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Jeff Elbel attended his first Cornerstone Festival in 1991 while he was living in Champaign, Illinois. The event was 150 miles away in the small Illinois town of Bushnell, and was such a formative experience, he made sure to carve space in his schedule to make the trip for the next two years. Then he relocated to California in 1994 and decided against traveling half way across the country to attend the event—the distance proved more than he could bear.

"The entire week that Cornerstone was going on, I was looking at my watch," Elbel recalls. He kept track of when his favorite bands were performing, as well as the seminars whose subjects most attracted his attention. The obsession took its toll on his work productivity, and tensions developed at home. "I basically made my wife miserable, so she finally just told me to go from now on." He hasn't missed a festival since.

Cornerstone is perhaps best known as the premier alternative rock festival of Christian music, with performance opportunities for a mind-bending range of genres that span punk, folk, metal, jazz, and bluegrass. The event often draws attention for the freedom that many attendees feel concerning their fashion sense, sporting multiple piercings and tattoos while shaping their hair into strange configurations. But those who travel by plane, train, and automobile to spend their July 4 holidays in Bushnell are attracted to something more that what outsiders first notice.

"They're not coming to see a particular band; they're coming to be part of the community," says John Herrin, the festival's director. Over the years they have shared campsites, the love of music, the notoriously cruel weather, and most of all, a passion for Jesus. The 2008 Cornerstone reunion—from ...

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