Hanging With Jesus
A report from the ground at Spirit West Coast.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
The T-shirts say things like “Silly Rabbits, Jesus is for Everyone” and “Virginity Rocks.”
Banners line the sides of vendor booths announcing that “National Pro-Life Cupcake Day is on Oct. 9” and “Pornography is for Posers.”
Organizations offering information about Trinity Law School, where “a Christian lawyer is not an oxymoron,” and Glorystar Satellite Systems, “free Christian channels for home, church and work,” are sprinkled throughout the grounds.
Next to a gorilla bounce-room and rock-climbing wall there’s even a “Skate Church” skate park.
At the 12th Spirit West Coast Christian Music Festival, everything comes with a spiritual message.
“How long have you been a believer?” and “Have you found Christ?” are routine questions heard between Jars of Clay songs and K-Love shout-outs; Bibles are as ubiquitous as psychedelics at a Grateful Dead concert.
But there is no sign of drugs or even a drop of alcohol to be found at the festival. Both are strictly prohibited, with penalty of expulsion from the grounds. Nobody seems bothered by these rules– the estimated attendance of more than 44,000 people over the three-day event are high on spreading Christ’s word.
As 10,000 campers spread out over 2,000 campsites, 1,000 volunteers help with concessions and prayer tents, and hundreds of vendors peddle Christianized commodities and triple-fried junk food. Over three days, eight stages host 66 live music performances. It all makes SWC one of the largest musical happenings of its kind in the country and the largest non-racing event held at Laguna Seca.
But the soul of the festival is not found in the grand scale of the event or the huge shared experience of the concerts. It’s found in the individual interactions, where people reveal unique relationships with God and what it means to be a believer.
For volunteer Steve Ignash, it means cheerfully accosting people to share a moment. Dressed in a black “Free Prayers” T-shirt, he stands waiting in front of the Christian Motorcycle Association’s booth.
“My life is filled with supernatural joy on a daily basis,” says the Santa Cruz firefighter with rugged good looks, and a demeanor that has the deceitful charm of Eddie Haskell from “Leave It To Beaver.” He approaches most everyone passing by.
“Would you like a free prayer?” Ignash asks.
Most of the people questioned take him up on his offer.
“What would you like to pray for?” Ignash continues.
The common answers: good health and the recovery of a sick loved one.
Ignash’s perky smile quickly transforms into a state of heavy focus as he places his hand onto the participant’s shoulder, squints his eyes shut and begins Christ’s Intercessory Prayer: “I have given [this person] the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are… ”
Ignash ends each benediction with a hug. His eyes open and his smile returns with a glow of affirmation.
A 30-foot wooden crucifix, which has become a medieval-looking symbol of Spirit West Coast Monterey, plunges into the hillside, casting a shadow twice its size. At the apex of the cross is a sign to meet in front of it for an evening prayer session.
Far from Ignash’s free prayers and the hubbub of the massive crowds, campsites are peppered with RVs, trailers and trucks. Some of the vehicles fly crucifix flags or balloons; others have windows soap-scribed with “Jesus Rocks” and “SWC 2008.”
To visit each camp is to visit a scene from a movie. At one of the smaller campsites about 20 yards in front of the crucifix, three bright-eyed twentysomethings adamantly claim they are no different from “non-believers.”
“We’re all human,” Cassie Dutton says. “We have the same desires and the same struggles.” Dutton and her friends find their spirituality through “serving others”: for this event, the three girls made the pilgrimage from Chico to Laguna Seca at 4:30am the day before to volunteer in the various Christian concession booths.
“[At the booth] you can buy a Bible and write a message in it to be sent to the troops in Iraq,” Dutton begins. “One woman came to purchase a Bible and opened up [to me] about her life and how she came to know the Lord after suffering through abuse.”
Whereas Dutton and company traveled from Northern California to serve through support and shared experience, another volunteer, Joe Baker, traveled from Philadelphia to serve by provoking and unsettling.
“The goal of Christianity today is to make people feel as comfortable as possible,” Baker says. “I have a different philosophy: dialogue with people and make them feel uncomfortable. Everyone who followed Jesus initially was brutally killed.”
His shaggy red hair falls just above his eyes and some of his cohorts dangle heavy metals from their nose, ears and eyebrows.
The 26-year-old vendor is the head of www.live.offensively.com, which he is careful to point out refers to “offense” as in “proactive” rather than “offensive.”
“We’re all about fighting the culture of death,” Baker says. “We have to be on the offense when we fight against abortion and pornography.”
Baker’s vendor tent certainly displays some of the more controversial T-shirts available at SWC: “Jesus Loves Homosexuals Too” and “God is not a Conservative Republican” are a couple of the notable standouts.
His hard-edged version of Christianity once resulted in a large East Coast festival banning his company.
So far, Monterey has been fairly cordial toward him and his beliefs.
“I’ve had more conversations at [SWC] about homosexuality than any other festival. [The SWC] is definitely more liberal than some of the other festival,” Baker says.
He explains that the pink “Jesus Loves Homosexuals Too” T-shirt isn’t meant to absolve gays from the fact that they are committing sin; it is meant to imply that “God still loves them.”
“I believe in sin and in the Scriptures it says that a man who loves another man is sinful.”
Baker plans to head to Salt Lake City after SWC where he will meet up with friends to go rock climbing at Cirque of the Towers near the border of Wyoming. He says he finds spirituality when he climbs.
“For me, the best lessons I’ve learned have come during near-death experiences in the mountains,” Baker says. “It’s as close as I can ever get to God.”