Friday, July 17, 2015

wild-er goose

Momma's Kitchen in Marshall, NC
Marcus Mumford sings of  a place that's safe from harm... if such a place exists for those of us blessed with a wilder mind, it's the Wild Goose Festival. Last week marked our fifth annual Wild Goose pilgrimage. I always take two of our four kids along, the two who enjoy that sort of thing. We eagerly followed the familiar road west, squealing at the first sight of mountains in the distance. We introduced friends to our annual "we're almost there!" tradition: Thursday lunch at Momma's Country Kitchen. And with every mile that passed behind us, I felt myself letting go of the world and its concerns.

But as we approached Hot Springs, my heart sunk. A large confederate flag - specifically, one with a skull and cross bones - hung just at the roadside as we made our descent from the winding mountain road into town. The kids saw it, too, and it made them uneasy. Some may say "It's just a flag!" but nevertheless, it affected us in a palpable way.  It hadn't been there in years past and we certainly hadn't been expecting to see it there now. It brought up all the horrible things that had been happening recently, and that pissed me off. It made me angry and it made me grieve. I desperately wanted to stop the van right there and pull a Bree Newsome - just climb the tree and yank it down myself, before more folks arrived ... especially those who would feel less welcomed by its presence.

No - less welcomed isn't strong enough. Less safe. I knew that the sight of that flag would make many of my friends feel less safe.

Never before had being at the Goose involved feelings of concern for safety - mine or anyone else's. Both literally and metaphorically, if the Wild Goose Festival was anything at all, it was a safe place.  I cursed under my breath at whoever hung it, then asked for forgiveness, felt something resembling pity, and ultimately told myself to move on. I had a van full of kids to look after; for now, at least, this was out of my control.

We went about our normal Goose-arrival routines: checked in, unloaded, and found friends.Once somewhat settled, we scurried off to visit our favorite Hot Springs swimming hole. As I listened to the waterfall and the laughter of teenagers, I thought to myself, a person could go sane here. Yet, the flag remained an elephant among us. I wanted to ask how our friends were feeling about it, especially those of color, but I held my tongue. These rocks, this water - this was holy ground to us, a place of pure joy and abandon. I dared not desecrate it with such talk.

Sarah and Aaron listening to Rev Barber
Later, we settled in at the main stage as the Reverend William Barber was being introduced. The Reverend is no stranger to The Goose - I've grown accustomed to his rousing sermons calling us toward social justice and Kingdom living in the here and now. I've come to expect how he reclaims old fashioned Bible preaching for the cause of the poor and the oppressed, which is exactly what he did, starting with an enthusiastic reading of Isaiah 57-58.  But he  went further than I expected, this year. He wasn't just passionate, he was raw. He was hurt. He was angry. When he talked about the ceremony to officially lower the confederate flag in South Carolina (set to take place the very next day), he raged:
"Let us be clear about what's being said: nine Black deaths may get the flag lowered, may get you nine pens as memorabilia and a signing ceremony at the Capitol, but it will not get you one pen to sign Medicaid expansion throughout the South, which would save thousands of Black lives. Black deaths will not get full voting rights, which saves Black political power and produces policies that save black, brown and poor white lives. It will not get criminal justice reform, which liberates Black lives. Nor will it get you full funding for public education, a living wage, or economic empowerment that will lift the lives of black people, minorities, and the poor. It will not get gun reform. Black deaths only get you the lowering of a low-down flag that should have never been up, and you will get this only if Black people die, and the victims’ families and extended family in the human race behave in a manner declared acceptable and ‘Christian’ by people who have supported un-Christian, immoral public policy that continues to institutionalize economic, racial and political inequality. We cannot allow this narrative to stand unchallenged. If we do, we are complicit in the furtherance of a chilling truth that Black lives don’t matter . . .only Black death matters."

The Reverend didn't just preach. He YELLED at us, to the point that some of my friends did not feel comfortable. One even used the term safe.

Then Matt Morris got up to share his incomparably beautiful voice - a marked, and (dare I say?) welcome change in pace. Only, he didn't let us off the hook, either. He challenged us with lyrics like:

How many hours, Lord
How many hours
Must he lay out in the sun
Under the gaze, Lord,
Under the gaze
Of Darren Wilson's gun?
Four hours...
Four hours...
Is four hours enough
For Michael Brown
To lay out in the sun?

After Matt came The Brilliance, and once again, otherwise uplifting music was punctuated with timely laments, like this:

When the man said 
you are choking me 
And he cried out, 
“I cannot breathe” 
Did your heart break? 
Does your heart break now?

And so, as my kids danced late into the night at the Silent Disco, I gathered with a group of friends (most of whom are part of our Inclusion Community back home) round a campfire to try and sort all this out. We came away with different perspectives, but one thing was certain - this Goose was different. Decidedly so, already. Energies of fear, of grief, and of anger were noted. And for many, for a multitude of different reasons, things felt anything but safe.

The next morning at opening liturgy, Rosa was the first person to acknowledge the flag's presence from the main stage. She explained that the town was sorry it had been lifted in anticipation of our festival, and that the father of the young man responsible had been trying to get him to take it down. Then she shared in an ominous tone that, as of that morning, he had, in fact, taken it down... and replaced it with a Nazi flag. I swallowed hard, as I processed what she was saying: Just over the French Broad River lives a young man determined to make it known that as far as he is concerned, we who have come to gather under the banner "Blessed Are The Peacemakers" are not welcome. And he's probably armed. Lord, have mercy.

Later that morning I grabbed a seat on the front row of the Spirituality Tent for Yara Allen's session on The Role of Music in the Forward Together Movement. I'd been struck by her presence the night before, and wanted to hear more. She was informal and low key, talking with us while sitting on the stage's edge rather than standing on it, when a stern voice from the back row blurted out, "I'm going to have to interrupt!" In the split second it took me to turn around, I'd already played out a frightening scenario in my mind. I truly imagined - what raced through my mind in that moment -  was that someone had come there to do her harm.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Rev Barber himself spoke up, insisting on bragging about her and the role she plays in the movement.  I was shocked to see him because, in the past, he'd come to preach his sermon and then quickly left. I think we all understood that this was because he's a busy man, but to be honest, it was more than that. It felt like he came to talk to us, but wasn't actually there with us. And yet, here he was - dressed down (for him), sitting in the back, no fanfare, a part of us. Of course the powers that be eventually pushed him to the front, but he called someone else up with him as well. All this time, Matt Morris had been sitting on the front row opposite me, listening intently. He and the Rev Barber had had a moment together the night before, where the Rev was actually on stage with him, dancing along (if you can believe it!) and hugging him. It had touched me, but this was so much more. That could have been mistaken as being "for show", there on the main stage. Here, the crowd was modest as the three of them: Yara - a powerful and talented black female speaker/singer, Matt - a brilliant white male musician who had told us the night before that he and his husband were celebrating their 8th anniversary, and the Rev Barber - who needs no introduction, were one. Seeing them not on the main stage together, but right there in the grass, on our level, just ... with us ... enjoying one another as much as we were enjoying them, struck me in a powerful way. Together we sang Yara's lyrics:

Somebody's hurting my brother
And it's gone on far too long
Yes it's gone on far too long
And I won't be silent anymore!

And that's when I got it. The energy we were all a part of inside that tent, that radiated throughout the campground and all along that broad river, was real ... and it was absolutely anything but safe. Call it the Holy Spirit or our "collective effervescence" (I don't care what you call it!) it is a force to be reckoned with. I watched us come together, finally, not just as allies but as brothers and sisters ... as a flock, with the same wind behind us, flying toward a shared destination.

Yet, there was a spirit of fear in our midst, as well. The young man who hung those flags? Terrified. And for good reason. Not because anyone meant him harm, not because he wouldn't have been welcome had he at any moment chosen to join us, but because he - and those who feel as he does - can sense what I sensed that morning.


And whatever words you choose to describe it, one that most certainly won't do, is safe.

The goose has gotten wilder.

(stay tuned for more reflections from #WGF15)