Ichthus festival's spiritual message still resonates

dmoore@herald-leader.comJune 21, 2012 

WILMORE — Chicago has Lollapalooza. Manchester, Tenn., has Bonnaroo. Indio, Calif., has Coachella.

And Wilmore has Ichthus.

As the open fields of Ichthus Farm near Wilmore filled Thursday for the 42nd consecutive festival, the scenes looked familiar. The longest-running Christian music festival in the country had the sea of tents, the stench of sweat and the thrash of live music from multiple stages.

But the message of this music festival — preached from stages, spoken among the picnicking crowds, displayed on banners, handwritten on cardboard signs and held high — is much different from that of its secular counterparts.

The Woodstock music festival helped inspire the creation of Ichthus in 1970. Ichthus adopted many "peace and love" connotations, but its participants had a unified, distinct purpose: growing in faith, no matter what the walk of life.

"Thou shalt grind on the halfpipe!" a boy yelled to no one in particular as he headed to the festival's skate park Thursday. "In the name of the Lord!"

"Skateboarding is not a sin," proclaimed the banner hung from the halfpipe, citing 1 Peter 4:10.

From the skate park to the prayer tents, the message was one of spiritual self-improvement. Energetic speakers drew crowds of young and old alike, at times competing for attention. Audience participation ranged from hand-raising prayer to enormous games of Twister.

Even the games tied into a message of Christian purity, forgiveness and helping others who are struggling.

"Even if you get really close to Christianity, even if you get really close to Christ, if you're not in the game, you're still against him," a speaker said. "If you're going to play a game of Twister, that's what it takes. If you're going to be a success in your Christian life, that's what it takes."

Mike Small, a teenager from LaFayette, Ind., signed his name on one of the message boards on the grounds that let participants share their thoughts about Ichthus. A fan of the band Skillet, Small drove more than six hours with friends not just for the music and food but for the diversity of the crowd.

"There's a little something for everyone here," he said. "I love it."

Across from the message board was the Global Village, a hub that houses charitable organizations represented at the festival. Inside, Kate Turner, 23, talked of Appalachian poverty and house-building in Eastern Kentucky.

A recent graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a volunteer with the Christian Appalachian Project, Turner said Ichthus is different from secular music festivals because it is not just about the music. People who flock to other festivals, she said, are driven simply by famous artists.

"Here, people come and experience it — and then are inspired to do something with it afterwards," Turner said. "I think the Global Village embodies that."

Near the exit from the Ichthus grounds, far removed from the stages and bustle of crowds, Andrew McCarthy offered fellowship at a prayer tent. The 40-year-old, home on summer break from Bible college in Texas, said he has served on mission trips in Thailand, China and Guatemala. For McCarthy, Ichthus is a unique chance to witness the power of forgiveness and spiritual growth.

"It's about Jesus Christ reaching out to those who are hurting," he said. "People will know we're Christian by our love, not our pushiness."

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