Last week I attended Mountainfilm 2019 in Telluride, CO, for the first time ever, as part of a large and loosely connected group of people. A couple of them I knew well, a few more I’d casually interacted with in the past. The rest were completely new. I’m talking only about the 40 to 50 people who made up the group I was with, not the hundreds of absolute strangers I queued with and shared restaurant, restroom, trail, theater, and gondola space with over the four days.
Here’s the astonishing thing: Every single person appeared friendly, positive, upbeat, and eager to connect. The people of Mountainfilm 2019 struck up conversations on the gondola, in the normal queues we joined at least one hour before any film or event we wanted to see, and in the super queue that many of us joined four hours before Oprah was due to appear onstage with guest director Cheryl Strayed. We languished in the grass under the hot Colorado sun and talked about what we’d seen, where we were from, what we thought was exciting in the world today. One possible chink in the conviviality of Mountainfilm 2019 seemed to appear when Q cards were handed out for Oprah 90 minutes earlier than they normally would be, but I didn’t personally observe any anger in the prospective audience members who were turned away. I intuited it from the volunteer staff who, when I asked if I could go inside to use the restroom, said, “Sure, just don’t talk to us about the queuing process!”
The group I was with mostly identified as Christians, but certainly not everyone else in attendance would have thought of themselves this way. I’ve been going to church for long enough to know that groups of Christians don’t always manifest this kind of pure bliss. Sometimes I wonder: Do they ever? If so, when? What unique blend of circumstances and ingredients results in the synchronicity of seemingly very different people from all over the country, previously unknown to one another, meeting up and immediately feeling connected in the pursuit of higher ideals and values? Certainly this is the intention of an event like Mountainfilm that focuses on “environmental, cultural, climbing, political and social justice issues that matter.” One attendee, the ethnobotanist Wade Davis, is quoted as saying, “All the best people I’ve ever known, I met at Mountainfilm.” It is entirely possible that some people leave this event deeply alienated and embittered, feeling disrespected and abused, hurting in ways that will take a lifetime to heal, but I saw no evidence of any of these problems. Most of the people I talked to were frequent attendees; many proclaimed the festival an annual must.
What is it about church that turns out so very differently for so many people? On the surface, these two things have a great deal in common. Both are seeking to bring people together around a set of ideals. Both appeal to the concept and practice of love. Both want to communicate their visions of how to make the world a better place for the billions who inhabit it. What makes Mountainfilm a resounding success in this pursuit and many churches, well, less successful?
Another way to look at this question might be to ask if there is anything that could cause Mountainfilm attendees to go away hurt and angry. I’m not certain, but I imagine that if the attendees picked on one another, criticizing clothes and hairstyles, that might affect the vibe. What if some people were told that they weren’t welcome because of their gender or sexual orientation? What if only a very narrow range of films were on offer and these promoted a worldview that is more closed than open? What if those attending couldn’t eat what they liked without disapproving glances from everyone else? Or what if everyone showed up with a critical attitude, ready to hate everything they see?
I’ve been perplexed by the issues in churches for as long as I’ve been involved with them at close range. Why are we so eager to criticize each other? Why are we so quick to take offense at almost everything that happens? Why do we not focus more on the high ideals we share and less on the logistics?
Author and director Cheryl Strayed gave one example of putting positivity back into the world at the closing discussion on Monday morning, which happened to be Memorial Day. She told the story of a man who became enraged with her in traffic while she was driving a group of teenagers. She’d accidentally cut him off, and he swore and screamed and called her names. At the next light, she pulled up beside him, rolled down the window, and said, “Sir, I apologize for upsetting you. I can see you’re having a bad day. I hope it gets better.” Completely stunned and disarmed, the man immediately apologized for his behavior: “I should never have spoken to you that way. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Maybe this is all that it would take—simply remembering every day, many times a day, as often as it takes, that those around us are only human. They need love and grace and forgiveness—from God, certainly, but also from us. And we need those things too.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.