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Greenbelt: a glimpse of heaven?

 

First-time festival goer Sarah Stone experiences Greenbelt's rich variety and radical inclusion... and the united quest to make the world a better place 



Greenbelt glimpse


I’m apprehensive as I set out to Kettering for my first ever Greenbelt. Most of this stems from the fact that I don’t really understand what Greenbelt is. Is it a Christian festival? A music festival? An arts festival? Is my soul at risk, as a friend has just suggested (in jest), because of the Muslim worship being included in the event? And am I going to freeze to death in my sleep? These are, I feel, all valid questions to be asking as I shove a few extra hoodies into my bag.

But I am also excited. This year’s line-up includes some of the best acts I’ve seen over the last few years at the Edinburgh Fringe, and they’re performing alongside human rights lawyers, economists, activists, vicars and the legend that is Newton Faulkner. How can that possibly be bad?

The sun shines the whole weekend. And a warm message of inclusivity, of family, of good for all people, radiates across the festival, too.

Inclusion is central to Greenbelt, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the communion service on Sunday morning, which is a huge highlight. This year it was created by Greenbelt in partnership with Livability, a disability charity tacking social isolation and promoting wellbeing for all. People with disabilities lead the service, and the homily delivered by Becky Tyler is one of the most moving and powerful things I have ever experienced in a church context. Becky is a teenager with cerebral palsy, and was on stage in her wheelchair speaking through a computer, “like Stephen Hawking,” she said “but I think mine is much nicer.” She shared that, because she saw no-one like her in the Bible and those with disabilities always seemed to get healed, she used to believe that God didn’t love her as much as other people. But she doesn’t believe that anymore.

"Sometimes I feel like I can’t do a lot for Jesus, because there are lots of things I cannot do,' she said. But, 'God loves us just the way we are, and it doesn’t depend on what we do." (see this clip on Youtube which captured Becky's address and is shared with permission)

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Thousands of people break bread together under the hot sun, and we share the peace using sign language. Communion is the biggest, best-attended event of the weekend, and the offering raises an incredible £40,000, much of which will be used to help Greenbelt further realise its vision to make the festival as accessible as possible to all. God is present, bridging the gaps we humans make between each other.

Some of the smaller events are rather wonderful too. Harry and Chris (below) bring their unending positivity to the packed-out Canopy on Sunday afternoon. Their unique combination of poetry, jazz and comedy has the whole audience laughing and singing along.

 

Greenbelt Harry and Chris


The pair prove that they can make any topic song-worthy, from Robot Wars to the plight of the panda. Harry Baker, who has been performing with Chris every day for the last three weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe, tells me that Greenbelt is the light at the end of the tunnel for them. They love performing here.

In fact, it seems like everyone does. Most artists start their acts by telling their audiences how much they love Greenbelt, and how nice we all are. They may well say that everywhere they go, but it feels true. And I’ve definitely experienced Greenbelt-goers’ loveliness myself. People chat to me in the queue for the toilets, the showers, the venues.

It's well worth staying up till gone midnight waiting to hear Jonny and the Baptists (just a name, rather than a denominational affiliation, sadly). Their incredible comic timing, perfectly judged banter, uproariously hilarious songs and brutal social commentary are endlessly entertaining. They had me crying with laughter. They perform in the Canopy after the CC Smugglers, who get everyone dancing with their upbeat, folk-jazz sounds and mention, once or twice, the importance of following their Facebook page.

Newton Faulkner doesn’t disappoint with his incredible voice and amazing music. He has the Big Top singing, swaying and, at one point, jumping along to his songs, new and old.

There’s serious stuff too. The theme of this year’s Greenbelt is The Common Good, and everyone I watch and listen to seems united in their quest to make the world a better place for everyone – whether that’s through campaigning, leading, writing, singing or making people laugh.

Greenbelt CliveDefence lawyer Clive Stafford Smith (right) shares some devastating truths in his talk ‘The word of reprieve’, where he challenges the practice of torture and assassination by the US and other governments.

Sovereign debt expert Ann Pettifor confronts the unquestioned power of banks, who “couldn’t believe their luck” when we bailed them out following the financial crash, and says that we, as tax payers, have power to change the system. And Liz Adekunle, Chaplain to The Queen, gives a vision for a Church where women’s voices are listened to equally to men’s; because “the world and the Church and our faith are richer when everyone is included.”

There are also quieter, more poignant moments, like sitting on a blanket in the shade of some trees listening to two refugees tell their stories of fleeing war. A handful of us gather around the two men, in a storytelling event led by Baptist minister Simon Jones, from Spurgeon’s College, as part of Greenbelt’s visual arts programme. Their journeys to the UK, via Calais, were long and complicated, but sadder than those struggles is the lack of community and friendship they have found on their arrival here – a country where we struggle to befriend our own neighbours, let alone the strangers in our midst.

At Greenbelt, though, I hope they’ve felt welcome. I certainly have, despite my semi-conservative evangelical apprehension about not being hippy or liberal enough to belong here. Whether it’s by accidently knocking over someone’s beer while dancing in the Jesus Arms, or just sitting waiting for a talk to begin, I’ve chatted with great people with whom I would probably never have otherwise crossed paths. People willing to connect, to cross those human-made barriers and gaps. And at a festival as diverse as Greenbelt, barriers and gaps could easily be a problem.

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As I leave the campsite after four days of uninterrupted sunshine, I’m still wondering what this unique event really is. It is a festival of arts – of stars and unknowns sharing stages and stories. It’s a festival about justice and it’s marked by inclusivity – with lawyers, poets, chaplains, Muslim comedians and Christian teenagers with cerebral palsy all being given a voice.

It’s also Christian. Overloaded with sleeping bags and wellies, I hear a woman tell her friend, “This is the closest thing I’ve known to Utopia.” Paradise. I’m not so sure about that myself. I am kind of hoping that in heaven I won’t have to use porta-loos or wear ten layers to get to sleep at night. But the community created at Greenbelt is, I think, a little glimpse of something heavenly.

 


Sarah Stone is a freelance writer and works as an editor at a Christian mission organisation

 
Related
‘Art is an act of worship’ A Baptist minister headed-up the visual arts stream at this year's Greenbelt. Sarah Stone found out more
'The life held within that comma' One symbol in the Apostles' Creed represents Jesus’ entire life and ministry. Baptist ministers help Greenbelt festival-goers delve deeper by focusing on it
 
Photos | Alex Baker (browse his Greenbelt 2017 Flickr album here)

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Baptist Times, 30/08/2017
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