It goes beyond knowing that we’re not alone. It’s not even summarized in having a place to belong. The desire for the artist to hold membership within a creative community moves past the pain of loneliness or the need for identification into a real longing for stimulation. We yearn for like-minded sojourners to help shape and form our words, our music, our work. And yet outside of circles equally beautiful and rare (like the Square Peg Alliance), many of us find it difficult to locate others we can partner with.
One of the common threads at Hutchmoot last fall was this very desire. I met artist after artist (although so many are reticent to name themselves as such) who used words like “isolated” and later terms like “afraid” came rolling after. The two are linked — fear and isolation — and so many of us hope and wait for someone to join us, to help us shed our fears and create without obstacles.
As Thomas and I shared in a breakout group about building co-creative communities, it actually felt like we were poised to share bad news. In my own experience, there’s no formula to build any community — let alone a creative one. I came to Hutchmoot and heard the words, “Are you ready for your session?” My initial thought was “No. Well, yes. Perhaps?” The reason was that I was without either PowerPoint or worksheet titled with anything remotely helpful (i.e. “Chia Community”).
Instead, the only thing that both Thomas and I knew to tell people was to pursue what was inside of them with the utmost excellence and discipline — to move beyond their fears and put something, anything, out there. The only way to start a creative community is to first be a creative community of one.
There’s a quote about this that I’ve read attributed to both John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon over the years (thanks to Google). Perhaps it’s Roseanne Barr. These things are impossible to tell in the Internet age. That said, it doesn’t change the meaning of the quote: Set yourself on fire and people will come to watch you burn.
I could not be more proud of the church community that I’ve pastored over the last 8 years in the Indianapolis area. The Mercy House has been a haven for the most unlikely people creating the most unlikely organizations, ministries, artwork, and more and we’re often asked about the origin of the mess we call our community. “How did you do this?” My answer is easy. I point to the people who set themselves on fire.
Steve was a college senior who had a passion for guys coming out of prison systems or addiction recovery programs, but he also noticed that every “shelter” sort of program had staff that went home to their own lives and kept a distance from the men. It became a language of “us” versus “them.” Some referred to those they were serving as “clients.” Long story short, Steve did his research, formed a non-profit and decided to create the Exodus House, a men’s transitional shelter where the “staff” live with the “residents” and obey the same rules. Others have followed suit and now a vision is emerging for multiple houses to serve a myriad of people in need. He set himself on fire.
Megan was a 20-something girl who loved making handmade journals. I’ll never forget the tear-filled conversation as her heart welled up and she described to me a dream she had to teach oppressed women in Uganda how to sew the journals and she would work stateside to sell them. The dream felt so fragile she rarely shared it for fear it would fall apart like a house of cards. I told her, in so many words, “Set yourself on fire and see what happens.”
She made an announcement the next week at our Sunday gathering and eventually partnered with several girls to form Bound 4 Freedom. A non-profit organization was born and over the course of a couple of years, the girls were making trips to Uganda to teach HIV-positive women how to make their own living and they’re sold in boutique stores locally. They’ve now grown to include jewelry and other programs. She set herself on fire.
Fans of the Rabbit Room, myself included, can trace this same story in the songwriters that we listen to and the authors that we read. They write books without an audience in mind. They write songs without ears to listen to them. While we are now witnessing the payoff of those moments, the early days are easily forgotten when things felt as fragile as Megan or Steve felt in those early days of fear and wonder.
Hutchmoot is described in 100 different ways by 100 different people. It’s difficult to pin down. Yet when I’m asked what it’s about, for me it’s a very simple answer. The beauty of Hutchmoot is found in the freedom that people hopefully feel as they leave Nashville — a freedom to follow their passions beyond their fears and begin to call others alongside them. There are always those waiting in the wings to join in, as long as someone is willing to be the spark.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.