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Greenbelt 2013: Life Begins – reflections on a 40th anniversary festival

Russ Bravo looks back on a visit to the Greenbelt Festival, and finds an agent provocateur in rude health ...

Russ Bravo looks back on a visit to the Greenbelt Festival, and finds an agent provocateur in rude health ...

Greenbelt played a key part in my spiritual journey: I became a Christian during a run of attending the festival from 1982-85, and its eclectic mix provided a great launchpad.

So, apart from a return back in 2006 with my youngest lad (12 at the time), I was eagerly looking forward to pitching up again this year for the 40th anniversary celebrations, albeit only for a couple of days. It didn't disappoint.

Here are a few of my favourite things … (note: I was only able to be at this year's festival on the first two days)

Folk On – festival favourites combining nifty musicianship with daft songs and a hefty slice of cod-yokel humour
Eliza Carthy [pictured in action below] & Jim Moray – absolutely electrifying set from a pair of folk's top names backed by a 9-piece band. Powerful and impossible to stand still to.
Extra Curricular – almost impossible to describe: they blend soul, funk, rock and electronica with a fire and energy that make them a compelling live outfit. One of my discoveries of the festival
Stylusboy – bittersweet songs from acoustic duo Steve Jones and Rachel Grisedale. Well worth exploring.
Harry Baker – World Slam Poetry champ and wordsmith extraordinaire, Harry's mix of rapper rhythms, touching wordplay and cheeky humour make an intoxicating brew, and the showcase he hosted with Bridget Minamore and Omar Bynon was top quality.
Great comedy from Milton Jones [photo above: packed crowd at the Big Top wait for the show to start] and Paul Kerensa – on excellent form as ever
Sacred Harp singing – the renaissance of shapenote singing is an exciting phenomena and saw a hugely oversubscribed workshop
Talking fan ownership of football clubs – great to chat with fellow fans about the challenges of a great sport overrun by the money men and steadily pricing itself away from grassroots supporters
Beer and putting the world to rights at the Jesus Arms
Seeing God in others – passionate, diverse, talented, caring, eccentric, joyful, unexpected
The chance to expose yourself to pithy 10-minute talks: sometimes taking a tack you wouldn't expect, or might strongly disagree with, maybe addressing an issue you'd never really thought about before. Succinct but certainly not shallow.

Greenbelt is a place to think, to talk, to be open to change, to be open to God speaking direct, through each other, through nature, through music, through poetry, the Bible, a child, a community.

In a world that values the now, the new and the instant, Greenbelt is a place where you can take a step back and get some perspective. Where queueing can actually be a creative experience. Where delving back into the past, or discovering a different tradition can be an enlivening and liberating experience – as well as delighting in the shock of the new.

Greenbelt is a good place for questions. It's a good place for doubt and honesty, and wondering and exploring. It's a dangerous place for those who want everything neatly packaged and pigeonholed. It's a worrying place for those who don't like to be challenged, provoked or made to chew over truth.

There is an overarching arts framework, delivering quality music, spoken word, theatre, art and more, but the thread of social justice and faith into action stops it from becoming just about the arts, and takes expression into lives lived in such a way that they change things.

Yes, it can be a bit right-on, and you'll certainly find plenty to argue about, whatever your views on poverty, ecology, sexuality, the Middle East, feminism, the shape of the Church, the welfare state and a stack of other key issues. But in these days of tick-box opinions and lowest common denominators (or denominations), that's a healthy thing.

Greenbelt isn't perfect. But it shouldn't be, because people aren't perfect and we grow through encountering each others' imperfections. Community comes from valuing each other and learning from each other. We begin to see the richness of God, and value the mysteries that leave us scratching our heads as much as the certainties we plant our hope in.

Long may it continue.

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