Tom Petty? Dave Matthews Band? John Mayer? The Black Crowes? Headliners? You call those headliners? Pfffth! While those acts may have drawn nearly a hundred thousand people as the main attractions at last weekend’s Mile High Music Festival, those cats have got nothing on Heaven Fest’s headliner. The Son of Man. The Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. I’m talking about J-E-S-U-S here, friends.
“At the end of the day’s festivities when the sun sets behind the Rocky Mountains and the sky turns to purple, The Main Event of Heaven Fest will begin,” promises a description on the festival’s site. “During this Main Event, you will not see a ‘big’ band, a celebrity or someone worth talking about. Instead, a nameless, faceless worship band, along with tons of worshipers and pray-ers from around Colorado, will take the stage. There will be no video cameras and no photographers. What happens on that field will only be captured with your mind’s eye. We’re going to give you time to speak with the living God and to hear His voice. We are going to welcome the Holy Spirit of God to do what only He can do as we worship and boldly retell the message of Jesus… not watered down. Prepare yourself and come with expectancy in your heart toward Jesus.”
This is clearly not just another festival. Luke Bodley, Heaven Fest’s founder and executive director, describes the event as the Colorado Christian Woodstock (more like the Colorado equivalent of Cornerstone or Creation, but who’s quibbling?), and says the primary goal of the first-year festival – which takes place this Saturday, July 26, on seventy acre of barren field on the grounds of Northern Hills Christian Church, just west of Brighton -- is to honor God with no hidden agenda.
“I just think a lot of things with Christianity,” he explains. “There isn’t pure motives or there doesn’t appear to be pure motives, because every time you go to do something, there’s a big donate button. I’m just talking about Christian culture. There’s always money involved. You turn on the television or the radio, it’s always preaching, then asking for money. What we wanted to do, is we want to be givers, to give first without expecting anything in return. And that’s the whole point.”
To that end, Bodley and the non-profit group he’s part of, Worship and the Word Movement, will be donating proceeds from the event to Denver’s Road Home and to Home of Refuge, an organization that supports orphanages in Nicaragua. “I don’t know if you’ve been following what’s been going on down there, but they’re having to buy rice off the black market,” Bodley says. “The dictator there is not funding orphanages any more and almost going against them. Parking here will be five dollars, or whatever you can afford, and all proceeds will go to home and refuge orphanages.”
Whatever you can afford: That could just as well be the festival’s tagline. Bodley and his associates are putting their money where their mouth is and have given away 5,000 tickets to folks who otherwise couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t be able to attend. Likewise, inspired by Keith Green’s refusal to charge for his concerts and allowing fans to name their price for his merchandise in the late-‘70s, the organizers are offering tickets to the fest for $29 – or whatever people can afford. No one will be turned away.
“What irritates me most is the monetization of Christian culture,” says Bodley. “There’s a Christian culture out there that you can make money off of -- those testamints you can buy in Christian book stores, little Jesus key chains. I’m just sick of all that crap. Heaven Fest is all about doing something that has no ulterior motive, other than to bring a lot of people together and make Jesus the headliner.”
As noble a sentiment as this might seem to fellow believers, the concept must’ve seemed incongruous to the artists. I mean, finishing their sets before dark -- sundown is normally when the biggest acts of the day take the stage.
“From a logistical standpoint, it was a hard sell to the bands,” Bodley admits. “They initially wanted to be the headliners in the top spots when the sun is going down. Some of the larger bands even wanted to bring in some pretty amazing productions at their expense, and we had to tell them no. And the main reason was because we wanted something that transcends this whole pop Christian thing of, ‘Let’s all have this emotional experience.’
“What we wanted to do was to take all of that out, so that we know, if anything happens, that it was God,” he continues. “So we took that all out. There’s no fog. No flashing lights. We’re not going to be asking for donations. There’s not going to be a video camera trying to capture the move of God, quote,unquote. There’s not going to be photographers. We’re going to ask people to turn off their cellphones. A faceless worship band is going to be backlit. What we want is a special time where we simply ask the Lord to come and be with us. And if he shows up and things happen, it’s God. It would have nothing to do with us psychologically trying to manipulate people into a certain action or raising their hands or getting on their knees.”
Bodley knows a thing or two about divine intervention. Less than a decade ago, he was a drug-addled rave promoter -- until one day, he reached a breaking point.
“I started out in the rave scene in 2000, just doing massive amounts of X and drugs,” he recounts. “I got arrested for doing X and K in October 2000. I was involved with a group of people that were just dangerous drug-users, not your typical recreational drug-users. We were the drug-users who other drug users looked at and said, ‘Whoa, you guys have a problem.’ I was blowing $400 a week easy on weed and K and acid and shrooms and whatever we could get our hands on.
“I think after a couple of years of that,” he muses, “you just get to the point where you’re like, ‘What in the world am I doing?’ Your whole life is made up of going to work and getting completely trashed until the next time you have to go to work. It really took coming to a sobering point, and I just basically decided to break all ties. I left it completely. I had to leave the rave scene for quite a bit, left all my friends and just completely got out of there. Cold turkey, I quit everything. It was really by the grace of God that I was able to get out of that.”
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In 2006, after being clean for a number of years and having fulfilled the obligations of his probation, Bodley found himself back in the music world, performing as DJ Life. Having just attended the Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles, he headed to Bushnell, Illinois, to perform at that year’s Cornerstone Festival. On the way back here, he came up with the idea for Heaven Fest, and set about making plans.
A short while later, Dave Powers, one of Bodley’s childhood friends, suggested that the pair work together on the event, with Bodley bringing Heaven Fest under the Worship and the Word Movement’s umbrella. After prayerful consideration, Bodley joined forces with Powers and the two, along with a staff of directors and board members, began crafting plans to host the inaugural festival. Two years in the making, the event isn’t the be-all-and-end-all in terms of talent (the biggest names on this year’s bill are Jeremy Camp and Skillet, mid-level artists even by Christian standards), but Bodley knows you’ve got to start somewhere.
“In the music industry, the term ‘first-year festival,’ sends shivers down the backs of agents and managers,’ says Bodley. “When we were ready to buy [talent], nine or ten of our offers were turned down, strictly based on the fact that they didn’t know who we were and we were a first-year festival. Getting who we got actually took a few phone calls from one of the founders of the Christian Festival Association. The Christian Festival Organization is made up of Cornerstone, Creation, Spirit West, all those festivals, and it took him calling in favors to make them budge. Even then, they didn’t accept our offers until two months after we submitted them.”
Nonetheless, Bodley and company are committed to making this an annual event, and are hopeful that over the next year and in the years to come, Heaven Fest will continue to grow. -- Dave Herrera