By Debbie Eisenbise
Every summer, multiple generations gather at a Church of the Brethren camp for a time of relaxation, reflection, and rejuvenation. For 20 years now, some 120 to 180 people come together for Song and Story Fest, one week each year set aside for singing, playing music, and hearing and telling stories.
The idea for Song and Story Fest began simply enough. Ken Kline Smeltzer was in charge of Family Camp at Camp Peaceful Pines in Pacific Southwest District, and decided to invite friends and creative folk from throughout the country to come together for a week of sharing stories and creating music together. That was the summer of 1997.
The next year, some people who had attended from Oregon took the idea there and replicated it as a family camp connected to the Pacific Northwest District Conference. By then, Kline Smeltzer already was planning for such a camp the following year at Camp Mack near Milford, Ind. He decided that since leadership was coming from across the country, and this kind of gathering had wide appeal, he would arrange for the event to be held at a camp near to the location of Annual Conference that year.
Those who attended the first Song and Story Fests began to invite family and friends, and for many it has become an annual event. Part of the draw is leadership, but a larger part is community.
Through the years Kline Smeltzer has brought together a variety of folk musicians and storytellers–tellers of folk tales and of tender, poignant memoirs; creators of fictional worlds with re-occurring and beloved characters; biblical storytellers; and poets. Collaboration among the musicians, and between the musicians and the storytellers, brings life to the themes and scriptures chosen for each day of the fest. Musicians also accompany folk dancing and provide concerts.
The list of performers throughout the years reads like a who’s who of Brethren artists who work with music and words, alongside ecumenical friends from outside the denomination: Rhonda and Greg Baker, Heidi Beck, Louise Brodie, Deanna Brown, Patti Ecker, Jeffrey Faus and Jenny Stover-Brown, Bob Gross, Kathy Guisewite, LuAnne Harley and Brian Krushwitz, Joseph Helfrich, Rocci Hildum, Jonathan Hunter, Bill Jolliff, Tim Joseph, Steve Kinzie, Shawn Kirchner, Lee Krähenbühl, Jim and Peg Lehman, Jan and John Long, Mutual Kumquat (Chris Good, Seth Hendricks, Drue Gray, David Hupp, Jacob Crouse, Ethan Setiawan, Ben Long), Mike Stern, Mike Titus, and more.
At workshops and campfires, other campers also perform songs and tell stories. Children find a welcome reception for their creativity, often playing instruments, singing, dancing, doing motions to songs, acting out stories, and sharing crafts. One of the most beloved times at the fest is the campfire where the program begins with children telling jokes, ranging from knock-knock jokes to questions about chickens crossing the road and riddles–and even some jokes that the children make up on the spot. Kline Smeltzer’s gentle, jovial leadership provides an atmosphere that welcomes all who are willing to share, and encourages even the most timid to try.
Hannah Button-Harrison grew up attending Song and Story Fests. Now in her late 20s, she makes her living as a children’s musician in Chicago. She credits her career to those 12 summers at the camp: “I’ve been soaking in all this music!” she says. “Something about the intimate atmosphere lets you know that you can play and sing and perform, too. The musicians are role models who shaped the way I see the purpose of music, as something that can really make an impact, can heal. Anyone anywhere can enter in, everyone can contribute. All can feel empowered, that they belong.”
“Everybody’s so interesting,” says Jill Schweitzer. “It’s a wonderful inter-generational group. Our children enjoy being here with other children and adults, because people of all ages are appreciated. You come the first time to check it out, and by the second time, you are hooked!”
“This week will refill your soul,” promises Muir Davis, whose family travels from California each year to attend the camp.
Single people, extended families, older folks, young adults, teens, all lovers of music, story, and nature, are welcome. This summer, several Nigerian Brethren visited for the first few days, sharing their stories and singing a blessing. They commented that they enjoyed the informality and relaxed atmosphere after attending Annual Conference.
Kline Smeltzer reminisced, writing about this year’s event: “We’ve been gathering for these Song and Story Fests for a long time now. We’ve been fed by the sharing of music, stories, and life’s happenings. We have reflected on being people of faith in these troubled times. We’ll take some time to remember and celebrate our journey together. But we aren’t finished yet! We continue to seek out the movement of God in our lives and the wider world, and to enjoy and celebrate that movement as well as to join in amplifying it. At the fest, through music and stories and community, we open ourselves to the holy so that our life and work and struggles move more in time with the energizing Spirit of Life.”
Next year’s Song and Story Fest will be at Camp Brethren Heights in Michigan on July 2-8, right after Annual Conference takes place in Grand Rapids, Mich. The event receives sponsorship and support from On Earth Peace. Next spring look for more information to be posted at http://onearthpeace.org , click on “Events.”
— Debbie Eisenbise is director of Intergenerational Ministries on the Congregational Life Ministries staff of the Church of the Brethren, and is a regular storyteller at Song and Story Fest.