Memorial to a ‘Heavenly’ Place
The past few months the combination of turmoil in the political, societal and spiritual areas of our national life has seemed almost overwhelming. So in honor of the season of Summer, I am taking a “vacation” from political concerns and social critiques. I want instead to revisit a place that no longer exists, but for 10 summers, was a refreshment and inspiration to my mind and spirit every week leading to Independence Day until 2011, the annual Cornerstone Christian Festival, in Bushnell, IL.
You are forgiven if you think, “What the heck is Cornerstone, and where in the world is Bushnell, IL?” But if you lived in Illinois, especially Chicago, anytime during the mid 1990’s through the early 2000’s, the odds were at least even that you knew the answers to both those questions.
To fully describe Cornerstone is impossible. It was a continual series of events and activities focused on the notion of bringing together both Christians and non-Christians in an atmosphere that was fun, illuminating, educational, inspiring and motivating. The biggest “draw” was the heavy-duty Christian rock music. The arena was a 650 acre farm in West Central Illinois. The event itself was borne in the ruminations of the Jesus People movement during late 60’s and 70’s. JPUSA (for “JesusPeopleUSA”) formed a mission church in inner Chicago and began the Cornerstone venture in the 80’s on a lakefront location outside of Chicago. The noise level of those early years forced JPUSA to look for alternate sites, and they ended up buying a farm, near a sleepy small town known as Bushnell, IL.
The geography of the farm seemed almost sculpted by God for the purpose of holding the festival. For example, the “Main stage” was assembled each 4th of July week in a natural amphitheater which could easily accommodate 5000+ people on a hillside which swept around in a semi-circle and a flat area for the stage and sound and more people. The biggest acts in Christian rock music played there. Some transcended the Christian arena to become famous in ‘secular’ music and a few got their start at Cornerstone. “Creed,” “P.O.D”, “Skillet,” “Relient K,” “Jars of Clay,” and “Anberlin” are examples. At it’s height, Cornerstone drew upwards of 30,000 people packed in tents and RV’s for a week and hosted 300+ bands!
Yet, music was only a part of the experience at Cornerstone. The week included Christian seminars under the rubric of “Cornerstone University” on various subjects from mysticism, multiculturalism, sexuality, bio-ethics, to theology and politics at the collegiate level. The viewpoints were very diverse from staunchly conservative to liberal in these seminars. There was a film festival each year focusing on various aspects of culture and spirituality from a Christian perspective. Subjects ranged from the development of the horror genre in film to a week long examination of C.S. Lewis and contemporaries in art and film to a focus on comedic expression. Even evolution and creation were debated with professors from all over the world coming in to facilitate these seminars. Sports tournaments were conducted on a large infield which included volleyball, soccer, and basketball, as well as skateboarding venues for those who attended that were so inclined. Quality events and activities for families, including small children, were abundant. Large merchandise tents containing all kinds of music, literature, clothing and ministry promos were of course present and one could get excellent buys especially toward the end of the week. There was even a large tent containing a fully stocked grocery store from merchants such as Hy-Vee. You could literally live camped out for a week there and never leave the grounds, even if you hadn’t enough supplies. Every item of food or supply was available and at reasonable prices!
But what distinguished Cornerstone Festival from every other seminar, concert, or similar event was the people, both the staff and attendees. I don’t believe a more diverse group of people, mostly college age but a significant number of all ages, could have been found anywhere in the world. My very first impression of Cornerstone was that this could be close to what heaven might look like. Here was a place where no one, no matter how outrageously dressed or tattooed or no matter what kind of hair length, color(s) or style, were accepted for the sake of winning some to Christ, and helping believers grow. That impression never changed for me. So I take today, a day when not long ago I would be at the festival enjoying the beginning events and variety of people, to salute the brief existence of such a place, and to mourn it’s demise. I pray that the LORD will continue to bless JPUSA, and perhaps miraculously something akin to Cornerstone may appear to bless future believers as well. Amen.