Humid late-summer heat clouds the parking lot at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford on an early Friday in August 2021 as SoulFest attendees slowly flock to the mountain from cars and camping spots alike. A woman laughs as she ziplines above me while her friends cheer her on in the distance, and a group of teenagers, trading stories about singing along to Lecrae the night before, rush past me and my friends.
The sense of excitement and the air of anticipation at the welcome center is reminiscent of an airport arrival gate, full of the bustle of reunion hugs and the hustle of future adventures. Family and friends new and old, spanning ages and generations, gather around the mountain base to make plans for the day ahead — like which stage and workshop they want to visit first — some of them planning their second day in the annual three-day fest, and others eagerly looking forward to their first.
Music and the aroma of pad Thai, fried dough, and steak and cheese subs beckon attendees to venture up the hill to the main stage area where the heart of the Christian festival lives and begins.
The unspoken gratitude for a steady, safe place to return to and connect with community after a year of isolation and disruption is tangible. “It’s so good to be back,” a gentleman says to a vendor, smiling as he peruses his table of pamphlets and T-shirts. “I know, it’s so good to see you all again,” the vendor replies. The atmosphere of belonging fueled by the love of God keeps Granite Staters and visitors from around the country coming back year after year, myself included.
High school memories of staking out “our spot” in the shade with friends at the Revival stage, and visiting the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms booth before jamming out to For King & Country flood my mind as I walk the grounds. While I, and many others, have grown and changed over the years between festivals, the SoulFest invitation has always remained the same: Come as you are and be who you are, but be transformed by living inside out as soul-connected, risk-taking believers in God’s love.
“Our hope since starting this festival is that our message would sink in at a soul level and people would leave the weekend changed,” says SoulFest founder and producer Dan Russell. “Whether it’s through connecting with local artists at the Deeper Well Stage, holding a candle during our Candlelight Service, camping with your youth group for the weekend, attending a Soul University workshop, engaging with one of our ministry partners, or hammering a nail into the cross and leaving your failures behind, everything that we do points to the belief that God’s love is real, for everyone, prevails, and is unconditional.”
The first strings of love, history and music were played by Russell as he walked around Gunstock in 1998 with a guitar, the setting emanating God’s creation and the creativity that would one day be set free within it. “I was born in New Jersey, but my parents are from Maine. We took trips up the Kancamagus Highway growing up, and my kids all attended summer camps around New Hampshire, so I know first-hand how special this state is,” recalls Russell. “I noticed that most ski mountains didn’t have much happening in the summer after working at Loon Mountain for many years, so I took my acoustic guitar over to Gunstock and walked around playing it. I knew immediately that it was the venue for SoulFest — it would be the perfect stage for us to bring forward unconditional love by our Creator.”
In 1998, Russell stood on stage between musical acts in front of a crowd of 5,000 to pray and share his desire to connect people to their own souls, inspiring them to use the love within them to stand up for the least of these. Now, 24 years later, he shares the same mission and message with the rest of his team in front of crowds of over 8,000 alongside local talent and headliners like Rend Collective, Casting Crowns, Zach Williams, Skillet and more. The sense of togetherness felt from the microphone at the main stage to the hill at the mountaintop extends far beyond the crowds of heartbeats between them — it starts with the behind-the-scenes-team-turned-family that invites them there.
“Our team is small but mighty,” says Russell. “A lot of our current staff started at SoulFest as part-time employees, volunteers, attendees and college interns, and now they are on-staff producers and managers. Not only is this a great training place for local artists to start and move on to bigger places like Nashville, but it’s a great place for talent of all kinds to get the attention they deserve and jumpstart their careers.”
Tim Messina owes a lot of memories to his time spent at SoulFest but none as sweet as his own company, Events United, being born from it. “I went to the festival as an attendee in 2007, and I happened to be standing near one of the stages when one of the artists heard that I had an audio engineer background and asked me to fix the sound at it,” recalls Messina. “Dan [Russell] happened to be behind me and heard my mix, and asked if I would run one of the stages the following year, and the rest is history. My company has grown since its inception in 2008, and we now have 35 employees and run all the production for the larger stages at the festival.”
Messina and Russell work together to align their visions and values for what the festival is and will continue to be, a place with purpose behind the music. “SoulFest is always an event that we look forward to as a company,” says Messina. “Most of our staff comes, and we spend six days having barbecues and campfires at our production compound backstage — it’s like a reunion every year for those who attend and those who get to work it. It’s great to be able to see friends and all come together to do some-thing that affects thousands outside of it.”
Staff and attendees aren’t the only ones who see the value of the event. Local artists like Ben Laine keep coming back for the love that fills the weekend. “There is a contagious, electric excitement surrounding it that you can’t help but want to be a part of it,” says Laine. “Every single year, I leave the festival with a sense of newness. Being surrounded by so many friends and family who are all gathered to worship is like a spiritual kickstart. The amount of blessing that pours out from the artists and speakers is truly unmatched and makes SoulFest the household name in the area that it is.”
Headliners like Matt Maher and Crowder look forward to attending the festival every year for the ability to reflect the goodness of God and the authentic beauty of the church both on and off the stage. “From our smaller local artists to the bigger names who take the stage over the course of the weekend, we love being able to serve them and make sure their time with us is just a small amount of God’s heart mirrored back to them,” says SoulFest Associate Producer Renna Muhieddin. “Our hope is to create a comfortable environment for them that fosters community and creativity. Whether we are making taco bowls or lobster fritters for our artists at 11 p.m., everyone is always taking care of and looking out for each other.”
It’s hard to miss the current of service moving throughout the weekend and the hunger for connection satiated by the depth of its community. “Community is what drew me to work for SoulFest in 2016,” recalls Muhieddin. “I first went to the festival in 2004, and after seeing how moved people were by the live experience and energy of everyone around them, I remember thinking, ‘I have to do this.’” Muhieddin was asked to stay on full time a few months after starting in a part-time role, and she now works on the festival layout and production map, coordinates vendors, and works to ensure the core focus of community, connection and feeding people’s souls. “We all work hard to get people involved with the community every year and that is what brings repeat attendees back,” notes Muhieddin. “There’s something powerful in the experience of being onsite, connecting with that family in the tarp next to you and meeting someone in the food vendor line who lives in your town.”
While many visit for just one day, the majority make a vacation out of the experience. “There are those who stay at hotels and those who stay at the campground, including our volunteers,” says Muhieddin. “Our campsites often sell out months in advance of the festival. Churches will often buy a few campsites and do church services for their group. Campers love having the opportunity to be able to wake up early and coordinate schedules with new neighbors while making morning plans to go to the mountaintop. There’s a sense of community in the campground and the volunteer campground that doesn’t exist for those who are just commuting in for a day. I know that I love having the quiet and solitude of being in nature, but being able to share that with others is what the festival is all about.”
The conversations around the campfire continue into the weekend through other programs like Soul University, which offers a series of engaging workshops and seminars led by influential leaders in music, ministry, publications, nonprofit organizations and social responsibility. “We bring conversations to the forefront, and invite people to come and dig deeper into looking at identity and relationship to God or matters of injustice,” says SoulFest General Manager Vanessa Ayersman.
“These opportunities give us the space to ask ourselves how we want to show up at the forefront of and get involved in issues like the opioid epidemic, human trafficking, or giving a voice to the voiceless,” she adds. “Connecting with artists and ministry partners helps us to bring people together to share these messages and avenues where we can grow, learn and grow deeper with each other and in faith.”
Ayersman’s first interaction with SoulFest was as an intern for Eastern Nazarene College, which later led her to working for the festival in public relations in 2012 and to her current role as general manager in 2016. “I’ve been blessed to be able to see all sides of the festival over the years, from engaging with the audience to booking speakers to working with ministry partners,” says Ayersman. “Our 2022 partners like VisionTrust, Moody Center, Word of Life and more help us be better and do better, so we can understand God’s love, receive it and become better at sharing it.”
Seminars and breakout sessions are offered each year to help attendees learn about topics such as finances or raising strong foster and adoptive homes.
“Our goal is to give you opportunities between the music throughout the day to pop in and learn about something your local church or community doesn’t have access to. We love being able to educate you toward awareness and connect you with chapters of similar interest so you can take what you learned back to your state and get more plugged in,” says Ayersman.
The power of soulful love in community is also tangible through onsite prayer walls, the true love exchange and a profound festival favorite, the cross ministry. “The physical cross is set up near the main stage for anyone to nail something to the cross that they are struggling with as a way for them to process, let go of that burden, and walk away living freely,” says Ayersman. “By the end of the weekend, it is filled with nails and flowers. People are praying over the weight that others are carrying and holding hands in celebration of those who are choosing to live life free. It’s one of the many beautiful ways you get a glimpse of how God is moving throughout the festival.”
Despite the challenges, last year’s event, though different, was still a hopeful one.
“Even though we spent the summer operating at 50% of our usual internal staff and fewer volunteers than years past, it was inspiring watching how this event in particular was carried on the backs of so many people and how desperate people were to come together,” says Ayersman.
“God shows up through the people of God. As we stood onstage as a staff and watched everyone light their candles for the candlelight service, I kept thinking how important it was that we all keep showing up and lighting our candles, for ourselves and for each other. When someone else’s candle goes out, you go back and light it to keep it going. That’s the power of the gathered church and why we needed to gather together in light of these times — to live as beacons of hope and light for God in a dark world.”
A cool evening breeze makes its way through the crowd, refreshing tired hearts and reviving weary souls as it clears the fog left behind from the heat of the day. Hands and voices lift as one in worship as the sound of peace echoes across the hill between the mountains. Blue and red lights from the stage bounce off the face of a young girl dancing in delight in the aisle, her dad close behind. A group of friends gather around the lit-up cross by the stage, hugging, praying and laughing.
The energetic ambiance and holy setting under the stars radiate God’s presence. I smile looking at my friends and family singing on the picnic blanket in front of me, and Matthew 5:14 comes to mind: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”
As the last song of the night comes to an end, I join my group in picking up my folding chair and cooler in preparation for the long trek back to the car. I pass people exchanging phone numbers, promising to stay in touch, and music still bumping from inside Mercy Street. “Hey, Lee, why do you keep coming to SoulFest after all of these years?” I ask my friend’s dad in between sharing our highlights from the day. “I love being able to share in this little slice of heaven over a weekend on Gunstock Mountain that brings smiles and joy to so many,” he says. “People are loving, kind, gentle and full of goodness. Our family experiences on this mountaintop were so positive over the years that SoulFest became a family tradition, and it will always provide wonderful memories.” I couldn’t agree more.
24th Annual SoulFest 2022
Gunstock Mountain Resort, Gilford
Grab your friends and family to celebrate SoulFest’s last year at Gunstock Mountain Resort. A new location for 2023 will be announced at SoulFest 2022.
This year’s SoulFest will feature over 75 faith-inspired performers and speakers from multiple genres. Grammy and Dove award-winning Christian artists include For King & Country, Crowder, and We the Kingdom. Also confirmed for the 2022 lineup is Anne Wilson, Skillet, Zach Williams, Colton Dixon, and Remedy Drive, among many others listed at thesoulfest.com. Unique to SoulFest, the Songwriter’s Circle will be hosted daily by Christopher Williams at the indoor stage known as Mercy Street, and will feature multiple artists of varying genres to perform together in the round, including notable artists Ben Fuller, Evvie McKinney, Peter Furler, Katy Nichole and others. The 2022 Soul University program will feature a morning stretch with biblical meditation, practical teaching on prayer and soul care, the annual panel addressing suicide prevention, plus a three-part series focused on human trafficking: vulnerability, victimization and victory.
Attendees can participate in a variety of activities for all ages, including an open mic, a guided nature walk, shop faith-oriented and fair-trade vendors and exhibitors, play on inflatables, and enjoy outdoor group games like archery tag, cornhole and giant Jenga. Gunstock offers a zipline, mountain coaster, aerial treetop adventures, camping, swimming and hiking trails. thesoulfest.com