Greenbelt is an ever-expanding festival of arts, faith and justice, which has been held annually in England since 1974. It's a family-friendly festival, rooted in the Christian tradition and welcoming everyone regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, background or belief.
From small beginnings – a music event with an audience of 1,500 – it now caters for nearly 30,000 festival goers, offering a diverse mix of Christian and mainstream musicians, famous speakers, performing arts and alternative worships. Past line-ups have included all sorts of people: Billy Bragg, The Proclaimers, Anita Roddick and The Reduced Shakespeare Company, to name but a few.
The festival has moved all around the UK, but currently dwells on Cheltenham racecourse each August Bank Holiday. L'Arche members attend the festival to spread the word about the charity, organise religious services and have a great time!
Over 40 people with and without learning disabilities came from L’Arche Communities all over the country to Greenbelt 2010; to lead and take part in the events, have fun, and soak up the atmosphere. Heather Coogan from the Manchester Project was attending the festival for the first time.
My 13 year old daughter was very clear, ‘I don’t want to go to that Jesus festival’..……and to be honest neither did I. I have been involved with L’Arche for more than 15 years and Greenbelt has always been a step too far, but this year I was cornered and had to go.
As one of those reluctant Christians with a large foot in the land of the secular, my idea of toe curling is being asked to ‘express my spirituality through the medium of dance ‘in public. Apart from my friends, I had assumed Greenbelt would be full of well meaning but slightly dull ,doo goody types with no sense of humour, no sense of irony and no sense of fashion.
How wrong is it possible to be? I was blown away. I loved the laid back attitude. Good humour was everywhere. I loved The Blue Nun bar that sold pints of confession. I loved the sense of freedom, the mix of speakers, the way kids weren’t just tolerated but at the centre of everything, I loved the fact that there were ladies campaigning for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, making purple mitres with flowers on them, that Clare Short was having a cup of tea in the café, that there was a beer tent called the Jesus Arms that held ‘beer and hymns ‘sessions at lunchtime. By the time we got to the Sunday morning communion the combination of exhaustion, the showbiz glitter drop and ‘How great Thou Art” did me in and the tears flowed freely. What had begun as a chore had became a delight and a blessing.
I hadn’t understood what Greenbelt was and until Saturday evening and the first L’Arche Liturgy I certainly hadn’t understood what L’Arche brought to Greenbelt. My role, to oversee our information stand in the G Source tent was a great privilege. Most of the weekend was spent talking to people and hearing their stories, all of them interesting and some of them deeply moving. The Ark rest space, where we welcome people with disabilities looking for somewhere to take a break, is a special resource and I know the L’Archies who spent time their also felt privileged, but it was the liturgies, that really bring something extraordinary to the festival. L’Arche Liturgies are L’Arche in it’s Sunday best. They are our chance to show off. Living in community is not always easy and we have our highs and lows but our Liturgies are the occasions where we put our differences behind us and celebrate the gift of each other.
This year, the liturgy team took the theme, the art of looking sideways and interpreted it through the stories of the woman at the well and Jacob in the cave. Jacob’s cave was a tent and when the wind blew he and his angel were tipped out of it. Our well was actually a glass cut fruit bowl which everyone poured water into forcing it to overflow, the woman was called Pat and Jesus was never actually left alone, he had a companion who didn’t want to leave the stage.
Both occasions, were filled with laughter and goodwill, which were made all the more beautiful by the number of people, with no relationship with L’Arche, who came to share them with us. It is easy to forget how powerful they can be particularly to people who do not usually experience disability and difference. In L’Arche people with learning disabilities are at the core of our communities and when we were joined in those liturgies by people open to experiencing what we do, it is an extra ordinary affirming experience.
For a rather jaded and tired L’Archey the whole weekend was a tremendously uplifting experience and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been part of it.
As for fashion , wrong again, the festival divas were out in force and I shall be ordering some festival wellies for next year.