For God So Loved the World

Evangelicals and other faithful preach the green gospel

| July/August 2001

'Nnugh!' cries the llama.

'C’mon, Oochoo,' says Peter Illyn. 'We’ll go get some water.' The llama steps out of its trailer and onto the sawdust paths of the Skamania County, Washington, fairgrounds. Oochoo’s ears flick in the direction of a nearby stage where a thrashcore band is fret-noodling for Jesus as part of Tomfest 2000, an annual Christapalooza that draws 5,000 pierced and tattooed evangelical Christians to the banks of the Columbia River for five days of headbanging fellowship. Illyn, a 42-year-old former Foursquare Gospel preacher from the southwestern Washington town of La Center, is here trolling for environmental converts. Oochoo is bait.

'Hey, llama!'

'Can I ride him?'

Once Oochoo draws a crowd, Illyn goes to work. 'We’re out here talking to people about the environment and how God’s word calls for stewardship of his domain,' he tells the llama-entranced kids. 'I work with a group called Target Earth—we’re all about serving the earth and serving the poor. You’ve heard of Earth First? We’re like Earth Third: We were made to love God, love people, and love creation. Environmental stewardship is part of our calling as Christians, but the church has remained silent for so many years that we’ve defaulted to New Age pagans and industrialists.' The kids nod vaguely. This is the first time many of them have heard that environmentalism mixes with the Lord. Their naïveté is almost touching. They’re not sure what to make of Illyn. With his husky frame, unruly shock of dark brown hair, full beard, and fire-eater’s growl, he could pass for a Neil Young roadie.

Discuss ecoreligion at the Spirit conference in Café Utne's:
Illyn and Oochoo work the crowd, spreading shaggy-coated charisma and the green gospel with phrases like 'creation care' and 'serving the earth.' Still, Illyn’s biggest targets are the musicians. 'A few words from the stage can really set us up,' he confides. He’s got an M.B.A. in marketing, so he knows the dynamics of his selling situation. A guy passing out pamphlets—he’s a freak. Give him a llama, he’s a curiosity. Give him a shout-out from a hot new band, he’s the downest dude at Tomfest.

Illyn comps a sticker—YOUR SOUL NEEDS THE WILD—to a dreadlocked holy hip-hopper named Dirt, then greets a bare-chested young man wearing wraparound Oakleys and a cross around his neck. 'Didn’t I see you hiking along the river?' Illyn asks.

'That was me. Nearly made myself sick eating blackberries. Is my tongue still purple?' He sticks it out for inspection: purple as Prince. The berry junkie turns out to be John Paul Peters, 24-year-old guitarist for the Winnipeg punk-pop band The Undecided. 'I’m definitely concerned about the wild,' he tells Illyn. 'We’re driving home tomorrow, and I talked the guys into letting me have a couple hours in Yellowstone.'

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