MOUNT UNION, Pa (Reuters) - A music festival with heavy metal, punk, hip-hop and pop music might seem like an unusual place to get baptized, but Creation is a festival with strict rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no sex before marriage.
“It’s like the Christian version of Woodstock, basically, except it’s neat and clean,” said Victor Gibson, 37, from Manheim, Pennsylvania, who brought his wife and five children aged from five to 14 to the four-day festival.
“Take a look back at the crowd,” he said, as thousands of fans held their arms in the air, pounding out the beat of a song by Christian band Kutless, whose sound Gibson likened to Metallica. “No rioting, no fighting, nobody getting beat up.”
Lily Ellerson, a 12-year-old from Maryland, was one of nearly 200 people who were baptized in a pond on the final day of Creation, which drew around 70,000 people in late June.
Ellerson said she decided to be baptized after hearing a speaker at one of the side-events at the festival.
“I felt God was there,” Ellerson said. “I could just see him, I could feel him all around me, and I thought I wanted to give my full heart to him.”
Ellerson came with a church youth group of 47 people, including her cousin Emily White, who volunteers at the church.
“You really do feel like, wow, we are in the Kingdom right now and right here,” White said. “You’re living in a community of 70,000 people, without the benefit of electricity or water, yet everybody loves each other, you don’t hear about things being stolen or fights.
“We really are living the way God made us to live.”
One in four Americans count themselves as evangelical Protestants, a growing movement with serious clout in a country where religion and politics often mix. Creation is officially non-denominational and it drew some Catholics, but the rhetoric of most speakers was that of “born again” Christians.
The highlight of the festival for some was the baptism.
Barefoot and wearing shorts and tee-shirts, they waded thigh-deep into the pond to be dunked by pastors who prayed with them, then submerged them entirely in the water, cheered on by hundreds of emotional family members and friends.
“Can you imagine God smiling right now?” one woman said as she watched.
Now in its 30th year and growing bigger every year, the festival is in many ways like any secular summer music festival — thousands of young people camping out, getting muddy in the rain and eagerly hunting down their heroes for autographs.
But these music fans wore T-shirts with slogans such as “Virginity Rocks” and “Mosh for Jesus,” the dress code encouraged modesty and some friendly fans stood around offering free hugs to passersby.
And unlike other rock festivals there was a curfew and alcohol and drugs were strictly off limits.
Between the music, teenagers and students attended seminars on abortion, on “Success God’s Way” and one called “BeYOUtiful” for young girls.
Matthew Benjamin appealed to one group to help spread the word of Jesus to students in China. He urged volunteers to step forward and release brightly colored balloons as a symbol of their pledge to give a year of their lives to mission work.
Despite touching on some serious topics, the tone of the festival was more celebration than sermon.
Digressing during a talk urging people to sponsor children in developing countries, inspirational speaker Bob Lenz said he had five children, adding: “We like how they’re made.”
“Sex is beautiful when it’s in marriage,” he said, provoking laughs. “It’s what God has designed, it’s awesome, it’s time to take it back and say ‘God is not a killjoy.”‘
Gibson, a father of five and one of few African Americans in a largely white crowd, said he preferred hip-hop but he was happily singing along to Kutless. “Music makes you feel something but the end goal is to lead you to God,” he said.
“What’s important is the message behind the music.”
Kutless guitarist James Meade, 25, said he was saved by Jesus after years of being abused as a child, spending time in jail for dealing drugs and nearly dying of alcohol poisoning on his 17th birthday.
“We’re five individual guys who have really experienced what the Bible and what the Gospel talks about in meeting Jesus Christ personally,” Meade said in an interview. “It’s not just music for the sake of art.”
Much of the music spoke more directly about God.
Group 1 Crew sang a song called “Forgive Me” that was like a hip-hop version of Psalm 23, including the words “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Chris Tomlin had a crowd of around 30,000 singing along to his version of “Amazing Grace.”
“A lady just came up to me about an hour ago, she said ‘You know, I really don’t like this music much, but I know it’s good for the kids, I see the way they relate to it,”‘ festival founder Harry Thomas said in an interview.
Jonathan Andreas, 39, a part-time musician and insurance salesman, said people were drawn to Creation to find meaning.
“Our materialistic, hedonistic, sex-crazed society leaves people empty, and they’re looking for answers,” he said, his face lit up by tens of thousands of candles held aloft by the crowd at midnight.
Courtney McLaren, a 19-year-old student from Wilmington, Delaware, who was among those baptized, said she felt like the United States was heading towards a “spiritual war.”
“It’s like America is teetering on a very thin line right now and it could go either way, and it pretty much depends on what happens with our generation,” McLaren said.
“That’s why Creation is trying so hard to reach out to everybody,” she said. “We’ve got to change Hollywood now, we’ve got to help them and we’ve got to get more of our bands out onto the mainstream and bring some good messages.”
Some at the festival were on a more personal mission.
Timothy Adams, a 54-year-old on disability who drove from Daytona, Florida, with his motorbike on a trailer behind his camper van, had placed a placard on the windscreen of his vehicle reading: “Wanted: Stalwart Christian woman 4 wife.”
He said he hadn’t heard back from any women.
“There’s a lot of guys who are looking for wives,” Adams said, wearing a T-shirt that said “Satan Sucks,” partly obscured by his long beard. “It’s hard to find a Christian woman, there’s so few of them around.”
Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eddie Evans