PAPA Festival Highlights Christianity, Anarchism, & Community Spirit
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
PAPA Festival highlights Christianity, anarchism and community spirit
By Julia Duin, Thursday, September 1, 11:10 AM
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
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.”
* * *
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
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
* * *
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
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.”
* * *
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
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
* * *
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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 wpmagazine@...
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Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"