Religious AF 2019 was wildly successful, exceeding our expectations. We had 70-80 people attend each of our four services at the Temple. The people who stopped by our daily Morning Prayer services, afternoon conversation time and contemplative services were eager to engage about their spiritual lives. Here are some initial thoughts on principles for Christian ministry to those outside the church.
Honor the culture you are in: We are Burners first! We love the ethos of Burning Man and support its mission. We put up with the awful physical conditions because we find the Reign of God present in this temporary, wild and wacky community. We are not venturing into this foreign culture in order to draw people out of it. Rather, for us, this place is home. Our existence as Burners gives us a common identity with other Burners. We as individuals as well as a camp have a deep respect to the ten principles. This respect allows for an immediate common understanding and in many ways adds credit to our camp’s mission. One of the ways we honor our culture is through our liturgy that intentionally incorporates language and imagery found at Burning Man.
Serve, Don’t Sell: One of the ten principles of Burning Man is decommodification. There is an intentional effort to protect everything from the rampant commodification in the default world. At Burning Man, nothing is a commodity. There is no bartering. No quid-pro-quo. When you give a gift, you do so expecting to get nothing, to gain nothing. You can’t sell anything, not even Jesus or the Episcopal Church.
The principle of decommodification acts as a necessary guardrail in Christian ministry. When we serve people at Religious AF, we are there to welcome them, serve them, pray with them, and answer their questions. We are not there to show them how cool Jesus or the Episcopal Church are. We aren’t recruiting them, or asking them to join anything.
Be clear about identity and intentions: We are a Christain camp. We are clear about that in our camp principles and our services. We do not hide our Christian identity.
Be aware of triggering symbols: While we are an explicitly Christian camp, we are aware that certain aspects of Christian piety, iconography and theology have been used in harmful ways. We are careful to limit Christian symbols and language, such as the Latin cross or atonement language that may pose a barrier to those wounded by the church. Having the word “Fuck” in our name helps people feel like we may be different than Christians they have experienced in the past. Clearly, this wouldn’t work in every setting. The success of our name is dependent on its context within the culture of Burning Man.
Be non Judgmental: From our Purpose and Principles, “We offer hospitality, conversation, prayer and ritual to all who seek it: gay, trans, straight, high, sober, clothed, naked, polyamorous, monogamous, celibate, gracious and grumpy.” We have welcomed people in all of those categories, without flinching or wincing, because we believe all people are beloved children of God, deserving of love. This may be one of the most surprising aspects of our camp for outsiders. Christianity has been so closely identified as moral police that people are often pleasantly stunned by our acceptance of the freaky side of themselves that they may hide from others. Not only are we accepting of people who are “gay, trans, straight, high, sober . . .” we are those people. This can create an instant sense of belonging with fellow Burners.
Be a Caring, Safe Community:
As a camp we intentionally work at being a caring community with clear boundaries and a process for handling conflict. We have a Community Covenant and honor everyone’s voice, in our camp as well as outside our camp. This sets a tone that is inviting to others. One way we create a safe space at the Burn is through our interactions with our one on one blessings. Before a blessing is given consent must be established. Consent is one of the strongest Burning Man values and by simply asking the individual receiving the blessing “Do I have your consent to place hands on you?” you are reinforcing a space of mutual understanding, love and trust.
Be Honest-Vulnerable-Authentic: We also have a mission to ourselves when attending Burning Man! This might sound similar to the ever quoted “self-care” message. However, it’s bigger than that. Burning Man is a place of healing. Broken people – AKA people – attend Burning Man in the hope for some kind of healing, some kind of transformation. This is true for the members of our camp as well, both clergy and lay. We are all broken people seeking the healing love of God and this remarkable community. This perspective is particularly important when it comes to clergy, who are often viewed as the helpers, rather that those in need of helping. At Religious AF, we are all encouraged to be vulnerable to one another in our brokenness.
Each of our camp members are invited to bring their authentic selves with their own doubts and struggles into our conversations with others. Challenging ourselves to all go on this journey together means we as a camp need to make sure our own camp members have mental and physical health support. This support allows for campers to reflect on their own healing along with vowing to help heal our greater Burning Man community.