More than 9,000 people are expected to flow through the Harrisonburg International Festival this Saturday (09/27/14) swaying to music from a half-dozen areas of the world, partaking of food from multi-cultures, perusing international crafts, wearing or viewing national costumes, and making unity flags at a booth staffed by Eastern Mennonite University, one of the festival’s sponsors.
All of EMU’s first-semester, first-year students are required to attend the festival – surely one of the most fun “requirements” a student could have. The university is providing free shuttle transportation from the Campus Commons to the festival site at Hillandale Park every half hour, from the time the festival opens at noon to its 6 p.m. closing. (On-site parking is restricted – check the festival website for more details.)
“We believe your hearts will be enlarged with the love you will find here, where smiles and hugs and beats that set your feet to dancing will re-energize your spirits in the beauty we share together,” say the festival co-chairs, Vauna Brown and David Kreider, on the event website. (Kreider, who has been a festival organizer for a number of years, holds three degrees from EMU.)
In this, its 17th year, the festival is recognized as an annual tradition in Harrisonburg, perhaps the most ethnically diverse city in Virginia. Harrisonburg is also one of the most harmoniously livable cities in America by many published accounts. Festival organizers believe this is not a coincidence.
“We have a lot of refugees in our community because of the Anabaptist movements and the responsibilities they feel to help refugees settle here in our community,” explains Brown. In the early years of refugee re-settlement, “some of the churches had monthly potlucks and during those potlucks they would sit around and have a brainstorming about what they could do to [further] help.” From this brainstorming came the idea of a festival.
Local civic leaders – from the hospitals to the educational systems to city government – have not only endorsed the festival, they have stepped up to help create a hospitable climate in Harrisonburg. This year’s list of 59 official sponsors reads like a business and non-profit “Who’s Who” of Harrisonburg, with two of the top eight sponsors being EMU and the Fairfield Center, founded and directed by EMU alumni.
“This year we are really focusing on unity and on the richness of our differences, which bring us together into a whole,” says Heidi Jablonski, an 2014 EMU grad who is assisting Brown and Kreider. “These differences draw people together to make the valley such an interesting and dynamic place.”
EMU’s Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir will sing with a renowned children’s performer, Jose-Luis Orozco, at 2:15 p.m. This is one of the eight musical performances of the day, which wraps up with the dance-rhythms of a new Eritrean band, Zara.
Laura Amstutz of EMU’s seminary is coordinating the making of unity flags, which are somewhat akin to Tibetan prayer flags. “This is a community art project for anyone – children, teenagers, adults – anyone is welcome at the ‘peace and justice area’ close to Pavilion 12,” she said.
“Participants will get a blank square of fabric and they will be able to put on symbols or prayers or poems that talk about unity,” said Amstutz. “Then, if they want, they can take them with them. Or they can pin them on pieces of string, which will be hung around the pavilion.” She noted that this activity fits with EMU’s focus on peacebuilding.
The festival also provides opportunities for fledgling entrepreneurs to get their start, says Brown, pointing out that at least three restaurants – the Blue Nile, Taste of Thai, and A Bowl of Good – got their first exposures at past festivals.