Playing and Praying at Wild Goose — Student Kenji Kuramitsu

I had heard of Wild Goose Festival from friends who had braved the woods in years past, but I wasn’t sure it was my kind of thing. I certainly didn’t expect to be a part of the gathering anytime soon. Then my friend Micky asked me to attend. She wanted to know if I would speak on a panel she was moderating, and invited me to present my own workshop as well.

I didn’t know what I would find in Hot Springs, North Carolina other than spending a few days camping out, thinking about God, smiling, and playing music with a bunch of progressive, hippie Christians, many of whom I was only tangentially connected to on social media. I was nervous, but I wanted to see what this festival was all about, and as a lifelong Boy Scout, I felt like I could handle myself in the woods. I told Micky I would come.

Wild_Goose_2015I spent the next few weeks trying to think of something productive to contribute to the “Revolutionary Love and Militant Nonviolence” panel that I would speak on with clergy and racial justice advocates Leah Gunning-Francis, Traci Blackmon, and Ethan Vessley-Flad, publically reflecting on our involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement as the one year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death approaches. For my own workshop, I created an hour long presentation exploring how both traditional theological teachings about Christ and contemporary critical mixed race theory can empower multiethnic and mixed race people to live whole, integrated lives.

So, stuffing my clunky bag also for an upcoming Japanese American Citizens League convention, I packed a sloppy juxtaposition of bug spray and cologne, cleats and dress shoes, rain coats and collared shirts, and headed off to the airport. After one of my flights was canceled, three strangers and I pooled our money and rented a car to drive closer to our destinations. I ended up sharing a wonderful birthday dinner at a Korean restaurant with these new friends, who sang to me and buoyed my tired spirits.

That night, I camped in a pitched tent on the festival grounds. As the sun rose each morning, it would trap a sauna of hot air where I slept, driving me out of my tent with gasps for air and bleary eyes before breakfast. I shared meals with new friends and old ones, connected face to face with acquaintances from virtual worlds, and quelled my nerves to deliver the messages I knew I had come to bring. What I found at Wild Goose surprised me – I encountered a space fully engaged in the serious work of centering justice, friendship, and play.

Here is how I saw play: a stranger cracking jokes and painstakingly massaging beard oil into my budding facial hair. Chests heaving with laughter. Playing bluegrass music on violins, guitars, harmonicas, voices vibrating in a swaying circle, as the notes in the song were passed one person to the next. Celebrating Beer and Hymns – singing and shouting loudly in Christ’s name, always in sync and only sometimes in tune. Splashing in the river at night, flowing water kissing the odd shapes of our bodies. Using ancient words to pray before picnic-kind of meals. Teaching bloggers and pastors how to dance the wobble. Slapping at mosquito bites, swapping puns, pouring drinks, sharing floss. Midnight. Moonshine. Mass.

In the evenings, the Justice Tent held a “silent disco” – to comply with local noise ordinances, we rocked out and danced, but with bulky headphones over our ears that the dance tunes were piped into. When the organizers ran out of headphones and lines surged to participate, my new friend Emmanuel– a fellow speaker who shared with attendees his harrowing memories of his young life as child soldier in Sudan – handed me his pair, and the night blurred into dance and joy.

One evening just before the disco began, my friend Morgan blared House music he mixed and preached over the banging tunes, freestyle, before a bustling crowd. He called this party “a rave sermon,” and soon my body found itself captured by wild, spirited motions. After some time had passed, he took some bread, gave thanks for it, broke it, and gave it out to all of us, the body of Christ alive for us. In the same way, after the rave sermon had ended, he took a cup of grape juice, raised it and blessed it, and gave it to us, naming Jesus’ presence in our midst. We celebrated the presence of God with dance, gladness, bread and wine, and more play.

Playfulness is one of my deepest faith values. For me, play is connected to hospitality, solidarity, and the people and places I have come from. Theologically, I believe playfulness is a physical re-centering of God’s call in our lives. It strikes against both Gnosticism and narcissism: in celebrating material actions and involving flesh and blood persons, play is representative of the incarnation of life. And playfulness humbles, and forces us to acknowledge it is not our own works of self-righteous goodness, but God’s generous, parent-like engagement with us that is our ultimate source of healing and wholeness.

Silhouette, group of happy children playing on meadow, sunset, s
“Play is the bizarre clinging to another way: it is Christlike”

Play is the bizarre clinging to another way: it is Christlike. It is interrupting a lynch mob to draw lines in the sand, making comments about straining gnats and swallowing camels, telling stories that paint society’s hated ethnic minorities as the good guys. It unites, bringing people together the miracle of the squishing of grapes, of adding organisms to the pulp, of fermenting, and gathering with friends to revel in the aftermath.

 Something I remembered more deeply at Wild Goose is that playfulness is also an act of resistance and bold hope: in a world where children soldier rather than play, where peoples ferment hatred rather than break bread, where mosquitoes spread malaria rather than mere annoyance, where alcohol enslaves rather than fosters celebration, daring to play is an act of revolutionary joy.

Play also insists that we cannot take ourselves – and our dogmatic assuredness – so seriously. I’m struck by the image of the divine pinning our most intricate, disciplined systematic theologies to God’s refrigerator with a kind smile that says “this is so sweet,” the way a parent proudly displays a child’s finger painting. 

I toured two seminaries the day I first visited McCormick. I found one school to be cordial, smart, and overwhelmingly sterile. After my tour, I experienced that frustrating tension where I once again felt forced to choose between faith environments that either hawk “ignorance on fire” or “intelligence on ice.”

Then I visited McCormick. As we walked around the building, at the slightest, oddest prompting from a friend – where would you go if the zombie apocalypse happened right now? – our tour guide took off running down the hallway. I found myself shedding my self-seriousness, laughing and sprinting past classrooms, professors, theology books and birthday cakes. My lungs and heart opened. I collided with the different peoples represented at the center for international students, met with creatives, liberationists, and liturgists, and breathed in air I knew was mine.

Play is one of the biggest reasons I felt at home at Wild Goose, and it is why I was first drawn to receiving a theological education in the McCormick community. It is in that same spirit of wonder and play that I hope to continue to step out of my comfort zone – to camp and race down long hallways, embracing new opportunities and conversations. I look forward to having my careful sensitivities and theologies continually rocked by the power of prayerful play as I begin my seminary education.


11148634_10153272594674609_6668903394605305067_nRyan Kenji Kuramitsu is a first-year MDiv student at McCormick Theological Seminary and a strong justice advocate.  You can find more of his writing on his blog, A Real Rattlesnake Meets His Maker, and follow him on twitter @afreshmind.