Fuck the unemployment statistics, including the one that states that your personal unemployment rate is 100%. Let it go. Screw the 3.75 currently useless college degrees, the five-page list of accomplishments and the job applications that disappear into the yawning abyss of what once was American capitalism, the stimulus packages that don't do jack for you or your family, the euphemistic bullshit about rightsizing, restructuring, and belt tightening, all of which roughly translate to "You're screwed, dude. You may be a poet, and you may know it, but we're not paying for poetry or anything else these days."
Leave that all behind, at least for a while. Three days in Grand Rapids, Michigan are good for the soul. Not Grand Rapids per se. Grand Rapids as a city appears to be much like Columbus, Ohio. There are the interchangeable hotel and restaurant chains; the vaguely disorienting signs that one could be anywhere or nowhere. There are the same boarded-up shop windows in the "arts district" (note to self: there may be a sturdy, reusable metaphor somewhere there), the strip mall ghost towns, the homeless guys looking for handouts on the street corners. But within the decaying sprawl there is a little oasis of hope called Calvin College, a liberal arts college that, once every two years, hosts a gathering of musicians and music lovers called the Festival of Faith and Music. That happened Thursday through Saturday, and I was there, and I was very, very thankful to be there.
I could tell you about the music. There was a lot of it, and it was excellent. I saw The Hold Steady, again, and The Hold Steady never fails to delight and move me and rock my socks off, laying down poetry and power chords that are inseparable from one another. I saw hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco who, in the midst of all his cultural trappings, may wear the mantle of the true prophet. I saw Over the Rhine, again, and every time Karin Bergquist sings "Changes Come" I want to tear out the little hair that remains and wail and gnash my teeth. And yes, that's a good thing. Here is what Karin sang:
I wanna have our baby
Somedays I think that maybe
This ol' world's too fucked up
For any firstborn son
There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone
Turn the world around
Lay my burden down
Turn this world around
Bring the whole thing down
Bring it down
It was probably the theme song for my weekend, a desperate little anthem that stares into the abyss and finds somebody staring back. I saw Americana artist Julie Lee sing her sweet songs of pain and hope. I saw a fresh-faced kid named Derek Barber and his band Perhapsy play his amazing jazz-tinged rock in front of about twenty people. I saw Boston singer/songwriter Katie Chastain sing her lovely, disquieting indie folk tunes. I saw Bandspotting winner Aaron Strumpel and friends wail the Psalms. And I saw a transgendered hermaphrodite and former circus carney named Baby Dee, pictured above, sing some of the damndest, most grace-filled hymns I've ever heard. She has recorded a superb and disturbing album called Safe Inside the Day. You should listen.
There was a lot of staring into the abyss. I went to a workshop on early bluesman Charley Patton, an alcoholic Christian who, I pray, philandered and drank his way into the Kingdom of God. I heard about a batch of new bands who have incorporated the southern Gothic sensibilities of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty into their music. I heard a couple of academic dissertations on the lyrics of Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. I heard marvelous, challenging, uplifting keynote addresses from Makoto Fujimura, Andy Crouch, and Dr. Cornel West. I listened to a passionate presentation from a Calvin English prof on the laments of David, Jeremiah, The Velvet Underground, The Sex Pistols, Fugazi, and The Psalters. I listened to revelatory interviews with Craig Finn and Baby Dee. And I mingled and ate and drank with a bunch of people I may never see again, but who left me with the unmistakeable impression that there are thinking, feeling Christians out there who are focused on beauty and pain and truth, and the intersection of those themes that have historically been shunted to the side in the conservative Christian world, and viewed as incompatible and unspiritual.
As always, three days was not enough, and there were the workshops I wanted to attend but couldn't, and the conversations I wanted to happen, but didn't. I waved to David Dark, and said hello and goodbye. I chatted for all of three minutes with Linford and Karin from Over the Rhine, and promised to visit sometime soon. I had fleeting snatches of conversation with Rob and Kirstin from Calvin, who are integrally involved with the festival, and who put out a wonderful little magazine called *cino (Cultural Is Not Optional). I had too-short conversations with Paste co-founder Tim Regan-Porter and with renaissance man Charlie Peacock. I chatted briefly with my Pittsburgh buddy Jason, said "Hello" and "We'll have to talk later" with my Seattle buddy Kevin (and then we never did), meant to catch up with a dozen or more people whose lives I value and for which I am thankful. It didn't happen. I wish there were more hours in the day.
But there were opportunities for extended conversation as well. And they were weird and wonderful. There was, for instance, the uncomfortable moment in which I realized that the person sitting across the table from me was mentally ill, certifiably, irrevocably insane, and full of crazy theology and even crazier art that could shake me to the core if I let it, and I decided that I was going to hang in there and that it might not be a bad idea if I let it. Kate and I had a wonderful dinnertime conversation with David Horace Perkins, a mainstay of some of the best Christian bands ever (and yes, there are a few), and one of the best blues guitarists you've never heard. David talked about simultaneously receiving chemotherapy treatments and putting together a conference/music festival in Nashville to honor the work of Flannery O'Connor.
We met, for the first time, and hung out with Emma Sapperstein, daughter of our old friends Andy and Kathy Sapperstein, who currently reside in New Haven, Connecticut and work with theologian Miroslav Wolf, and who have spent most of the past twenty years in Uzbekistan. Emma grew up in Uzbekistan, fed the family chickens, and now finds herself in a foreign culture called the U.S. of A., studying sculpture at Wheaton College. She was a spunky delight. We hung out with Calvin intern Marty Garner and his friend Matt. Marty loves The Hold Steady and indie rock, and we talked music, and church, and what it was like to change the states called home four times in 2008. We had dinner with Katie Chastain and her songwriting partner Nathan Johnson, and talked parenthood with rap artist Jeremy Bryant and his wife Hansi, who have received a grant to make hip-hop music with high school kids in Milwaukee. How cool is that? We hung out with Erin Keane, an English professor at a college in Kentucky, and someone who may be a bigger Hold Steady fan than I am. We hung out with Aaron Strumpel, from Colorado, and Todd and Angie Fadel, from Portland, Oregon, who somehow got together to lay down the most outstanding musical set of the conference, a raw, punk-like, discordant, and often strikingly beautiful take on The Psalms. Or, the Wail. It was so refreshing to encounter people who love God, and experience pain, and let it rip.
There was a lot of pain this weekend. That was the overarching message I heard. Boys and girls in America are hurting. They weren't melodramatic about it. They weren't simpering about it. They acknowledged that there were and are many blessings in the midst of the shitstorm. But the sorrow and the heartache were palpable on many fronts. And there was genuine, deep-down connection happening everywhere I turned. It was the best part of the Festival of Faith and Music, and it couldn't have been organized or orchestrated. It just happened.
I came out on the other side saddened, hopeful, energized, worn out, and very, very thankful. I am so grateful that this happens. My sincere thanks go out to Ken Heffner and the many staff members and volunteers at Calvin who tirelessly work to create an atmosphere where those unexpected and lifegiving moments can emerge. It will happen again, God willing, in the spring of 2011. You all should make an effort to be there.