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Eclectic fans start to make the Sonshine grounds their playgrounds

Hal Bohrer of Hosanna Lutheran Church of Mankato helps set up a tent Wednesday for Sonshine Festival on grounds near Willmar Civic Center. The tent promptly blew over. Tribune photo by Eric Ludy

WILLMAR -- Smack in the middle of Tent City, with impromptu volleyball matches forming and gusts of wind blowing small tents into larger ones, Taylor Tefft sets up an artificial Christmas tree as "Oh Holy Night" blasts out of a loudspeaker.

"It's the Ghost of Killer's Christmas past," she says of her campsite's theme.

Don't ask.

Tefft and the group from the Eagle Brook churches of the Twin Cities metropolitan area were just one of the thousands setting up temporary homes at the Sonshine grounds in preparation for the festival's official start today.

The annual Christian music festival offered a free concert Wednesday night as a warm-up. Events today through Saturday are expected to bring more than 20,000 to Willmar.

Everyone from veteran rockers to first-time visitors, evangelists with a higher mission to folks just here for a good time have gathered into one big eclectic community at the festival grounds near the Willmar Civic Center.

For whatever reason, the Eagle Brook church group has chosen a Christmas theme this year for their compound of tents. It does seem appropriate, though, given that to this group, Sonshine trumps the winter holiday.

"To me, this is way better than Christmas," said Tefft. "Doesn't everyone agree that Sonshine is better than Christmas?" she yelled to the group of a dozen or so festival goers around her -- to resounding approval.

The group of around 20 has been converging here every summer for four years. With each year bringing an infusion of younger members, they now span nearly a decade, beginning with Tefft, age 16, all the way to Jim Kramer, age 25.

"I'm the pretend chaperone," said Kramer. "They don't know it. Their parents do, though," he said of his younger companions.

As of Wednesday morning, the chaperone for Jordan Friedlein and Tim Wick, both 16, had yet to arrive.

They could have used him as they attempted to set up a massive tent between gusts of wind.

"A four-room tent, are you kidding me?" griped Wick, before giving it up, opting instead to wait for other members of their group to show up.

Members of the Hosanna Lutheran Church of Mankato didn't fare much better in setting up their site. After painstakingly setting up one of many tents, a gust of wind promptly blew it over.

"It says easy-up, but it's not so easy," said Josh Quittem.

This is the Hosanna group's 10th annual trip to Willmar for the festival. Hal Bohrer said the group of more than 40 enjoys the festival not only for the music, but also for the chance to just sit around and socialize.

"It's a good time to just hang out with friends," he said.

Nearby, third-time festival visitor Kiersten LaPatka of Elam Baptist church of Anoka was here with a much more sober task at hand.

"This year, for evangelism," she said of her reason for coming back to the festival.

She said too many Christians, particularly those at Sonshine, don't view the words of the Bible with appropriate seriousness. She plans to spread that message to her neighbors throughout the four days of the festival.

"God's law is not just a set of guidelines. They are rules you need to practice and live out," she said.

Sonshine co-founder Bob Poe said the reason so many keep coming back year after year is simple: It has become an annual ritual, and rituals are hard to break.

"It's become sort of a tradition," he said. "There's a handful who have been here since the very beginning."