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Providing Community through Festivals

Living in both Sydney and Athens while working on the Olympics these last eight years has given those in Fusion International an opportunity to observe firsthand how a city and a nation embraces this event. By the time the flame enters the center of the city the night before the Games, even the most hardened critics can be swept away in the euphoria of what is unfolding around them.

Locals, who have been waiting seven years for this moment, look for ways to celebrate. Imagine what it will be like when the flame finally reaches the center of Beijing on the evening of the 7th of August! Has a country ever taken the Games’ preparation so seriously? Expectation is high; people are waiting, wanting to enter into the event.

Over 17 days, an Olympic host city becomes a transformed community. People who never talk to anyone on trains and buses now readily discuss the events of the previous day’s games. People seem to lose their inhibitions of talking to strangers, swept up in the magic of an event that is aptly titled, “A once in a life time opportunity.”

How can local people who cannot afford tickets to events, particularly the Opening Night Ceremony, celebrate the Games? Fusion International has sought to respond to this desire to connect and celebrate by running Opening Night “Open Crowd” Festivals where locals can gather to celebrate as a community. These take place largely where they live. It may be in a park or simply out in front of their apartmentsor anyplace where the community gathers.

In China, the idea is that on the 8th day of the 8th month, for four hours starting at four o’clock, the community will gather to celebrate through an “Open Crowd” Festivala Festival where everyone is welcomed, and particularly the children are seen and treated as the stars of the show. There are games for hundreds of people that culminate in a giant Hokey-Pokeya dance that draws people in through fun movements and singing together. There is face painting, balloon sculpturing, statues, bubbles, circus skills and many other activities that build relationships between the team and those attending. It is fun for all the family. However, on the 8th, people are aware of the impending moment. At eight o’clock, a hushed tone will descend across an expectant crowd; people will sit anywhere to get a view of the giant screens we have erected to watch the first moment of the Opening Ceremony. Imagine the excitement when the Chinese team (the host team is always the last team to appear) marches into the Birds’ Nest!

However, it does not stop there. For the next three nights, the communities continue to gather together to run Festivals and watch events on the big screens. After four days of Festivals where locals are trained and equipped, they discuss the next opportunities to run these Festivals later in the year and on into the Chinese New Year. In fact, anytime the community comes together becomes an opportunity to run a Festival. After the event, we often introduce training for running “next steps” activities like Kid’s Clubs, Youth Day Trips and so on.

A moment in history creates a pretext that provides a perfect opportunity to bring the community together to celebrate. For over 30 years, Fusion International has been running Festivals using such sporting “moments” across the world to help local people and churches be in the heart of the celebration. What we learned in Sydney and Athens was that not only did the local communities appreciate Festivals but so did the local authorities, who in one part of the city of Sydney voted Fusion the community event of the year. Across Australia, one in five Australians has attended Fusion’s Festivals. A number of years ago, research completed in Australia revealed that the most effective way to build local community is to run events of celebration.

Why is it working? The answer is at a number of levels. It is more than simply a celebration. At a Festival, we help build a culture where people have an opportunity to experience authentic community. Deep within people’s hearts are yearnings for community, belonging, meaning and purpose. When people enter into an effective “Open Crowd” Festival this is what they experience. Fusion seeks to become a catalyst to draw open-hearted people of good will together to serve their community, bringing vision, inspiration, resources and training.

This is much broader than simply guanxi. In many communities across the world, there was a time when a child would grow up in a network of care that went way beyond the family and close family friends. This is what has gone missing. The African proverb rings true today: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Social scientists call it “social capital,” and it grows out of those social interactions and networks we experience in our daily lives. It is not the quality of individuals, but rather the quality of a group or community as a whole. It involves extensive networks of information and exchange based on mutual trust and reciprocity. Large extended families can benefit fellow members through their internal and external connections; so, if you belong to a large and extended family you have many more possibilities made available to you. This is what we seek to become at a Festival and beyondan extended family through which people can access resources in other nations and cultures. We expect that together we can create a benchmark for the whole of Beijing and beyond as to what a harmonious and inclusive society can look like.

“Open Crowd” Festivals bring the local community together in all its diversity and lay a foundation where social capital can develop. When this is experienced, rather than being strange, people find it feels strangely familiar because they are experiencing the level of community for which they were made.

Many events never quite get to that place of community. Yet, if there is a good time together with friends, a good youth gathering, a good business meeting, then, when the group gets past the issue of authority, safety builds. There is a move to inter-member identification, a sense of cohesion and energy, and a sense that the group is traveling to an almost invisible destination. It is here that it is possible to discover valid intimacy, deep communication and hearts open to see meaning. Whether it is a marriage, a community, or a nation, shared understanding will only be there when there is trust. Trust is the glue that holds communities together. Trust is essentially a state of the spirit, not so much a state of the mind.

The beauty of an event such as a Festival is that as we go into it, we rarely have enough people to manage everything. So, we train local people to work alongside us, people from throughout the community who join in. Often, it is people of good will from the community who see the purpose clearly.

At one violent community, during last year’s World Cup in Jamaica, a lady who was watching what was happening came to the microphone and said to the crowd, “I am sick of my community being seen as the worst community in Jamaica. Who wants to join me in helping it become the best?” She issued the challenge: “I am standing with these people to make a difference.” Across the crowd a very strong “Yes” rose, and 27 people volunteered to continue running Festivals, Kids Clubs and other events to bring hope again to a community that has, for too long, felt hopeless.

Christianity does not bring division but harmony. Harmony comes from the inside. It is tied up in Jesus’ great prayer that we learn to love God deeply and love each other. A festival reflects this love that Jesus spoke about in John 17:23. The Christian church does not need another theory; what we need is a practical, workable and experiential model of transformation. The “Open Crowd” Festival is a tactic within this strategic model, and if it is produced well, all peoples and cultures can benefit from it. It invites others to find their role in building a hope-filled life.

Image credit: Untitled by dominiqueb, on Flickr

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Bruce Forest

Bruce Forest helps Fusion develop new works in countries around the world as they prepare for major sporting events.View Full Bio