Editor’s note: Jesse DeConto is blogging from the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, N.C. (June 23-26). Check-in periodically at Call & Response for his posts.
At last night’s “Wild Talks Storytelling Session” at the first annual Wild Goose Festival, Ann Shepard talked about her church back in her hometown of Williston, N.C. She worships there with the sister of Vallerie Ann Roberson Dixon. Convicted of Dixon’s murder, Shepard’s brother Willie Brown Jr. was executed by lethal injection in 2006 (I wrote about Shepard’s family at the time).
Shepard told of the warden at the N.C. Central Prison, who banned her from crying or trying to talk to Dixon’s family in the witness booth, even though the two families had known each other back in Williston. Shepard felt like she was being punished for a crime that had nothing to do with her, and the alienation continued back at the church.
“If we are in the same church, and we are worshipping the same God, we shouldn’t be walking past each other,” she said.
Shepard was speaking of interpersonal strife born from deep loss, but she could well have been speaking of systemic divisions within the church. It’s those divisions that Wild Goose aims to heal, and one of its strategies is to include as many non-celebrities like Shepard as possible.
In the opening ceremony, festival director Gareth Higgins invited the hundreds gathered to stand up and call out the names of people or groups they wished were in attendance.
“We all know this world needs to be mended,” Higgins said. “Religion needs to be mended.”
Higgins called Joyce and Nelson Johnson to the main stage. The Johnsons organized a 1979 civil-rights march that ended with five marchers killed by white supremacists in what became known as the Greensboro Massacre. Twenty-five years later, they led a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where people could talk about the issues leading up to and resulting from that violence. That commission was modeled on Nelson Mandela’s peacemaking process in post-apartheid South Africa, and Johnson in turn has exported it to Mississippi and modified it to broker peace between rival gangs in Greensboro.
Higgins asked people to speak directly to those sitting nearby, sharing their hopes for the festival -- the seeds of the sort of conversations the Nelsons led in Greensboro. Joyce Johnson said she hoped the festival would serve as a model for healing social divisions.
“The Wild Goose Festival can show this entire world and certainly this country that we are destined to be one,” she said.
Wild Goose is trying to build bridges by spotlighting black, Native American, gay and lesbian leaders on the festival’s stages, but the audience is mainly white, straight and middle class.
“I have come with the hope and the prayer that the next Wild Goose Festival would be much, much, much more colorful in its complexion of our skin,” said civil-rights icon Vincent Harding, “and I pray that I will become a faithful worker to that end.”