flowing French Broad by which we stood felt like the slow, steady progress of justice. Geeta prayed for the day when every mother could rest easy about the safety of her sons. After the ceremony, she lingered with Reverend Dele, deeply ponderring the radically different experiences of black and white mothers in our neocolonial world

There were some big names, notably Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne. The violent events of the weekend highlighted Jim's latest book, America's Original Sin (racism). Charles Eisenstein repeated what he said at a book-signing in Asheville a year and a half ago, that we were “between stories.” There were clearly many folks looking for a new story, while others were busy revising the liturgy and experimenting with rituals. On Saturday, the big music night, Phil Madeira opened for Dar Williams, followed by the Indigo Girls. Phil also riffed for a talented group of actors, writers and artists who performed the uncanny poetry, populated by New Testament characters, of Nashville's Merril Farnsworth in a tent by the labyrinth that afternoon. Everyone at Wild Goose was relaxed, down-home, accessible and personable. There was no pulling of rank or fame; we were brothers and sisters and friends. Just folks.

The Psalms came alive for me in a new way via the talented voice and picking of Charles Pettee, as he shared his Folkpsalms musical project. I must admit I was bothered by a man in the front row who kept raising his arms in prayer in what seemed a contrived way, and worse, clapped arythmicallly. But then, after a particularly searing indictmen of the Lord by the psalmist (Psalm 88), he rose to speak. “The thing is, God is not only the receiver of the message, He is within the lament and the curse itself. And that is comforting.” I set all judgments aside at this point, as I was blessed to do on other occasions during the festival.

The Episcopalians strategically located their tent right behind the main stage, which is where I went to Matthew Fox's cosmic mass and circle dance. Each late afternoon they hosted “Beer and Hymns,” giving a new twist on our Southern name for them, Whiskeypalians. In this latest gift to the faithful, singers raised their mugs high at the end of each hymn.

The closing sermon was an exhortation from a Latino priest, Claudio Carvalhaes, a liberation theologian in rudraksha beads. Claudio resoundingly echoed the passionate preaching about Black Lives Matter on Friday from Jacqui Lewis, pastor at an inclusive church in Greenwich Village. At first I found his angry, strident tone off-putting. But as his words flowed over us like a modern-day Micah, I dropped my stiff neck and just listened. He told a story about a congregation he visited that was dipping its toes into the Justice River. They invited street people to their worship, after which all adjourned to the fellowship hall for donuts and coffee. Two minutes after the donuts were displayed, they were all gone, devoured by the underserved. The church members were left agape, waiting for the minister's blessing.

The work of underserved agape blessing is not a casual one, checking off your list of things you as a colonial privileged white have neglected. It is ongoing, and the deeper in you go, the further you see the road stretches before you. The river of justice that I spoke about at the rite by the French Broad does not enter a tunnel with a light shining at the end. Better get your measure of light as you go, no matter how flickering it may be.

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