Band of Brothers: Sharing the Fullness of Christ at Cornerstone Music Festival

29 June 29–3 July 2011• Bushnell, Illinois • Story by Dn. James Bozeman

Photos by Michel P. Poulin and Dn. James Bozeman

Why would a small group of Orthodox Christian clergy and laity, college-age and up, rent a vendor's booth at the famed Cornerstone Music Festival—basically a Christian rock music event? Perhaps, to evangelize? Or, to minister to youth and young adults? Maybe, to recruit students for the seminaries that participated (i.e., St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s)?

The answer is complex, and before I reflect on our group’s experience, let me explain what Cornerstone Music Festival is. Created in 1984 by an independent evangelical group known as “Jesus People USA,” the festival now ranks as one of the largest Christian Music fests in the world: sort of a Christian version of Woodstock. Tens of thousands of people travel to Cornerstone Farm in Bushnell, Illinois each year to hear more than 300 bands play many styles of music, including rock, metal, punk, folk, hardcore, and pop. Guest speakers, independent/foreign film screenings, writers' seminars, and art workshops are featured as well.

Cornerstone draws many Christians on the fringes of culture, folks hungry to learn more about their faith. Although not typically “suit and tie” Christians (it’s difficult to find a person without a tattoo there), they exhibit extreme fervor for Christ. Many seek to understand God in a deeper way, and the festival provides an opportunity for them to share ideas and meet other like-minded, “hungry” Christians from the world over.

While primarily attended by Evangelicals, Cornerstone has in recent years attracted the involvement of both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. During this past year, several students from both St. Tikhon’s Seminary and St. Vladimir’s Seminary (unbeknown to each other) contemplated making a trip to Cornerstone, to present Orthodox Christianity to festival-goers.

During a missiology class presentation at St. Vladimir’s in fall 2010, I had proposed the idea, which was not original: many students over the last few years had the same vision, and prior to us, a group representing the “punk zineDeath to the World had rented a festival booth and conducted Orthodox liturgical services there, which passers-by could observe. Much to my surprise, following my class presentation, I was immediately inundated with volunteers who wanted to resurrect an Orthodox presence in this rather unusual setting. The idea reached fruition through the efforts of some of my fellow students and by way of the Department of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Our brothers at St. Tikhon’s, who shared in the same vision, joined in and carried the weight of the endeavor. This was one of the greatest blessings to all of us: a unique opportunity for “SVOTS” and “STOTS” to work together. 

Fr. Christopher Foley and I represented St. Vladimir’s; Fr. Joel Weir and Christopher Patton represented St. Tikhon's Seminary; and Subdeacon Luke Beecham represented the Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry. Stephen Wendland and Reid Broadstreet were both volunteers who helped out with the booth and liturgical services.

For some of us, Cornerstone had once been a Christian music “Mecca,” which had played an intrinsic part in our developing lives as Christians. Some of us had performed in bands at the festival, while others were simply devotees. This year, we had a ministry—in the midst of seeming cacophony.

Picture us singing “Gladsome Light” while not-so-distant multiple rock bands each played a different song simultaneously. The hymns of daily vespers competed with a wall of disharmonious noise, akin to serving vespers in a war zone. And yet, God was praised, and the gospel was preached. Many who had never before seen an Orthodox service were quite moved, despite the noise and distractions. To our delight, we also met several young Orthodox Christians, who were equally delighted to attend services and to meet their brethren in the “wilds” of the event. In the quiet of each early morning, we celebrated Divine Liturgy, and the service provided a beautiful counterpoint to the noise and chaos of the ensuing day.

Incredibly, though our booth featured neither music nor food, a constant stream of visitors flowed through. Between services, we offered Orthodox books and pamphlets, which afforded us a wonderful opportunity for ministry and outreach. Through the generosity of St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Conciliar Media, Templegate Publishers, Lampost Books, and others, we gave out well over 300 books and pamphlets to inquirers. Out of the constant flow of people walking past, many stopped to ask questions. Some folks knew a little something about Orthodoxy, while others had no clue. We had many wonderful conversations and made many new friends. A number of people came back multiple times to ask more questions and to open up their hearts. Amazingly, some even shed tears as we shared our faith in Christ in a way never before experienced by them. Clearly God was blessing our feeble attempt to serve Him. 

So, why did we go to Cornerstone? The answer became clear only after we had taken the risk to go, only after we had made an effort to serve. An image of our effort endures, frozen in my mind’s eye: Three members of our group stand behind the little table in our booth, each talking to an individual about the Orthodox faith, while another stands in the walkway talking to yet another couple about the Orthodox Church. Two more of us are busy gathering more books to re-supply stacks, since our stock keeps disappearing into the hands of inquirers.

Truly, people were seeking something fuller than what they had found within their Evangelical, “seeker-sensitive” churches. At the very least, they were curious and had questions. Dealing with our visitors reminded me of Isaiah 55:1, where it says, "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat."

And, that’s why we went: to shine our light into the world without fear, and with love for all human beings, so that they, too, may find Christ in His fullness, in the Orthodox Christian faith.