Friday, June 24, 2011

we cannot live, except thus mutually; or, reflections on PAPA Fest

It's a little strange being back in civilization.

For the past week, I've been out in the middle-of-nowhere PA, helping to organize and participate in PAPA Fest.

It's a little hard to explain our little festival. When people ask, I call it an "arts and music and learning festival," but that's just a part of it. When the organizers met in the fall to start planning, we went through a ton of drafts of vision and mission statements because we had so many different ideas. To give you a feel, here's what we came up with as a vision statement:

"PAPA Festival seeks to continue to be a national volunteer-run, donation-based event that gathers a dynamic group of Christians and others to form a little village where we celebrate, support, and empower one another. Motivated by the Spirit of God, we foster the development of DIY, earth-sustaining, and relationship-building skills that we take home to create a more compassionate and just world."

Yeah. That's long and complicated. And perhaps a little (a little, you say?) idealistic. But that is our vision. We're volunteer-run: no one gets paid. We're donation-based: we ask for about $20 per adult for admission, but if you can't pay that, we'll let you in, and if you want to give more, we'll take it.

We're Christians, most of us. And that's certainly a connecting point for us. Most of us are on the fringes, in our lifestyles, our theology, our politics, whatever, and we feel disconnected or alienated from the church as it exists in the US and from our society. We had people who weren't Christians who came, and while it was a very explicitly Christian festival (we had morning liturgy and afternoon and evening daily prayer), I hope that they felt welcome.

The festival originally came out of a couple of intentional communities, like the simple way in Philly and the Camden Houses (where I lived for a year), but we've broadened quite a bit since then. Most of us who organized the festival are not formally connected to a community. And although we say we're a "convergence of communities and movements," we're also a convergence of individuals.

We're not monolithic, and that's what I love. We come from a broad swath of lifestyles and theological backgrounds. If you looked around at our little village, you'd see big families and you'd see single people, old people (the oldest participant was 81) and young (we had about 80 kids in our Children's Village). A lot of people who come try to live "off the grid," but a lot of us also come from cities and are just trying to make our lives a little more sustainable.

We had a group of folks come from New Jerusalem, an addiction recovery community in Philadelphia. We had anarcho-primitivists. We had people who live in intentional communities and people who were coming out of the intentional community movement. We had people who were white, black, Asian, Mexican. We had people like me, who live a relatively normal life but try to push back at the dominant, oppressive culture in small ways. There was a photographer there who was covering the festival, and she said that she'd covered a Neo-Pagan gathering a few weeks before that seemed similar. I said we should connect with them. I think we'd find more common ground than not.

Mainly, we're a weird bunch of folks.

One of the biggest things we try to do is to build from the ground up. The festival switches places every time. In 2006, it was in Tennessee. In 2008, it was in Illinois. This year, it was in PA. We built a stage and a chapel in two days. We had composting toilets (our "Pootown") and asked people to bring their own dishes and silverware to minimize waste. We had communal recycling and compost bins. We wanted to be easy on the earth, because (as my friend Joy's t-shirt says), it belongs to our great-grandchildren and we should handle it unselfishly.

It's a learning festival in a lot of ways. During the day, we have "learning workshops" and "skill shares." I went to a learning workshop on Christianity and Feminism and one on militarism and pacifism, and to a skill share on permaculture. But there were many more. A lot of them had to do with living in community, but not all. My friend Lauren (whom I met there and whom I now consider a friend) led a workshop called "Queering the Beloved Community," trying to provide a safe space for LGBTQ folks and allies. There were workshops on peacemaking and reconciliation, on ethnicity and racism. There were skill shares on jewelery making and on drumming, on the circus, on gathering food from the forest.

As the Volunteer Coordinator, my job was to make sure the day-to-day things ran smoothly. The whole festival ran on volunteers: we asked all people who came to volunteer each day--to take out the trash and compost and recycling, to help out with the kids, to help direct parking, so on and so forth. It was exhausting because I coordinated and managed all of that, but it was wonderful. I loved my "job" (I did it at the '08 festival, too) because I could see firsthand how much people loved being there and how much they were willing to lend a hand.

A lot of the festival is about interdependence: learning to live with and lean on each other, learning to see each other as Christ would see us, and learning to love the world because God made it good. "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other," Mother Teresa once said--and I think we're trying to relearn what exactly it means to belong to each other.

I'm going to post pictures soon....once I buy a new camera cord. I lost mine.

*People Against Poverty and Apathy. We've wanted to change the name for a variety of reasons (we feel like we should stand for something, not just against; we'd like to be more inclusive by using a non-masculine name; so on and so forth), but no one's been able to agree on another name. It is, however, kind of fun because the majority of the organizers are women; I like to call us the PAPA mamas.


  1. That sounds wonderful! Those are all topics near and dear to my heart. My pastor and his family attended the Wild Goose Festival this year, but I had never heard of this one. I'll have to bookmark it for next year.

  2. You would be most welcome to come! It's every other year, so (hopefully) the next one will be in 2013. We skipped 3 years the last time because all of us organizers were too busy in 2010.

    A lot of PAPA people attended Wild Goose as well. We actually discussed partnering with them, but for a variety of reasons, we decided not to. I heard WG was good.