Grooming Hope at the Wild Goose Festival

It’s easy to be hopeless these days, and being greeted by a pair of maybe recovering meth users at the door of a dismal Days Inn in the middle of nowhere in western North Carolina challenges hope. But I’ve been hanging out at the Wild Goose Festival for a few days and that collection of out-of-the-mainstream Jesus followers gathered well off the beaten path swings back hard at hopelessness.

Here in the foothills of the Appalachians I’m mostly trying to find scraps of shade to escape the 95-degree sun baking the grassy hillside where the Goose has gathered. I’m staffing a table for Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and the Guns-to-Gardens campaign. My partners in hope this weekend are Scotty Utz, a Presby-Quaker-blacksmith-artist and raconteur who beats gun parts into garden tools, and Keith Curl-Dove, a 30-year-old woodworking-banjo-playing Presby pastor serving two small congregations that jointly host gun surrender events.

Having a blacksmith working at a forge in the heat of the day is a sure-fire way to attract festival goers, especially kids. That we’re right down the slope from a tent that hosted a joyous drag-queen story hour has me wondering about the narrative around “grooming” that has become dominant in many Right-wing spaces in the past few years.

I’m old enough to remember when the only public discourse about grooming was focused either on pets or hair-care products for middle-age men. If you encounter the word outside of commercial spaces these days it usually means adults trying to manipulate kids. In Right-wing spaces, it means adults manipulating kids to think –.

I was going to write “to think differently about gender, sexuality, and race” but stopping at “think” gets closer to the truth, and, it should go without saying that “manipulate” is used pejoratively to mean “unfairly controlling someone to your advantage.”

Watching Scotty (pictured above) work the hot metal of a rifle barrel into a garden tool, however, reminded me that the etymology of manipulate traces back to the Latin manus, or hands. It refers to skillful hand-work or handling. It means molding something useful or beautiful out of the material at hand.

It is, as Jeremiah understood, the work of the potter with clay. It is, as any parent or teacher knows, the work of raising children, and, especially with younger ones, it is hands-on work.

I dreamed last night that I was teaching my grandson to swim. That dream is scheduled to come true next month, in fact, and in the real world as in the dream it will be hands-on. I will hold him as he learns to trust the water and his own body in the water. I will also encourage him with gentle words. I will manipulate him with support and love. I hope I am grooming him for a lifetime of safe enjoyment of water.

So, yeah, I have a dream in which elders pass along wisdom with kindness and a loving hand. I dream a world in which every church parking lot is a safe-surrender site for unwanted guns, and that kids see that and are groomed to live in a world where power does not flow from the end of a gun. I dream a world in which every church works a community garden, and kids see it and are groomed for a world where plant seeds replace prison cells. I dream a world in which every church parking lot has free e-vehicle charging stations, and that kids see it and are groomed for a fossil-free economy. I dream a world in which every church is a peace church, and kids are groomed to live in a world free from war.

I was thinking about all of this as Keith carved and I sanded handles for the tools Scotty forged. We were manipulating metal and wood to mold something useful in the world. We were grooming hope.