I spent the past weekend in the woods of North Carolina for Wild Goose Festival, where I led an open mic for the fest, sat on a panel about public grief and community-oriented lament, and performed before a talk on poverty, and also at a rave (I am not kidding). As I walked the long roads of the festival grounds in search of coffee, feeling the dust kick up off the ground and coat my skin, watching babies with painted faces play barefoot in mud puddles and groups of people sharing funnel cakes and baskets of fries while a folk band played in the distance, I couldn’t help but think of my beloved Cornerstone Festival.
I was basically raised at Cornerstone. I was at Cornerstone before I could walk or talk. My entire fashion aesthetic from the ages of 12 to 18 (and let’s be honest still kind of sort of now) was based entirely on Cornerstone. Every year dozens of us from our old church would head out to the grounds with trailers packed full of food and camping equipment and makeshift tables and chairs for a week of hardcore Christian screamo music, cold showers, and extremely uncomfortable abstinence talks.
Cornerstone Festival itself was deeply flawed. Financial woes and declining attendance over the years combined with looming scandal at JPUSA, its founding organization, meant its days were always numbered. But it was also my first exposure to a lot of ideas I now hold very dear. OTHER CHRISTIANS protested us at Cornerstone. They said we were going to hell because women wore bikinis and we had speakers advocating for mutual submission in marriage. People cussed! People smoked! People who weren’t married kissed each other in public! It was all very radical and sinful and delightful. Though I would probably now categorize the festival as solidly “moderate,” it functioned as a yearly vacation from fundamentalism for me growing up, and at the time, that was extremely important.
Often I like to imagine that the apple of myself has fallen very far from the tree of my upbringing. How different things are. How far I’ve come.
And then the smell of funnel cake hits me as I lay in my tent in North Carolina, and for a second I’m in Bushnell, Illinois again.
And then we go to beer & hymns, and the fact that there’s beer is definitely very different, but the hymns are the exact same, and as it turns out, the beer helps the bad theology go down a little easier, and we all laugh and sing and dance and it actually sounds pretty good because an average of 20-30% of the crowd is comprised of former CCM musicians, some of whom of I watched enraptured as a child on those Cornerstone stages.
And then I’m leading a session under those same dusty vinyl tents in the sweltering heat, just like my dad did at Cornerstone for so many years. And I have my spiral bound books that I bound by hand for sale in the back on a table, and a man is offering me water and asking if I need anything.
Then it’s Sunday night, and I’m giving a writing workshop at a Unity church in Chattanooga on the way back to Nashville, and Hannah and I are making jokes about our upbringing and how we were dragged from church to church, ad nauseum, fundraising for our lives and performing goofy songs so people would support our parents in their missionary endeavors. And it occurs to me mid-cackle that it is Sunday night and I am in a church performing and talking about something I’m passionate about and hoping that people will give me money for it because this is my job now, itinerant poet rather than preacher. But deep down I suspect they are the same thing.
Then I get home and start to unbury myself from the mountain of emails in my inbox. I’m on the “Social Justice Committee” at church. We’re planning a book club next month. I have to email the secretary so she can put it in the bulletin and in the church e-blast. Light refreshments. Bring a dish to share. There will be wine, of course. We’re Episcopalians, for God’s sake. I wonder what I should make. Maybe a casserole. Maybe just a cold salad.
There is a lot of hand-writing these days over “millennials” and others “leaving the church.” And the reality is this: While I can only speak for myself… I have never left the church, not for a single damn day. I have left certain churches, perhaps even many churches, or most churches. I have left schools of thought, hateful ideologies, and practices that no longer serve me. I have left evangelicalism. I have left many manifestations of Christianity, and some would even say that I have left Christianity itself. Maybe I have. Maybe that’s not my call to make. Frankly, church is a much harder habit for me to kick than belief. Take my belief in hell, miracles, the historicity of the Old Testament, the rapture and the Second Coming—take the creeds, even, I’m a very bad Episcopalian—but you will pry church out of my cold, dead hands. My ass will be in that pew more Sundays than not, if only to look up at that crucifix above the altar with defiance and wonder and say See? I’m still here. I often suspect that I have outstayed my welcome in organized religion and am becoming more of a thorn in their side than I am worth but what can I say? I like to have a place to bring casseroles.
In some ways, the apple of myself is as far from the tree of my upbringing as the east is from the west. But in other way, I am indisputably and irrefutably a direct product of it, tracing the lineage of my daily movements and decisions back through the years with cracked and trembling fingers.
See? I’m still here.