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SoulFest uses music as fuel for service, social justice

A crowd at the Soulfest festival.

A crowd at the Soulfest festival.

When SoulFest Christian music festival started more than 15 years ago, founder Dan Russell saw it as “the answer to a whole lot of different questions” and “a return to the basics of belief.”

“Back in 1998, I did not want to do a standard Christian music festival,” he said. “What I did feel really convicted about is that we as Christians need to take to heart more of the fundamentals of what Christianity is about.”

This year’s festival takes place Aug. 7 to 9 at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, and although it has downsized from four days to three this year, it hasn’t skimped on bringing in nationally known musicians to perform each night. The lineup of 24 artists includes Switchfoot, Toby Mac, Third Day, Natalie Grant, Mandisa, Scott Stapp and Matt Maher.

To live up to its mission, the festival uses music to unite the anticipated 10,000 to 12,000 attendees over the weekend. Once they’re gathered, organizers hope to go beyond the sound and open people’s eyes to service opportunities both locally and nationwide, since Russell said he believes working for social justice is the key to sustaining faith.

Joel Strycharz, general manager of SoulFest and New Sound Concerts, said he sees music as the best vehicle to bring people of all religions together and help them learn to live out their faith.

“It’s really different than your typical Christian festival because most festivals would be really focused on your spiritual well being and all,” he said. “While that is super important, we’re also bringing in folks who can talk about what it’s like to go out and live as Christians in the world.”

The charity agenda

Strycharz and Russell both said the festival’s key is inclusiveness and a commitment to social justice over any particular theology.

“The goal of SoulFest has always been to bring together the whole church, the Protestants, the Catholics, everyone, and say let’s put our heads together and take action,” Strycharz said.

The music and camaraderie of the festival are fun, Russell said, but aren’t enough on their own.

“I feel like we’d be just a clanging cymbal if we didn’t talk about social justice too, in addition to the music and all,” he said.

To teach attendees about the work of different charity organizations, Strycharz said there will be a centralized tent “smack dab in the center of the festival grounds,” where representatives from organizations as diverse as Oxfam, Compassion International, Water for Good and Word of Life Fellowships will talk about their missions and distribute information to help people get involved.

“It’s about breaking out of the four walls of the church,” Strycharz said. “We try not to make it an evangelical service. We have these great bands, so let’s bring the church together around them and teach people about ways they can get involved in their own communities beyond just sending a check to some intangible organization.”

‘Worship the Creator in his creation’

The Gunstock Mountain atmosphere is a big draw for many attendees, including Dan Byrd of Beverly, Mass., who will be attending for the third year in a row next month.

“It was a great way to get out into God’s nature and spend some time enjoying the music and the scenery,” Byrd said. “For me, the highlight was riding the chairlift up, looking down and seeing all the people. Just being up there, you can really enjoy the worship of the Creator in his creation.”

Byrd works as the pastor of community and multiplication at Netcast Church in Beverly, which he describes as predominantly nondenominational. He became familiar with the festival’s mission by meeting Strycharz at Netcast, and last year he brought his wife and two daughters to the festival for a day.

“For me, it’s a break away from work, and yet it still involves ministry,” he said. “It allows me to get away from the day-to-day routine, and music is a huge part of my life.”

Byrd hopes to volunteer in some capacity this year, and Strycharz said volunteers are the bulk of the festival weekend’s staff. They’re still looking for people to join the team in all departments, including retail work, security, parking direction, hospitality and food preparation, he said, and volunteers receive either free or discounted admission depending on their levels of commitment.

Family friendly atmosphere

Strycharz said tickets are priced comparably to other festivals in the area, with a three-day pass priced at $115 for adults and $75 for youth and seniors this month. Beginning Aug. 1, the price jumps to $130 for adults and $95 for youth and seniors. Single-day passes are currently selling for $40 for adults and $35 for youth and seniors.

The family friendly atmosphere is a big draw for the festival, but it also means that the organizers have to cross any alcohol-related sponsors off the list, which Strycharz said is a big money maker for mainstream festivals. Because of that, they “always have to be thinking outside the box” when it comes to festival funding, he said.

“Demographic wise, you see children through seniors at SoulFest,” he said. “At a lot of mainstream festivals, you’re seeing a lot of college students, 20-somethings, 30-somethings. But it’s neat that here, you can really get that faith community feeling if you’re having a dry event.”

Hotels in Gilford are filling quickly, Strycharz said, but there are still options as well as plenty of space at the Gunstock Mountain camping grounds.

Overall, Russell’s message to attendees is simple: “Get out and plug in.”

“I do believe that if we plug into our communities and volunteer more, we’re going to have more purpose in our lives. We’ll need less Xanax and Ambien,” he said. “God loves us, and he loves everyone. At SoulFest, we try to lay that out clearly every single day.

“Once we get that as the foundation, then okay, we can look around and see what needs are in the community. And then we’ll plug into that.”

(Ann Marie Jakubowski can be reached at 369-3302 or ajakubowski@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @AMJakubowski.)

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