Burning Man's spiritual marketplace

Lightmatter burningmanFrappa Stout of The Washington Times wrote a tasty feature story about Burning Man this year, concentrating on the wide variety of believers she found there. Stout offers several examples in her 1,700-word story, so she lingers on each person for only a few paragraphs. She is not patronizing, and reports some wonderfully humorous details in a deadpan style. Here were my favorite passages:

Jack Fertig, a Muslim, posted a notice on a Burning Man Web forum: "Not a single Muslim responded, but I got lots of very weird hate responses," he says. "You sort of expect that on any kind of Internet discussion, where you have less intelligent people writing bigoted stuff. But I didn't expect that from the Burning Man community."

Kathleen "Madi" Hollingsworth says she grew up "uber-Christian" in New Hampshire: "Ms. Hollingsworth prefers not to talk directly about God during her Burning Man services, because she wants people to interpret them in a way that's right for them."

The Black Rock City Jewish Community Center's Shabbat service is "a lively celebration of song and dance whose attendees are far from traditional -- there was a young woman in red devil horns, a guy in a pirate hat and a young rapper performing 'hip-hop Shabbat' this year -- is unique in that it draws Jews from across the spectrum."

Jess Michalik, "a recent graduate of Harvard's Divinity School and a devoted Christian, has created art projects for the last two years and says he does it to 'show people that there is more in the world, something bigger than ourselves and our material belongings.'"

Rich Mackin leads Zen Buddhist chants: "Some people wouldn't go into a temple, but they'll see a guy on the playa with reddish-purple hair leading chanters, and it takes away some of the scariness."

Catherine Gacad, a Catholic, reverses the popular "I'm spiritual but not religious" formula of our times: "I don't get on my knees or clasp my hands together -- it's just in my head. But if I did those things, I would certainly make sure I was in my tent so no one would see me," says Miss Gacad, 32, whose parents are from the Philippines, a largely Catholic country. "There is this mind-set that Burning Man and burners are open and welcoming. That's true to a certain extent, but I find that people have to be spiritual and liberal to be accepted. I'm not spiritual, I'm just plain religious."

As one of not so many journalists who reported on the first Planetary Mass in San Francisco, I've always felt a curiosity about life at Burning Man, but I've been kept away by a few factors -- introversion, discomfort about being in crowds, a flat-out hatred of summer heat (whether of the humid or dry variety), and a fondness for remaining clothed in public. Thanks to Frappa Stout for this glimpse into Burning Man's alternate reality.

Photo by Aaron Logan, with permission.

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