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Sonshine Festival 2006: Christian music event opens its 25th year today

By Chris Vondracek intern@wctrib.com Festivals the size of Sonshine have got to start somewhere. They don't just pop up overnight. Especially not in a prairie town in Minnesota. Depending upon who is talking, the roots of the Sonshine Festival di...

By Chris Vondracek

intern@wctrib.com

Festivals the size of Sonshine have got to start somewhere. They don't just pop up overnight. Especially not in a prairie town in Minnesota.

Depending upon who is talking, the roots of the Sonshine Festival differ slightly. That's understandable; memories tend to go fuzzy over a quarter of a century.

The Christian music festival is now celebrating its 25th year and three of its co-founders are still active as festival directors: Bob Poe, Gary Crowe and Linda Westberg. They're not positive of the details surrounding their baby's birth. The details are arguably not entirely relevant to their current mission -- and not easy to recall when a truckload of golf carts is being shipped in, the caterer needs ice and the main stage is rising.

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But Tuesday afternoon the three each took time from setting up for the festival -- expected to draw well over 20,000 people and bring in close to 120 bands -- to take a sentimental trip back to the festival's beginnings.

The organizers

Bob Poe, director for the Youth for Christ in Willmar, is easy to find in a crowd. He's the guy with the tanned bald head and he is usually in the middle of something, be it a group of volunteers or a stage crew. His jurisdiction is organizing the musical production. This a good fit for him, because as he said, "music gives him energy."

"It's always been music," Poe said. "I'm guessing part of the human nature is to find music and make it apart of our lives."

Poe said he never had much talent in music. He played instruments: trombone, piano, guitar and drums, but nothing ever really stuck. But, while in his mid-teens, a youth pastor introduced him to contemporary Christian music and he embraced it.

"It (music) had such a power and influence in me," he said.

Embarking upon a music festival for youth with a Christian stamp of approval seemed like a logical extension of two passions: leading young people in their faith and sharing music.

It was the reciprocation he didn't expect.

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"We never really anticipated that it would grow to be a national festival," he said.

Gary Crowe was along from the beginning, as well. He now helps with facility management and organizing the vendors. In the pre-festival mill of workers, Crowe can be spotted as the guy with the lightly-tanned cowboy hat fixed atop his head. He was one of around 45 people who met for the festival's very first meeting (although he says no one at that time characterized it as such) during the summer of 1981.

"We were looking at doing a one-day event where we could bring in some Christian music and artists," Crowe said. "The churches in the area do a lot of things, but we wanted to do a community thing."

The group met in the back room of McMillan's Restaurant. As the meetings progressed, the membership dwindled so that by December of 1981 less than 10 die-hards remained. If the limited resources weren't enough to derail the concept, Crowe said the group's lack of industry knowledge was laughable.

He said he remembers Poe and himself going into Christian bookstores and checking the back of albums to find phone numbers to contact Christian artists about playing at the show.

They soon fixed July 1982 as the festival date and began courting local churches and individuals for donations. By showtime, they had enough musicians and speakers to fill a Saturday.

"We went out on a limb," he said. "A big limb."

Linda Westberg said she knows it was a risk, but she also had faith in the project. A woman she knew through a prayer group told her about a dream the woman had had in which she saw thousands of kids praising the Lord on the top of a hill.

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Westberg is the head of hospitality. She looks out to make sure artists and volunteers are taken care of so they can do their job.

For her, that vision has been her guiding force from the beginning through the present day.

"The vision has never changed," she said.

The beginning

The first year the festival was held on the grounds of Ridgewater College and drew 1,800 people. A year later the crowd grew to 5,500. By 1984, they had 8,000 people in attendance.

But numbers alone don't convey the significance of the festival. As attendance has grown, Sonshine has retained its original focus on youth and music.

With acts varying from gospel to hardcore to hip-hop, Sonshine reaches across the teenage demographic. The bands that perform at Sonshine deliver a positive message through their lyrics, Poe said.

Last year's headliner was Switchfoot, a band that has found popularity with both Christian and secular audiences. Bands that have "switched over," Poe said, will give a message of hope and love. Other bands are expected to share their Christian faith.

"Most of the bands are writing songs about their belief in God," he said.

Speakers are included to drive home any message that may be lost in the music. Poe said they include at least a few, "just to make sure we make clear why we're here."

Though the festival draws all ages and backgrounds, their target audience is still teens ages 13 to 17. That specific focus, along with a festival that is mostly music-oriented -- not 50 percent speakers and 50 percent music as many other festivals are -- has helped the Sonshine Festival stand out among the crowd of Christian music festivals.

Kevin Cox has been attending a lot of festivals over the years. Up until seven years ago, he was head of catering at many of the major Christian music gatherings. But when he stopped doing it, he wanted to hang on to one festival. And it had to be Sonshine, he said.

"You can really feel the spirit of God here," he said. "This is the top one (festival) in the country."

Generations

After 25 years, Sonshine has gained the generational appeal that links parents and their children. During mealtime on Tuesday, one of Westberg's grandsons handed out ketchup and mustard packets to hungry volunteers. Their mom, Westberg's daughter, is a volunteer and has been for a long time.

"Couples that met here are bringing their teenagers back," Westberg said, a sentiment that was echoed by Crowe.

The festival, however, has not been without doubters. During the festival's infancy, Crowe said the community was slow to embrace what they were doing. Making money off Christian music struck some as a questionable practice. Someone, at some point, was getting rich off this, was the general criticism, said Crowe.

But part of that thinking is understandable, Crowe said. Not because he agrees with them, but rather because he and his partners are not ones to gloat about what they do with the Sonshine profits.

"There are a lot of people and organizations who have benefited from Sonshine in different years," Crowe said. "But we do it very quietly."

He said his biggest thrill is when Sonshine makes a profit, because then they can pass the money along to local and global ministries. His own orphanage in India resulted out of a ministry in India that Sonshine used to support with resources earned off the summer festival.

He also said the ticket prices, running upward of $70, are necessary to cover the immense five-stage productions and army of bands. A ticket for seeing the Newsboys at the Target Center would cost from $25 to $55, he said. Seeing the Newsboys, plus 120 other bands, makes the Sonshine ticket a deal, he said.

The ever-brightening appeal of Sonshine, however, has put Willmar on the map, the directors said. Stories have been passed on to them about the immediate recognition of Sonshine with Willmar when someone from Willmar pays with a check, or mentions where they are from.

In return, the people of Willmar, including volunteers and government offices, have become annual supporters of the festival.

"It's just amazing to watch everyone come together," he said.

Amazement does seem to be the best description of the directors as they prepare for the 2006 festival and recount its history.

"The kids are amazing," Westberg said. "That's why we keep doing it."

Crowe, Westberg and Poe said they plan on continuing with the festival for as long as they can. Their initial push for a small summer event in Willmar may not have been with the expectation for what Sonshine has become, but they aren't looking back now.

"To be part of a large crowd like this is making a statement not just for Willmar but for the state of Minnesota and beyond," Poe said. "It's incredible."

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