4th Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
by Tevyn East and Jay Beck, excerpted from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice
The Catholic Feast of Fools was a day for liturgical dramas that dissolved church hierarchy, celebrated becoming a “Fool for Christ” (1 Cor) and enacted the Magnificat’s call to turn society upside down (Luke 1:52–53). This feast day was later suppressed by authorities lived on for centuries within medieval folk culture. Europeans eventually brought many such religious festivities to the New World under the common label “carnival.”
Carnival traditions are a result of a cross-cultural exchange, the greatest contemporary carnivals, such as those in Brazil, Trinidad, and New Orleans, reveal that the tradition flourished where Catholic European settlers and African slaves interacted. For Africans in diaspora, carnival became a tool for both emancipation and preservation of cultural memory in the midst of bondage.
Inspired by this cultural heritage of resistance, we embarked on a contemporary experiment to produce our own carnival that supports movements of faith and activism.
Imagine a band of holy fools living between worlds, weaving church into Big Top party and big band protest, creating space to: deviate from the norm; shape-shift through characters; and re-approach and reclaim old sacred stories, from the groan of creation to the earthy truth within the Gospel narratives.
Our colorful presence represented both carnival world and village demonstration projects. We lived together outside, in sun and rain, gathered in circles, and shared meals, songs, stories, and games. Our crew of some twenty freaks and fools, artists and activists ran a community kitchen (the petrol-free “riff-raffateria”) and erected compost toilets, sun showers, and foot pump water stations. Some of us were seasoned nomads and experienced performers, others untested seekers thirsty for something new. We became a community, immersed in a living experiment of covenant, communal effort and collaborative art. Everyone worked hard: coffee takes longer to prepare on a twig-fired rocket stove, but it requires a lot more love, too. The carnival village experiment is our holy Game, and we believe that when we jump in, the Holy Spirit plays along, transforming us, ripping away veils, ripening community.
Jonathan McRay noted the ties between the historical social function of carnival and the natural phenomenon of “disturbance ecology.” The survival and diversity of a wide range of species is symbiotic with natural rhythms of disturbance such as fire, flooding, and windstorms. For instance, in the plains and lowlands of lake Michigan, shade intolerant aspens or oaks, along with a host of migratory birds and butterflies that love them, rely on periodic wildfires to clear space for them to grow. Carnival can function as disturbance events for our social ecology, clearing space for new growth and encouraging social diversity.
Our Ceremonial Theater, laced with social critique, songs, and stories from oppressed people groups and invocations of the divinity within nature, means to disturb the dominant paradigm in Christian theology. Our shows specifically highlight biblical encounters with animals or people whose stories were activated by an intimate relationship with creation. We give voice to and animate these often-ignored or marginalized, though not uncommon, elements in biblical narratives.
The immersion experience of the Village demonstration project has also been a disturbance event for carnival crew members themselves. Life as usual is interrupted with our communal effort to live another way. Most of us encounter new practices: cycling long distances, stationary cycling to generate electrical power, collecting firewood, carrying water, stoking the cooking fire, making meals for a large community, handling humanure, or dumpster diving. We establish different daily rhythms, significantly unplugging from the industries and systems we normally rely on.
Into our ecological, social and cultural crisis we hear a carnival herald beckoning, “come one, come all!” Build local cultures that remember the story of our food, land, watersheds and all their inhabitants. “Step right up!” take your bodies into the street, the garden, the tent, the river.
The Carnival crew comes from all over and the event itself is nomadic, Tevyn and Jay live on Lenape land in the Delaware River watershed.
Tevyn East integrates her artistic gifts with faith-led resistance through her production company Holy Fool Arts. She produced and performed a one-woman show entitled “Leaps and Bounds” that critiques the growth-oriented economy and its impact on the earth, and which toured to more than 150 communities around North America and was made into a film in 2011. She is the director of the Carnival de Resistance, a traveling carnival, village, and school that focuses on ecological justice and radical theology.
Jay Beck is a percussionist, vocalist, drum-maker, and educator who has been performing, teaching, touring and recording professionally for many years, including as a member of the band Psalters. He seeks to aid resistance movements and develop reconciliation through studying the art forms and spirituality of oppressed nomadic and indigenous communities. He is a core organizer for the Carnival de Resistance and collaborates with his partner Tevyn East in Philadelphia to present theater that emphasizes the voice of the divine inside creation.