The Wild Goose Festival, described as a celebration of spirit, justice, music and arts, is underway in Hot Springs, North Carolina, near Asheville. Taking its name from the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit, the theme for this year’s festival is “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” 

Following a wave of violence against people of color, the festival is taking a particularly close look at the church’s role in combatting racial violence — and a critical look at its role in perpetuating it. 

More than 2,000 attendees, volunteers, performers and speakers have gathered at the Hot Springs Resort and Spa in the green hills near the Tennessee border for the event, alternatively described as a “tent-revival-meeting Burning Man” and “the Christian Woodstock.” The campground is filled to capacity and, out of necessity, a communal spirit has evolved so that everyone has space. 

Walking into a camp space set aside by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) attendees, one finds Episcopalians and Baptists, invited to share the tent pads, but no Presbyterians so far. A PC(USA) hospitality tent in the middle of the festival is busy with people stopping to visit and spend a few minutes in the shade. 

The Rev. Carl Horton, the mission coordinator for peacemaking in Compassion, Peace and Justice, is at the festival with Andrew Kang Bartlett of the Presbyterian Hunger Program to talk about PC(USA) programs and introduce attendees to the wide range of justice concerns in which the denomination is involved. 

“We originally thought this would be a great place to meet young adults involved in justice ministries,” says Horton, referring to the PC(USA)’s decision three years ago to begin sponsoring the festival and providing speakers. “We offered scholarships to [PC(USA)] college students and seminarians so they could attend.” 

This year’s sponsor tent is being hosted by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and Presbyterian Collegiate Ministries. Past years saw sponsorship by the Young Adult Volunteer program, Camp and Conferences, 1001 Worshiping Communities, and the Interfaith Office. 

“Wild Goose is a unique place to connect with not only young adults but people of all ages who are active and engaged in justice and compassion,” Horton adds. “The ecumenical nature of the festival is great too. It gets us to consider what other people are doing in the church and to be encouraged by that.” 

Julia Watkins, a first-time Wild Goose attendee and second-year M.Div. student at Columbia Theological Seminary, says she was drawn to the festival because of the peacemaking theme and how it directly relates to her calling in the PC(USA). “The most exciting thing for me about the PC(USA) is community,” she says. “I think it’s a wide net and there’s room for a broad range of people; that feels like a tight-knit community to me.” 

Fr. John Dear, activist and nonviolent peacemaking educator, addresses the crowd following morning worship at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C.

Fr. John Dear, activist and nonviolent peacemaking educator, addresses the crowd following morning worship at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C. —Gregg Brekke

Former PC(USA) moderator Bruce Reyes Chow is also at the festival. He’s presenting two workshops and taking “shifts” in the hospitality tent.

John Dear, author of The Nonviolent Life and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is one of dozens of leading authors, activists and musicians from around the world presenting at Wild Goose. Traci Blackmon, who ministered on the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri, will be joined by other powerful speakers, including William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays movement; Brian McLaren, often identified as the Martin Luther of what some are touting as the new reformation and author of A New Kind of Christianity; Rudy Rasmus, pastor of one of the most culturally diverse congregations in the United States; renowned activist and author Alexia Salvatierra, founder of the Faith-Rooted Organizing UnNetwork; Frank Schaeffer, best-selling author of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God; and many more.

Featured musicians include Grammy-nominated Gungor; former Sudanese child soldier, hip-hop artist and TED Talk star Emmanuel Jal; hit country music artist Ty Herndon; Timothy’s Gift, a band who brings a message of hope and reconciliation to the imprisoned; and more than 20 other musical performances across multiple stages set along the scenic French Broad River straddling the Appalachian Trail.

The festival continues until Sunday, July 12. The Presbyterian News Service will file further stories and video updates following the festival.