Scenes from Sonshine Fest
Photos by Eric Refsland and Rhena Tantisunthorn for City Pages

On the second day of Sonshine Fest 2007, Eleventyseven performs on the Showmobile Stage. A band member wearing an astronaut suit bounces over to the drum kit, bangs away for a few measures, then pogos back to the front of the stage. The lead singer, wearing a blue sleeveless jumpsuit, shouts a Ramones-esque "Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!" before breaking into the first verse of "More Than a Revolution."

"I don't mean to cause mass hysteria/It's on its way and it's probably gonna bury you," he sings. "And there's nothing much that you can do/There's nothing good left to imitate."

Most of the hundred or so kids in the audience smile along with the music, which is reminiscent of the irony-tinged pop-punk of Weezer. At the foot of the stage, a group of a few dozen young men run in a circle, forming a punk-rock conga line. The astronaut-musician finally leaps into the crowd, which dutifully passes him overhead.

At the next stage over, Red, a hard-rock band, whips the mosh pit into a frenzy. Two girls in dark eye makeup sit on their boyfriends' shoulders and make devil horns with their fingers. On the dirt road between the two stages, a young man in a sleeveless Cowboys T-shirt and backward black baseball cap presents a piece of cardboard to passing festival goers. "Free hugs!" reads one side. He flips it. "Say yes if U love God."

For 26 years, young Christians have been gathering in southwestern Minnesota on the outskirts of Willmar to rock out. In the quarter-century since its inception, Sonshine Fest has grown from three bands and a few thousand people to 150 acts and more than 20,000 fans assembling for three days and nights of music and worship. Today it is one of the largest Christian music festivals in the country.

The town of just over 18,000 reaps substantial economic benefits from the annual event. Local hotels are booked to capacity a year in advance and rooms are reserved as far as 50 miles away. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that the average Sonshiner spends $200 on gas, food, water, and other amenities, bringing the total income generated by the festival to somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million.

About 10,000 attendees camp out in "Tent City," as organizers call the 50 acres surrounding the festival gates. From a distance, Tent City looks like a shantytown, but up close it's surprisingly clean and well organized. Fire hydrants bring running water to the 10,000 campers, Dumpsters are abundant, and showers are available nearby. Pup tents stand between more elaborate arrangements with tables and couches.

Inside the Civic Center, four rows of vendors line two aisles. Among the merch: TobyMac and other Christian music T-shirts ($25); pendants in the shape of a hand with a hole in the palm ($22); glow-in-the-dark concert toys ($1-$5); and "Team Jesus" winter caps ($16). One enterprising duo hawks T-shirts that put a religious spin on recognizable consumer goods: "Godiswiser" in place of "Budweiser," and "Christade" instead of "Gatorade." Religious colleges such as Crown and Northwestern Christian hand out pamphlets next to Christian radio stations like KTIS. A large pink sign on the American Life League table reads, "Roe has been saved! She's now pro-life."

But the main attraction is fellowship. Devin Weinzierl, a 16-year-old from Delano, describes listening to Christian music as "a different kind of worshipping" from what she usually does at her Sunday service. Joung Kim, an 18-year-old attending the festival with his youth group, finds it a relief from secular society. "You can praise anywhere, anytime," Kim says. "You can't always gather and praise God at the same time."

This theme runs through the RV-filled parking lots where many of the families stay. "We've really turned into a family event just because we've been going so long," says founding organizer Bob Poe. "So people who came here as teenagers are now coming back and bringing their kids with them."

On Friday afternoon, as Disciple takes the main stage, the Kortuems relax outside of their camper. It was the music and the message that first attracted Phil Kortuem to Sonshine Fest 11 years ago. Phil and his wife, Ann, view Sonshine as an event where they can spend time with their family and where their two adult sons and eight-year-old granddaughter can have fun in a safe environment. "They get peer encouragement, which is the opposite of peer pressure," Phil explains.

Even without peer encouragement, there's little trouble to get into. By city ordinance, no alcohol is allowed on the grounds. During the course of the weekend, police will be called to deal with just six instances of underage drinking, which may be a record for a rock show. In years past, instances of underage drinking have almost always turned out to be local kids who camped out but didn't have tickets to the festival, says Willmar Chief of Police James Kulset.

The medical tent is similarly tame, especially when compared with other festivals, such as Lollapalooza (where an injury left a boy a quadriplegic in Rhode Island in 1994) and Bonnaroo (where there were two drug-related deaths in 2004). Scott Abrams, a volunteer paramedic at Sonshine, says that in a typical year, he mostly sees sprained ankles, bumps, scrapes, sunburns, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. Even on Friday afternoon, probably the hottest day of the festival, the medical tent is empty except for the volunteers.

Later in the evening, headliner Jeremy Camp takes the stage. He exhorts the crowd to jump, which they do, arms raised in the air. The song ends and Camp wipes his brow. "Whew," he says. "That was an adrenaline rush. I just about passed out there."

Camp tells the crowd that he has one more song. The keyboardist plays a soft, slow melody in the background. Camp talks about the day that he'll "stand before Jesus, my savior, with his beautiful nail-pierced hands. That excites me. Does that excite you?" The audience cheers.

Then Camp talks about his first wife, who died of ovarian cancer when she was 21, a few months after the couple got married. He describes the experience of watching her go to the Lord, before he begins his final song. "You can have all this world," he intones. "Just give me Jesus."

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