Jackie Roberts drove a carload of kids from Florida to a cornfield in the Midwest out of motherly love and because her son wouldn't stop bugging her. After six months of pestering, 15-year-old Brock convinced her that this was the only place he could see his favorite Christian bands. Over 1,000 miles later, Roberts wasn't so sure about the Cornerstone Festival.
Not far from where Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri meet, Roberts, her three kids, a niece, and Brock's best friend passed through Bushnell, Illinois, a quaint farm town of 3,221. Further down a dirt road, they entered the festival gates and the rural scenery changed drastically. The entire car fell silent.
This wasn't the contemporary Christian music scene they expected. Inching through the bustling and dirty festival grounds, the Roberts group—except for an ecstatic Brock—gasped as they passed lines of hippies, punks, Goths, brightly colored Mohawks, and lots of tattoos.
Staring at a half-naked man in a dog collar, Jackie's oldest daughter asked Brock, "What have you gotten us into?"
'The Cacophony Doesn't Bother Them'
Entering Cornerstone's 579-acre camping and festival grounds can be intimidating—and not just because some of the 27,000 people look downright scary. Unlike most paid evangelical events, the 20-year-old Cornerstone relishes chaos. This loosely organized modern-day Woodstock has few rules and even less signage to help you know where you are or what is happening.
The July festival's stock in trade is stimulus overload. Loud music is constant and the visual stimulation is dizzying. All festivals offer multiple events and activities. Cornerstone does them all at once and constantly for five days. Three hundred bands play 11 stages from late morning to early the next morning. Simultaneously, there are sports competitions, a film festival, a dance tent, an art gallery, the children's Creation Station, and 250 hours of seminars.
This constant and often overwhelming activity, like the festival's identity itself, is a reflection of who throws the party: Jesus People U.S.A. (JPUSA). The 500 members of this intentional community, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, live in an old Chicago hotel they call Friendly Towers.
"In a small town, you have a family with a story in every house," says Linda Lafianza, cofounder of Christian pop-culture webzine, The Phantom Tollbooth. "But in an urban area, you have four dramas on a floor. This is why the cacophony doesn't bother them; they are used to chaos, ambiguity, and everything happening at once."
Festivalgoers show up days before Cornerstone starts. Crowds swell around campsites-turned-stages where people put on their own shows with dad's power generator and an amp. Campsites, cars, and a surprising number of VW microbuses stake out what space on the 180 acres is not lake or dense woods. Some people pitch tents only feet from blaring music stages; others don't camp as much as eventually lie down in the dirt.
"I was totally blown away by what I saw," says Jackie Roberts, who has returned to Cornerstone twice—even without Brock. "I was expecting all young, preppy, youth group kids. The diversity at first was intimidating, but it ended up being an incredible blessing. I saw youth groups. I saw punks. I saw grandmas. I saw families with babies. With 27,000 diverse people loving each other, you know God is there."
Cornerstone is neither America's largest Christian festival nor the oldest. In fact, most Christians may have no idea it exists. A constant wall of sound and kids with rings and studs piercing their faces is not everyone's idea of fun. As founding director Henry Huang says, "Cornerstone tends to attract a certain temperament."