Telephone Conversation with Gareth Higgins, E.D of Wild Goose

July 10, 1012
By Kathi McShane

The Wild Goose Festival (W.G.) has only happened twice so far in the U.S., but it is an extension of the Greenbelt Festival that has been taking place since 1974 in the U.K.  Karla and Mike Yaconelli (do you know those names?  Big in the youth ministry field) began in the 1980’s to try to bring this festival to the U.S.  Gareth is from Northern Ireland.  He and other staff members were brought over to start the movement here. Here is the gist of what we talked about on the phone.


Phrases Gareth used to describe the festivals/movement:
Progressive radical Christianity
The collision of spirituality, justice and art
Collapsing the hierarchy between public figures and participants

They do see the festival as building a movement. Toward what? I asked.
Questioning the old assumptions of spirituality and religion.  The people who come to these festivals have already done a lot of deconstructing religion; they are clear about their critique, what they don’t want the church to be. They’ve rejected nationalistic religion sectarian religion. Now they are ready to construct together what they do want in their religious tradition.  They’re looking for an everyday spirituality.

What’s the overall goal of the movement?
“To end violence.”
Is there an interfaith component?
This is not an interfaith festival.  It’s a Christian festival that is working at embodying the teachings of Jesus by developing better relationships with people of all traditions.  We have to clean up Christianity’s house before we talk to anyone else about theirs. Belonging to your own religious group should not imply disparagement of anyone else’s sense of belonging.  We’re all about relationship-building.

One of the festival’s goals, he said, is to operate in a way that collapses hierarchies and eliminate the influence of the culture of celebrity.  They allow everyone an opportunity to speak; they neither endorse nor challenge a speaker’s content.  Speakers are generally not paid for their participation

He sees the festival building in the U.S. toward perhaps three regional events a year, each with 10,000 participants (a manageable size, he said!). Plus smaller events throughout the year:  film festivals, retreats, day-long events.  They encourage other people to use the name and reputation of the festival to create and grow local events.     Maybe, he said, WG festivals could replace denominational conferences/synods/assemblies; certainly they’re more valuable.

I asked if he saw the festival content as theological education. Yes, of course, he said; we just use a very different pedagogical model, where it is not necessarily a learned expert at the front; people learn in their continuing conversations with one another.  The people who have attended the festivals are asking for less programming, more time to connect with one another.

There are on-line communities forming among festival attendees, of course.

He said they think of Vincent Harding as the “grandfather” of this festival/movement.  Harding was active in the civil rights movement; in 1997, Harding and his wife founded Veterans of Hope, an initiative on religion, culture and participatory democracy that emphasizes nonviolent and grass root approaches to social change.

Their values include increasing the representation of people of color, women and LGBTQ. (But from every picture on their websites and the Board of Trustees of Greenbelt, it looks to me like they struggle with this.)

The first year of the WG festival, its costs were underwritten by a single donor.  Now they’re turning toward a model in which they know they need to raise money. They’re doing it (they need about $400,000 a year) with monthly donors, sponsorships and partnerships (i.e., sponsoring organizations).  Ticket prices cover about half their budget; they’re committed to keeping ticket prices low enough that no one is excluded.

In year 1 they paid no fees to speakers.  Now they assure that it will not cost a speaker to attend the festival.  It’s a “gift exchange” he said; a speaker gets the benefit of being heard at WG.

More information from the Greenbelt Festival website:
Vision:  “Greenbelt is a collision of the arts, faith and justice. Engaged with culture, inspired by the arts, sustained by faith, we aspire to be an open generous community reimagining the Christian narrative for the present moment.”

From its Mission Statement:  Our mission is to create spaces, like festivals, where art, faith and justice collide….Our history is firmly rooted within a Christian tradition which is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged. Ours is a belief that embraces instead of excludes. And, as such, the festival is family-friendly celebration, inclusive and accepting of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, background or belief.

Transform life for the common good

  • Working for justice, challenging oppression, listening to those with no voice and standing with people on the margins.
  • Using our resources wisely and responsibly, reducing our impact on the good earth, trading and investing with people and communities in mind, not simply to maximize financial return.
  • Celebrating the power of people to change history, inspiring and resourcing each other to live lives marked by art, faith and justice.

Put people first

  • Igniting community which celebrates life.
  • Seeking to welcome all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, disability or background.
  • Nurturing an empowered staff and volunteer body in a culture of openness, creativity, humility and accountability.

Collaborate, conspire and converse

  • Partnering with like-minded individuals, groups and organisations to dream new dreams, and become more than the sum of our parts.
  • Helping staff, volunteers, Angels and festivalgoers to reimagine Greenbelt both as an annual festival and around the year.
  • Modeling through creative friendship compelling approaches to art, faith and justice in our time.

Cherish the journey as much as the destination

  • Questioning intolerance, greed, prejudice and injustice.
  • Exploring ideas, beliefs, stories and traditions, both those which challenge and those which affirm.
  • Creating spaces to incubate new perspectives, celebrate curiosity and enrich our understanding through dialogue and diversity.

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