It was night, the circus tent was steamy, and I was in the middle of a twenty-eight-foot long whale puppet, swimming our way through the wide-eyed crowd. A bit earlier in tonight’s show, when a group of women were dancing ecstatically and waving blue veils to the beats of wild drums, I was invisible off-stage taking my turn on one of the stationary bikes that generated the electricity needed to power the amps. But right now it was my turn to be under the spotlight. Human-sized Raven and Dove had set the week’s tone with their prophetic theatre during the Air show last evening; the Fire show was coming tomorrow; right now, we were still deep in Water.
I suddenly realized: this is church.
If the theatre of the carnival was church itself, then the carnie campground was communion. The carnival crew—perhaps twenty to thirty of us—dwelled together in the grass and mud for the week, eating and sleeping, praying and singing, practicing and performing as a body of troubadours.
Mechanic, Mystic, and Musician
To call our waystation for the week a campground is not the right word; rather, it became a community and village, an experiential demonstration plot for the kingdom of God. A ring of tents housed us, circling near a hobo-medieval cooking pavilion that used no fossil fuels. The figure who masterminds this petrol-free temporary village is Jon Felton, a man who seems equal parts mechanic, mystic and musician. His gentle, thoughtful demeanor and captain’s hat bring a welcome sense of calm competency and grounded vision to all the idealism and exuberance of the Carnival. For every meal during our week together, the kitchen crew heated pots and pans on Jon’s twiggy-fire stoves, using local brush and dead tree branches, and we cleaned up by carrying water and using Jon’s foot-pump washing stations. Bikes and bare feet were more prevalent than cars. Prayers and song rang out often and enthusiastically. Most of our food was gathered from dumpsters and local farms; each day, miraculous dishes were made out of mysterious ingredients, and somehow, all were fed. Waste, what little there was, was composted and recycled. Each of us, under Jon’s gentle direction, was encouraged to be responsible citizens and shepherds of this beloved community: to look for what needed doing, and do it.
Tevyn East and Jay Beck, two of the core animators of the Carnival de Resistance, call this kind of experience the “Holy Game.” They’ve mounted three carnivals of this magnitude so far, each one somewhat different than the last. Each time a new carnival experience is initiated, the Holy Game begins: success is uncertain and results are unknown. What outcomes will happen with all of these untrained people? Will we have enough food, despite the ludicrously small budget? Will it all come together, despite the comically brief amount of rehearsal time? Will the Spirit be present and manifest something altogether unexpected? Will unknown gifts arise and radical grace appear? Each time a carnival is produced, Jon, Jay, Tevyn and their colleagues set the stage, create the space, open themselves to wild possibility, and then wait upon the Lord. This is church embodied, pure incarnation. As they wrote to me when they sent me an invitation to participate in this year’s carnival: “expect for the Spirit to transform us in the process.”
What’s this carnival about, exactly? That was my burning question before I arrived. I’d been invited to join the troupe for the week’s festivities, even though I had no musical talent or theatre experience. I think all they really needed from me was a willingness to work hard, a love of adventure, and a wild desire to jump into new things.
But what was I supposed to do? What roles should I take? And what was the Carnival de Resistance trying to accomplish? My head wanted to understand before my body was going to participate. But when I showed up at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, last summer, my questions weren’t immediately answered. Jay and Tevyn and the rest of the carnival crew gave me warm embraces and wide smiles, but without much explanation we got to work. That first day, as I worked and brought supplies to the grounds, I repeatedly walked by a sign posted at the threshold to the carnival space:
We have to start from where we are.
But can we imagine ways of doing things that keep us closer to God’s dream for humans and the earth?
And then, as the Spirit begins to work in our imaginations, can we put our minds and muscles to the task?
And thank God for a theology of grace, so we can press on in the freedom and joy of humility, despite our hypocrisies, our mistakes, our accidental arrogance.
I don’t want to wait until I’m sure no one can criticize me.
I want to stumble into Graceland.
Instead of providing me with intellectual information about goals and outcomes, the carnival gave me an experiential invitation, just like the call of Jesus: come and see.
Come And See
Don’t get me wrong about keeping it all mysterious. Tevyn and Jay aren’t silent about the reasons why they created Carnival de Resistance; they can spout theology and articulate visionary mission statements with the best of us. They would just rather have you experience it instead of talk about it. “The Carnival is an educational and interactive forum,” they state in their program information. “By celebrating the beauty and craft of sustainable options for ecological living, and facilitating rituals for lamenting the harm we have practiced against the earth and each other, we hope to cultivate reflection and Spirit-led action.”
Cultivate seems too mild a term. What they really want to do is what true church should do: interrupt normal consciousness to kickstart awareness and transformation. My job during the days prior to our performances was to build the Clock Tower—a ramshackle, Dali-esque tower festooned with multi-colored ribbons of cloth and dozens—literally, dozens—of crazy timepieces in various states of disrepair. A huge sign hung crookedly across the base asked: “Do you have Time, or does Time have you?”
At certain moments during the operating hours of the carnival midway—when the milling throng would least expect it—a huge bell would sound, and a human-sized cuckoo bird looking like a Mad Hatter would emerge from the massive tower to spout philosophical poetry, providing a raucous disruption. Moments later, the cuckoo-man would return to his lair within the tower, and a degree of normalcy would return to the midway.
The Carnival de Resistance is a liminal space—a threshold between worlds—where one can come to dream, immerse in, learn about, reflect on, and playfully participate in wild-eyed artistic happenings and alternative practices. The immersion zone that is Carnival provides shock therapy—immediate bodily experiences that directly jolt us from our captivity to consumer culture, intellectual distancing, alienation from the earth, unconscious racism, and comfortable oppression.
After simmering in the Carnival de Resistance for a week, I find the experience of bigtop and wilderness to be eerily parallel. The words of William Stringfellow sum it up well: “biblical people, like circus folk, live typically as sojourners, interrupting time, with few possessions, and in tents, in this world. The church would likely be more faithful if the church were similarly nomadic.”[i] The Greek word for church, ekklesia, literally means “the assembled ones” or, even better, “the called-out ones.” What a fitting term for those who will help us reimagine our churches and the wild calling of Christ.
Todd Wynward is a public school founder, small-scale farmer, wilderness educator and Mennonite organizer for watershed discipleship who lives with his family in Taos, NM. He has been engaged in education reform and social change movements for twenty years, and has spent more than a thousand nights outdoors. His new book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, will be published in Fall 2015 by Herald Press. More of his writings and doings can be found at taostilt.org and rewildingtheway.com.
[i] William Stringfellow, Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings by William Stringfellow, edited by Bill Wylie Kellerman, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1994), 53.