The moon is bright orange, hanging in the warm evening sky like an enormous gumdrop. Underneath it is a “village” of Christian festival-goers, housed in 100 colorful tents on a gently sloping Pennsylvania field about an hour north of Baltimore. Some of the villagers are roasting marshmallows. Others are pressed, mosh-pit style, against a makeshift stage, where an indie folk band named Theillalogicalspoon, which bills itself as “theologians and anarchists,” seems to be singing about everything but Jesus. One number ends: “If I had my way, I’d tear the whole thing down.”
So goes the PAPA (People Against Poverty and Apathy) Festival, “a convergence of communities and movements” run by young organizers mostly connected with Circle of Hope, a Brethren church in Philadelphia.
If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound like your typical Christian gathering, you’re right. Here, about 500 attendees, including myself and my 6-year-old daughter, will spend four days living in a communal paradise, listening to music, teaching one another crafts, and caring for the environment. Participants have brought food to share in the community kitchen — essentially a bunch of rigged-up camp stoves, coolers and tables under a tarp — and have built an open-air chapel from branches at the edge of the field, though not much seems to be happening there.
Instead, we have signed up for “skill shares,” where volunteers teach subjects such as basic Italian, how to dye yarn naturally (with fruits, vegetables and plants) and “integrating Christian spirituality and Apache shamanism to create healing and light.”
And we have chosen from 31 “learning workshops,” with topics including “Sabbath economics,” how the church should address domestic violence, and “Solidarity and Syncretism,” which asks: “How can the church in the ‘first world’ shed its fear of indigenous traditions and join in the sounds of liberation the elder cultures are singing without committing cultural theft or reinforcing false stereotypes?”
PAPA is completely outside of what you might see in a typical Sunday morning service; in fact, most of the amiable 20- and 30-something people I encounter are involved in church lightly. But they’re manic about community and connecting; these are folks who could post to Twitter and Facebook in their sleep. Many have driven, hitchhiked or taken the bus for hours to get here. Admission was $20 for each seeker to spend Father’s Day weekend in an Eden that embraces nonviolence, eats organic, focuses on social justice, shares housing, pools resources and trashes the U.S. government as a Darth Vader-like “Empire.”
According to the pre-conference instructions, “musical instruments, [F]risbees, cooking stuff, art and circus stuff, bikes, games, love, joy, hope and beauty” are permitted. Prohibited: “drugs, weapons, fireworks, ATVs, idols, alcohol, meanness.”
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When I first heard of this gathering, I wondered if festival-goers would be interested in someone such as myself, who lived through the evangelical Christian community movement of the 1970s, which at its height included about 1,000 communities across the country. I had joined one of the smaller groups, Bethlehem Community, a charismatic Baptist collection of about 40 people based in several households in Portland, Ore.
We lived “common purse,” meaning that those of us who worked to support the community turned in our paychecks to the community treasurer, freeing up others to evangelize full time at nearby Portland State University. I packed my bags after two years, when Bethlehem’s leaders asked me to decide between them and a journalism career. But I remained fascinated and later wrote a book about the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston, one of the most famous communities of that era.
Although most communities had died out by the early 1990s, there is a resurgence in Christian communal living today. But the flavor is 180 degrees from 30 years ago. We were newly born-again recruits for the Jesus movement. Not these folks. Some of PAPA’s participants are anarchists, for whom Christianity is not religion but resistance against civilization. They push the boundaries (some dabble in “feral Christianity”) and seek to withdraw from society to a primordial existence where they live off the land in rural areas. Technology and civilization are evils; however, certain modernities (Web sites, 21st-century modes of transportation) are okay. If they deal with the government, it’s to commit civil disobedience to protest mountaintop removal or oil-sands pipelines.
A more numerous subset is the new monastics, who tend to live in clusters of inner-city residences, ministering to the poor. Most clusters average 10 to 20 people. Some pool assets. Some live “modified common purse,” meaning that homes and cars are owned by the community, while members hold outside jobs and contribute to community costs. Most oppose such government actions as the U.S. incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan (at the conference, references to “Empire,” I am told, mean “any of the powers of this world that conflict with the kingdom of God”). But they work with local governments to help the poor.
An exact tally of new monastics is hard to come by, but Community of Communities, a Christian Web site, lists 81 established U.S. communities. The Fellowship for Intentional Community site lists dozens of new Christian start-ups.
The most famous new monastic is Shane Claiborne, 36, whose Simple Way in Philadelphia has a core of 18 people with a mailing list of 6,000. It was established in 1998. A Sept. 2, 2005, cover story in Christianity Today magazine and Claiborne’s 2006 book, “The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical,” put his group on the evangelical map. When Simple Way realized that people wanted to know about community and how to make a difference, it birthed the PAPA festivals that caught my attention.
I’ve missed the intimacy of my community days — a connection I’ve never found again in the many churches I’ve belonged to since — and am curious about these young community seekers. That’s how I found myself dropping back into the scene, perched on a camp chair in a sunny glade speaking on “When Community Goes Wrong” and wondering if these folks could get it right.
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The breakout sessions are held in woodsy spots named for activist figures such as Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, the Berrigan brothersand Dorothy Day. Mine is dubbed “Romero,” after Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop martyred by a death squad in 1980.
Even before I start, I lose one listener to a competing session called “Queering the Beloved Community,” which is focused on “issues of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation in radical Christian community.” (Another change: PAPA welcomes gay attendees; 30 years ago, communities prayed for people to be delivered of homosexuality.)
The 15 people who remain for my session include a woman interning for a Mennonite community in Tiskilwa, Ill., a 30-something father of two kids from a Minnesota community and a Catholic deacon. Many of the listeners sport an array of tattoos, not all of them Christian in nature. People are dressed in nouveau hippie chic: colorful scarves (despite the soaring temperatures), long skirts, headbands arranged just so, tank tops, straw hats and Rastafarian-style dreadlocks.
Since my days in an intentional community occurred before many of these folks were born, I recount how people back then gave away money, cars and more to experience a common life modeled after the fabulously successful early church experiment recorded in Acts 2:42-47 of the New Testament. Because I’m hoping to help these folks avoid the mistakes of 20 or 30 years back, I also describe how household leaders exercised iron control over their followers to the point of telling them what to wear and to confess their sins — including details of their sex lives. I get puzzled looks.
“Why would people live like that?” someone asks.
I explain that communities involving several hundred people require administrators, some of whom let power go to their heads. I soon realize these folks don’t need my warnings about authoritarianism. Indeed, they seem afraid of exercising any authority at all, of being seen as too controlling. They describe chaotic communities that don’t seem to have consensus on finances, religious practices or even basic housekeeping rules.
“My wife is tired of picking up” after the other members, the man from the Minnesota household confides after my session. “She wants out of community.”
The point comes up again at a workshop led by Allan Howe, 69, from Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Ill., a Mennonite group and one of the very few communities that has survived from the days I lived in household. One woman asked him what to do about people who just moved in because they needed a place to live.
“You need a core covenant, which is the basic commitment of the group,” he says. “Anything less is a boarding house.”
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When I return to my tent to shore it up against a predicted afternoon thunderstorm, I meet Joshua Swartwood, 31, a black-bearded fellow with black earrings who has driven down from Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife, Shanna, and kids Elijah, Lillian, Naomi, Judah, Vashti and Ephraim.
He has “Moses,” “Joshua” and a menorah tattooed on his arms as reminders, he tells me, of “God’s interactions with people in a supernatural, kind of crazy way.” His great-grandfather was Jewish, and his father is a nondenominational pastor. Before he was born, his mother had been told he had died in the womb. But an ultrasound showed he was alive, and thus, he was named Joshua, meaning “God saves.”
By day, Swartwood makes motion-sensing semiconductors. Outside of work, he — like many of the folks I meet over the weekend — is a mix of categories. He’s apolitical and so considers himself part anarchist. He’s communitarian; although his household of eight is not in a community, Swartwood is marshaling a group of like-minded large families to create one. And he is part artist. A few months earlier, he spent 20 hours straight painting a mural of crosses, a dove, skulls, trees, candles, an enormous white cloud and Bible verses on the walls of one of the Simple Way houses in Philadelphia.
“We are evangelical home-school Christians, but we’re not stereotypical evangelicals,” he says. “We don’t fit into any segment of life, even the church. A lot of the church is more conservative than we are in certain areas.”
The thunderstorm arrives, and my daughter and I spend a miserable 45 minutes bailing out the tent. Afterward, I chat with Maria Kenney, a conference organizer who shares a tent close by with her daughter, Miranda, 6. She is a founding member of Communality, a 13-year-old community of 50 souls living near one another in Lexington, Ky. It helps refugees and the homeless, and oversees urban gardens.
The holder of a master’s of divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, Kenney is pursuing a doctorate in Christian ethics from Durham University in England so she can teach. As our daughters play together, we relax under her tarp while swatting flies. I ask her what kind of people have shown up for PAPA.
“People who have a desire for community and don’t live in one,” she says. “They want to feel like they’re not crazy. They want to connect with people with the same ideals.”
One of those ideals, she says, is a defiance of the current world economic system, which organizers think benefits the rich. Thus, PAPA has set up a “bartering tent,” where people can bring things they’ve made to trade, avoiding money.
My first visit to the bartering tent nets me an almost-new baby blanket from a pile of free baby items. Andy Lewis, 32, the drummer for Theillalogicalspoon, is minding a nearby table of anarchist pamphlets and CDs. He lives in a decrepit old farmhouse in Jackson, Mich., restores oak savannas for a living and believes that the Book of Genesis is a political text, in that it is about the world’s “fall” from paradise to civilization.
Paradise was Earth’s original status, he says, when we existed as hunter-gatherers. But the advent of agriculture, symbolized by Cain — the grower of fruits and vegetables, as well as Adam’s disgraced son — drove mankind toward technology, division of labor and hierarchy. The last, which symbolizes obedience to power, is anathema to these anarchists.
I decide to challenge him a little.
“Do you use city water?” I ask, starting on my list of technology’s benefits. “Public roads? Sewage disposal?” He nods, but it is clear that these are, to him, temporary necessary evils.
“I’m all for re-wilding or re-skilling ourselves with the basics, how do we get food, water, shelter, medicine,” he explains. “I could go into the woods by myself, and I do from time to time. ”
But he doesn’t stay in the wilds. “The model of the prophets and throughout the New Testament is the movement from wild places of inspiration back to the urban centers or cities and then delivering a prophetic word and/or action,” he says. As to what his prophetic word or action might be, he says he’s still working on it.
It’s late afternoon, so I wander back to my tent to scrape together dinner, but Maria Kenney graciously invites us to partake of what she has cooked. The evening music performances start soon after. The opening act is harpist Timbre Cierpke, who says she lives in a community. “I grew up Republican in the suburbs of Nashville,” she tells us. “I didn’t like war, but no one understood.”
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 email@example.com.