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Cornerstone Festival's Beginnings (An Interview with Festival Director, John Herrin)
Jim Wormington

Cornerstone Festival 2006 is history. 

As an event that is now 23 years old, Cornerstone does, in fact, have a history.

According to Festival Director, John Herrin, it had its beginnings in 1972 when around “twenty-five people in an old bus” decided to “hit the road for about 2 years” to play their brand of Christian rock music anywhere anybody would let them. 

The traveling band was then called Resurrection Band. John was the drummer while his older sister, Wendi, sang backup and lead vocals alongside her husband, Glenn Kaiser. 

“We definitely started the band very much with the idea that it was a ministry. We were excited about our faith and we wanted to share our faith,” John said. 

These core people, products of the Jesus People Movement in the 60’s and 70’s, would eventually form Jesus People USA, now called JPUSA. (JPUSA operates in Chicago, both as “an intentional Christian community and as a worshipping church.”)

In the late seventies/early eighties, “Christian music events were popping up and Resurrection Band was getting invited to a few of them,” John said. While they saw these events as worthwhile their group could see a segment of youth weren’t really being reached by the mostly overly-sanitized music. These kids thought the music was corny and that adult Christians were “out of touch with what was going on around them.”

“Christian radio,” John said, was “in its fledgling state” and Resurrection Band (having grown up on Led Zeppelin) “wasn’t fitting into the Christian music scene at that time.” 

The time had come for the growing community to create a Christian music festival they’d want to attend and one, they hoped and believed, would appeal to that unreached group of young people.

The first Cornerstone Festival was held in Grayslake, IL, on the Lake County Fairgrounds, in 1984. Around 5,000 attended. 

In those early years bands like Undercover, Degarmo & Key, Petra, Altar Boys, 77s, and REZ (the new name for Resurrection Band) rocked the festival.

As surrounding farmlands fell victim to urban sprawl, changes in Grayslake city limits presented problems for the festival. City officials said Cornerstone was welcome to stay but that all music would have to move indoors after 7 p.m. 

After holding the festival in Grayslake for seven years it was time to move on.

Acquiring the Bushnell farm was the answer to the music curfew problem and it gave festival staff the freedom to create space and time for more in-depth teaching as well as art and film exhibits. 

Twenty-three years is a long time. Things change in that amount of time. Has Cornerstone changed?

“The event, every so often, has to come back to its roots which is really ministering to teenagers, and there’s always some sense of loss with that. There’s this turnover that happens.” A young person, he explained, who attends C-Stone for 5, 6 or 10 years may no longer be a so young and the bands he or she first came to see may not exist or be what’s “hot” to the current crop of teenagers. 

People come back after not attending for a few years and they miss the old bands. 

John said the festival staff try to address that by bringing back older bands (such as 77s, Altar Boys and Lost Dogs) when they can. They continue to support singer-songwriters like Over the Rhine and Rosie Thomas which tend to appeal to older audiences.

What makes John feel the most gratified about the fest? 

“There are many people who came here as teenagers. They came for a number of years, ended up going off to college, getting married and they drifted away from the fest. Then they come back and now they have one or two kids themselves and they’re introducing them to the festival. That’s encouraging to me. I enjoy watching the cycle.” 

This year as many as 20,000 people passed in and out of the gates. Hundreds of bands played (scheduled and unscheduled); dozens of speakers presented seminars and lead prayers; art was made and observed; films were watched and discussed; and sports (festival-sponsored and spontaneous) were indulged in. 

In the midst of it all a wide cross-section of people came together to share an experience of music, life and faith in the unique celebration that is Cornerstone Festival.

Whatever may divide us--denominations or doctrine, hairstyles or music styles, mission statements or statements on T-shirts--John reminds us that Cornerstone is, “A chance for us to get together and enjoy what we have in common.” 

One faith. One Lord. 

Happy 23rd birthday, Cornerstone Festival.

Sing with me now: “And many more.”

PS: My favorite Cornerstone T-shirt was, "I lost my mom in the mosh pit."


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