She is followed by the Psalters, a gypsy-Afro-punk group that sounds like a klezmer band run amok. Even after I take my daughter back to the tent to sleep, I can hear them crashing away. And as we drop off, they’re singing the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the first prayer I’ve heard all weekend.
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Not everyone at the festival eschews capitalism. Ed Herr is president of Herr Foods, a $200 million family snack business in nearby Nottingham, Pa., best known for its potato chips. He donated 500 acres of farm- and woodland for the PAPA Festival. The event had only an $8,000 budget, so it relied heavily on volunteers and donations. (The first PAPA conference was held in 2006 on farmland owned by Claiborne’s mom near Knoxville, Tenn., and drew 700 people. A second one in 2008 near Chicago drew 900. Numbers are down for this third gathering, possibly because another Christian conference, the Wild Goose Festival, is slated for the next weekend in North Carolina.)
Dressed in beige shorts and a work shirt, Herr camped out in the field with us. “It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of land between Philadelphia and Washington,” he says, “and I knew the PAPA people would love the land and bless the land, and make sure there was no trash left on it.”
Although Herr, 56, is a businessman, he talks more like a cross between an environmentalist and a pastor; he was raised a Mennonite but now leads a nondenominational church called SILO. The congregation, he says, meets in warehouses, homes or parks, and reaches out to the poor and marginalized.
Herr’s workshop, “Chipping Away at Corporate Culture,” is about how capitalism can be compassionate; as examples, he says his company uses recycled materials in its product packaging and supports 1,000 charitable organizations per year.
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It has been tough to get a handle on a recurring theme — other than the promotion of community — at the PAPA Fest. But that yearning seems strong.
Many of us in the 1970s felt the same way. No one understood why we wanted to live in households and share our salaries. While the emphasis seems to have shifted — back then, the main concern was to get folks filled with the Holy Spirit; here it’s peace and justice — the sentiment is familiar.
Perhaps Liz Richner sums it up best. She works at Herr Foods, participates in SILO and lives with her husband and two other families in a nearby community household. She says living in a conservative rural area an hour from like-minded communities in Philadelphia feels isolated.
“I came for encouragement,” she says, “and to know that, yes, we can do it. Many of the folks at the festival do feel a sense of isolation from both the mainstream American church and culture at large because of our chosen lifestyles. Just last week, I received a phone call from a former pastor, who asked me if I was ‘still living in that commune.’
“That’s one of the points of the festival, I suppose, and one of the blessings,” she adds, echoing festival organizers. “We gather to remind each other that we are not crazy; or if we are crazy, at least we are not alone.”
Julia Duin, a religion writer in Maryland, is the author of “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.