At Bonnaroo, Baptists offer 'More than Music'

MANCHESTER, Tenn. (BP)--For four days the world converged on the hamlet of Manchester, Tenn. (pop. 10,000). Or so it seemed. This unassuming town surges to the state's fifth-largest city when Bonnaroo gets under way every June.

Named best festival by Rolling Stone magazine, the seven-year-old event is a four-day, multi-stage camping festival on a 700-acre farm 60 miles south of Nashville. Among the headliners at this year's Bonnaroo, amid its aura of peace, love and pot, were Metallica, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson, Kanye West and B.B. King.

Bonnaroo's 80,000 attendees come from all walks of life -- college preps, hippies, even some soccer moms. "We humans are a strange breed of critter," one blogger says, "and you can see all of our strangeness on parade at Bonnaroo."

But weird comes in different forms, says Bill Gandy, a chaplain with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

"We're the weirdest group at Bonnaroo because we have nothing to sell," Gandy says of the Tennessee Baptist volunteers who man the "More than Music" tent at the festival. Hundreds of campers stopped by the hospitality tent every day for free coffee and donuts, water, iced tea, lemonade and fruit. "We're here to be ministers of God's grace," Gandy says.

In the heat of the day, campers found shade at the tent -- a luxury at Bonnaroo -- and shelter when it rained. But most of all, they experienced the love of Christ.

"We've become a place of refuge," says Kerry Walker, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Manchester and coordinator of the More than Music ministry. "We help people who are lost or separated from their friends get back to their campsites. We've helped people get home who got here and realized it was more than they bargained for. And we've driven people to Wal-Mart to get prescriptions filled. Our ministry is only limited by our creativity."

Of course, the main reason the Baptists are on hand is to remind campers that there's more to life than music and the next big party -- and then point them to God.

Tennessee Baptists have been serving the Bonnaroo crowd since the festival's infancy.

"The first couple of years the town wasn't ready for the masses of people, and traffic was a nightmare," Walker says. "Travelers were stuck on the interstate and access roads for hours, and they were unprepared for the hot temperatures and long lines. Several churches in town got together and handed out bottles of water to people stuck in traffic."

Every year, Tennessee Baptists have increased their efforts in tandem with the growth of the festival. Two years ago they were able to provide the hospitality tent. In addition to free refreshments, they're now providing an Internet café and a Sunday morning worship service.

A team of students from Union University, Tennessee Tech and the University of Tennessee at Martin on their summer mission trip kept the tent open 24-hours a day by working the night shift. During the day chaplains and volunteers mingle with the visitors and easily strike up conversations. "We encourage everyone who comes to the tent to come back as often as they want," Gandy says.

And they keep coming back. Dave, from Bartlett, Tenn., had visited the tent several times by Saturday morning. "I really appreciate what you guys are doing here. It's a great place to get away from the crowds, the drugs and the alcohol," Dave says. "I'm sick of seeing all the stuff that's going on around me. I'm ready to go home."

And, he says, "I know I need to get serious with God."

"These kids are not our enemies," Walker says. "They do things we hate, but Satan is the enemy and they are the battleground. We're here to speak the truth in love and show them they are loved and accepted.

"Most are searching and are OK to talk about spiritual things as long as you ask them their story and earn the right to speak."

Last year Walker met a Rastafarian from Atlanta. "He spent a lot of time at the tent and told me he was just looking for some peace," Walker recounts. "I told him he'd never find peace at a place like this. And then I told him that I carry peace with me wherever I go. 'How do you do that?' he asked me. I shared the Gospel with him and then prayed that God would help him find the peace he was looking for."

Baylon Hilliard, director of missions for the Duck River Baptist Association, says the Baptist volunteers sow seeds well beyond the hospitality tent. "[W]e have teams of volunteers who go out among the campers and vendors for the purpose of inviting people to the tent and to start spiritual conversations," Hilliard says. "People ask us, 'Why are you doing this?' We tell them we're here because God loves you and we love you."

Scott and Madolyn Chitwood, members of River Lake Baptist Church in Winchester, Tenn., were among the volunteers who ventured out to interact with the crowds. "It's wonderful getting to talk to people and then moving to a salvation testimony," says Marolyn, in her second year at Bonnaroo. "When the door is open, we just ask them if they want to walk through that door and accept Christ."

"We don't always get to see the harvest firsthand here," says Larry Gilmore, director of evangelism for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. "For many of the people here, all we can do is share the truth, plant a seed and pray that down the road someone else will water that seed and then eventually God will bring them to harvest."

The volunteer team received a message last year from a young man who'd been at Bonnaroo. He said that when he'd met the volunteers he didn't understand why Christians would be at a festival like this. One of the volunteers gave him a Frisbee with the Gospel written on it. He took the Frisbee home, played with it, but more importantly he read the message on it and gave his life to Christ.

"We don't always know what's going to happen, but God does," Gilmore says. "But if we're Kingdom-minded, then we just keep planting, keep sowing and God's going to give a harvest."


Carol Pipes is editor of the North American Mission Board's On Mission magazine (www.onmission.com).

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