Cornerstone Fest Ends in Flames – and Prayer

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (July 31, 2012) – This month two national gatherings organized by ministries in the Evangelical Covenant Church were attended by roughly 11,000 people.

Of course, CHIC concluded just a little over a week ago to the sounds of power chords and pyrotechnics. Leaders already are evaluating the event as they prepare to start planning for 2015.

Earlier in the month, Cornerstone, a festival sponsored since 1984 by Jesus People USA Covenant Church, came to a close one last time. It went out with a ballad, but also in flames.

It wasn’t planned that way. “Like all memorable events at Cornerstone, it came together ad hoc,” said Jane Hertenstein, a member of Jesus People since 1982.

No one had considered giving the festival a proper Viking funeral that included the burning of a longboat. Not until someone built the “ghost ship” and brought it to church’s sprawling farmland in central Illinois.

Cornerstone frequently has been described as “something between a church conference and Woodstock.” At its core, Cornerstone always emphasized the connection between the arts and faith. Children made crafts, movie buffs discussed obscure and popular films, painters painted, singers sang, and sculptors sculpted.

It was the latter that figured into the funeral.

Artist Dave Coleman had created several large art pieces onsite over the past several years. This year, he had created the ship out of materials that included wood and toilet paper.

When Cornerstone’s director of arts saw the ship, he suggested to Coleman that setting it afire on the lake toward the closing of the final night would be the perfect requiem. In Viking tradition, noblemen who died were placed with gifts on a boat that was let go at sea and then set ablaze by flaming arrows.

Coleman initially was reluctant, but eventually acceded. As word spread of the coming event, attendees from children to senior adults stopped by the sculpture to inscribe their names and messages on the inside of the boat. A 13-year-old girl who had attended the festival for years with her family wrote that Cornerstone had been an important part of her life.

In the evening of July 7, as the sun was setting, attendees hoisted the boat with Coleman in it and carried it more than a mile to the lake. A member of Jesus People led the way, playing bagpipes and accompanied by motorcycles and golf carts. More than 1,000 people joined in the parade. Among them was a group of children singing “Amazing Grace.”

One blogger later wrote, “They carried the boat as if it were a processional icon or altar piece such as one sees in Andalusia or Sicily (especially Trapani) during the Santa semana (Easter Holy Week).”

The boat – sans Coleman – was rowed to the middle of the lake and doused with gasoline. The rowers had not really considered how they were going to get back to the shore, so they jumped in the water and swam back. Then it was time to set the boat ablaze.

Unfortunately, the wind kept blowing out the arrows as they sailed through the air. Finally, several attendees swam to the boat and lit it with a torch. Hertenstein laughed as she confessed that thanks to the magic of cinema, a video retrospective of the festival gives the impression the arrow had found its mark. (See reference above to art). As the boat burned, the group of children who had been singing “Amazing Grace” broke into “na na na na, hey hey, goodbye!”

Still, the sinking of the ship “was a hankie moment,” Hertenstein said. “The whole week was just one big hankie. Every time you hugged someone you would think I might not see this person again.” She recalled the father who hugged his adult son. “They knew they would be seeing each other, but it had been such a part of their relationship.”

Organizers decided to make this year’s festival the last because of high production costs. Knowing the final burden the festival had become for JPUSA, the presenters and speakers volunteered their services.

“None of the bands were paid, none of the speakers were paid,” said Hertenstein, adding that not even the transportation costs were covered.

She noted that the bands, some of which first gained national attention at the festival, wanted to play for free. “It was their gift back to us.”

One of the bands that was eager to perform was The Choir. They had performed the first song at the first festival. After the burning of the boat, the band took to the main stage one last time and played the concluding set.

Lead singer Derri Daugherty introduced the final song by saying Cornerstone had been a wonderful place akin to the land of misfit toys. The band then played one of their classic pieces, “To Bid Farewell” – click here to watch.

A number of fans already have taken to the Internet to plan a resurrection of the festival in some other form at some other location. But sometimes it is best to leave things as they are, to mourn a passing, but celebrate all that a life has given you.

More than a goodbye is needed, however. In his column that appeared in The Covenant Companion last year, the denomination’s president, Gary Walter, wrote that when leaving worship, benedictions are the appropriate means of being sent forth.

“A benediction pivots our mind-set from the coming in to the going out. It reminds us that while we have gathered to be with God, God is altogether with us in the dispersing as well, Walter wrote. “It sends us out with reminders that give hope, challenge, and comfort as we then turn to live in and serve the world. The word benediction comes from Latin. It means “blessing.” Its compound root is literally ‘to say good.’”

And so it was that Hertenstein wrote the benediction that appeared on her blog and which has been read by so many of us who will always remember the days and nights trudging in mud or through swirling dust – depending on whether site had been battered by thunderstorms and tornado-like winds or seared with temperatures that settled in for the duration above 100 degrees.

May the community you shared continue, for now and always.

That feeling of being with friends, I pray it will nourish you. Remember: you are never alone.

Realize this—that your best-ever time at Cornerstone is only a mirror of what we can expect when we travel to that forever festival.

Bands may crash and burn, reunite only to eventually split apart, but we know the music will go on.

If you have learned one thing from all of this, let it be to stay open. So many of us shared stories of coming with preconceptions and leaving with a much BIGGER picture of the kingdom of God. Yay! Christian Feminist Tent!

Take with you the love of thousands of other like-minded people, the embers of 29 years of sunsets, and a million tiny moments of joy.

Go in peace.

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