A number of years ago a woman named Martha, who went to school with me at Nairobi International School (NIS) when we were both in ninth grade, contacted as many of us as she could and compelled us to get together again. The invitation was too good to turn down: I had not seen most of the people in thirty years. NIS was a small school made up of students whose parents moved around the world for any number of reasons. Many of us were only there for a year or two. All of us spent most of our childhood and adolescence outside of America and moving around. We met at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. Ginger and flew from Boston to El Paso and then drove the four hours to the hotel hidden in a valley in the middle of nowhere. As we passed a sign on the interstate that said, “Next exit 65 miles,” Ginger and I spoke simultaneously.
“This is beautiful,” I said.
“There is nothing out here,” she said.
Both statements were true. By the time we got to the hotel, most of the others had arrived. We walked into a room of twenty-five or thirty folks who were talking and hugging and laughing. When we got to our room that night, Ginger reflected on what she saw. “The healing was visible,” she said. “You could see it on all the faces — as though it was the first time in a long, long time that you were in a room where you were understood, where everyone understood what you had gone through, where you felt normal.”
She was right. I had not known that feeling since my family had come back to the States for good the middle of my junior year in high school. I’m not sure I’ve felt it again in quite the same way, but I thought about that night as I took part in the Wild Goose Festival which happened last weekend about an hour outside of Durham. The festival is self-described as one of spirituality, justice, music, and art. People came and camped in the woods and sang and talked and ate and looked for ways to connect. To me it felt like a cross between Woodstock and church youth camp. When I looked out over the field of participants, I heard Ginger’s words about my NIS reunion because most any direction I looked I saw people who didn’t look like “church folks” who were lost in wonder, love, and grace. For these four days, they got to feel understood. “Normal.” None of us was asked to do more than be ourselves and welcome one another.
And it was good.
I don’t want to overly romanticize it. The days were hot, the woods were filled with chiggers, and some of the speakers and performers remained quite impressed with themselves. The swath of inclusion still needs to be wider. We Christians who were raised to proclaim still have work to do in learning how to listen. And I loved who I saw gathered together at Wild Goose. The name reflects a metaphor for the Holy Spirit taken from Celtic Christianity. From the first time I heard it, I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” Even though I have never heard anyone refer to it at the festival, the words are resonant.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Announcing your place in the family. And what a family gathering it was: the pious and the pierced, the tattooed and the trendy, the charismatic and the questioning, the earnest and the edgy, the philosophical and the pragmatic, the sarcastic and the sensitive, the devoted, the depressed, and the determined. Yes, I’m glad I’m a part of the family of God.
Both this year and last I was one of those who drove people — mostly speakers and musicians — back and forth from the airport. On most every run someone would ask if there were more people here than last year. The answer was yes and the festival goes mostly unnoticed by Americans, much less most American Christians. Somehow, in both arenas, working to be inclusive will get you marginalized. One afternoon, sitting at a picnic table in the afternoon sun at the festival, I read these words from yet another book by John Berger that is blowing my mind:
The larger is not more real — if we tend to believe it is, the tendency is perhaps a vestige of the fear reflex to be found in all animals, ion face of another creature larger than themselves. If is more prudent to believe that the large is more real than the small. Yet it is false. (53)
The challenge is not to become larger but to become truer. To be more committed to listening than speaking, to noticing rather than wanting to be noticed, to making room rather than making points. It is a harsh and exciting call. In the “Invitation” on the festival web site it says:
We are called to embody a different kind of religious expression than has often dominated our institutions and culture. We believe that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better; so we refuse to merely denounce the shadow of the tradition and abandon it. Instead, we humbly seek to both tear down and build up, walking a path that embodies love of God, neighbor, and self.
We dream of a movement where everyone is welcome to participate. We are intentionally building a space in which we invite everyone to value, respect and fully affirm people of any ethnicity, age, gender, gender expression, sexual identity, education, bodily condition, religious affiliation, or economic background, particularly the marginalized. We are committed to fair trade, gift exchange, ecological sanity and economic inclusion. We strive for high standards of mutual respect, non-hierarchical leadership, and participative planning.
That’s not the kind of talk that builds mega-churches. It is the kind of talk — and action — that might help us all find our place in the family.