Growing up a good Baptist kid, the highlights of my year were the annual church camps at our property beside a spring-fed lake in northern Michigan. For a few days every summer, we would step outside our normal routines to more intentionally reconnect with one another and with our deepest commitments. We’d laugh and play and sing, share meals together with friends, both new and old; be inspired by provocative speakers; and engage in deep conversations late into the night.
Though my personal faith has since outgrown some of its earlier expressions, I still look back on those camp experiences as among the most meaningful and transformative of my entire life.
I’m not alone in this experience. The oldest religious site in the world, the Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, predates civilization and was a place where nomadic tribes would gather for … wait for it … a religious festival! The archaeologist who worked on the site speculates that civilization might have, in fact, arisen because of gatherings like this.
Since the dawn of history, humans have known that when you gather large groups together for intense experiences around their highest ideals — festivals, camp meetings, revivals, even political rallies — new possibilities suddenly emerge. As Brené Brown writes in her most recent book, large collective gatherings are “more than just people coming together to distract themselves from life … instead they are an opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than oneself; an opportunity to feel joy, social connection, meaning, and peace.”
That is why, as I was finishing my degree studying how religion and spirituality is evolving in the 21st century and considering where to focus my energies next, organizing a new festival here in Austin occurred as a natural choice — not just another music festival mind you, but something more holistic and purposeful.
It would be an event that would include not just music or art, but also conversation around big ideas in science, philosophy, religion and more; spiritual practices for health and wholeness; social action for the common good; and authentic, playful connection. It would be guided above all by the conviction that if we want better lives and a better world, then we need a better story, a more life-giving narrative about who we are and how we should live in the world. This story emphasizes practical compassion, collective liberation and radical reconciliation.
We’re calling it the New Story Festival —a three-day celebration of community, creativity and the common good. Join us March 29-31 at Huston-Tillotson University.
For me the New Story isn’t just about recapturing the magic of those youthful camp experiences; it’s a way to give back to this city I love by amplifying all the amazing work for compassion and goodness already happening here. That’s why we’ve partnered with dozens of organizations from across the city to help co-create the festival and, as part of it, launched the Compassionate Austin Co-op, a new Austin City Council-endorsed network for anyone who engages in compassionate action on behalf of others, self and the Earth.
The Co-op will be hosting its first “Offers & Needs Market” at the festival, a 90-minute guided process to help participants — nonprofits, social enterprises, churches, schools, civic organizations, advocacy groups or just good-hearted individuals — start collaborating more effectively by identifying practical skills and tangible assets they might be able to share with one another.
Just as Baptist summer camp transformed my early life, my hope, my dream, is that through similar events like the New Story Festival, and through initiatives like the Compassionate Co-op, new, transformative possibilities will likewise be birthed both for Austin and for all of us who call it home.
Find out more at newstoryfestival.com and compassionateaustin.org.
Mike Clawson is a religion scholar, event organizer, founder of the Spiritual Transformation Project, co-founder of the New Story Festival, and social impact coordinator for Compassionate Austin. The Doing Good Together column is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.