By Chris Willman, Billboard
Pearson & Joshua Fest owners agree the event would not have gone on if he’d stayed in the lineup, due to production team members who threatened to walk. But he made a moving cameo after all.
When Christian rocker Trey Pearson of the band Everyday Sunday came out as a gay man in May, no one assumed it would be a smooth road for him to continue getting the same Christian festival and church bookings he’d enjoyed over the last decade. Just how difficult that path might be came to the fore when Pearson was bumped off the bill at a major festival over Labor Day weekend, in a saga that points to just how conflicted the contemporary Christian music world is over gay issues.
At issue was whether Joshua Fest — an annual three-day gathering in Northern California — could even have gone on if Pearson hadn’t been axed from appearing. Festival organizers and band members say 11 members of the production team threatened to walk out if Pearson went through with his performance, leading to some agonizing last-minute decisions. In the end, there was a sort of happy ending for Pearson, who did finally get to make a cameo onstage. But the soul-searching over the need to take him off the bill didn’t stop with the close of the festival.
Back on Aug. 8, Pearson was publicly trumpeting the import of his booking at Joshua Fest, this year headlined by bands like Switchfoot, Relient K, Skillet and Crowder. “Overwhelmed and honored!” he enthused over Everyday Sunday’s social media channels. “I will be the first openly gay artist to ever play a major Christian music festival!”
But some conservative CCM fans saw it as the wrong kind of breakthrough. “Shame on you, Joshua Fest,” a Disqus user identifying himself as “Apieceofthat” wrote in response to a Religion News Service interview with Pearson. “Mr. Pearson is using a Christian music festival to further his own personal agenda. Sure, he’s not the only sinner to perform. But do you see other artists tweeting, ‘Yay! I’m an adulterer and I get to lead worship at a major Christian music festival!’ Now his performance has become about his sexual deviancy and not about Jesus. Joshua Fest should drop him… I do not want my kids hearing this degenerate on stage. No thanks. We’ll stay home this year. Ticket refund?”
When it turned out that some of those working the festival felt the same way, a crisis ensued. “The information about the stage crew came from our production manager,” Joshua Fest owner Aaron Diello tells Billboard. “There was a team of about 14, and he said that about 11 were going to back out. He was trying to get them to change their minds, but it really put our back against the wall. This was just under two weeks out from the event. All of our staff are volunteers, and none of us are paid. When it comes to production, we have a production manager who is given a shoestring budget. And the fact that this team works the event for cost really put us in a bind to find a knowledgeable team that was available, let alone affordable. The event is Labor Day weekend, so you can imagine how hard it would have been to find a team that was experienced and available.” Diello describes the production members who threatened to walk as “a group of guys that are stagehands at many of Northern California’s Christian concerts. They’ve been really good to us over the years, and I’m not going to call them haters. They’re good guys that need more Jesus.”
Calling Pearson to tell him he was off the bill was no easy task for Diello. “Everyday Sunday had played almost every year of the festival for the past decade. We had booked them for tours, hung out on RV rides after shows, even played Halo together back in the day. … We knew it would be controversial. But we also knew that if we were going to claim to be a festival that proclaims the love of Jesus, to everyone, then our friend needed to be included in that proclamation.” Faced with a choice between his friend and his festival, “I was hurt. I felt like I was powerless in the situation — like I was just punched in the gut. I was forced to let down a friend, someone that I really wanted to just love and support, the way Jesus tells us to. I was being denied that opportunity, at my own festival. It was a horrible situation.”
Rumors about Pearson’s ouster began circulating, as Everyday Sunday suddenly disappeared from the Joshua Fest website. Pearson didn’t respond to press inquiries ahead of the festival, because he “didn’t want to paint the festival in a bad light,” he says. “The owners are awesome and their hearts are awesome and that’s why they were inviting me in the first place. There was no way they would have been able to have the festival. If they keep me, I’m not going to perform anyway, because the festival is not even going to happen, and the festival owners are going to lose probably hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Resigned as he was to the show going on without him, Pearson didn’t cancel his plane ticket from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio (where he recently played at the city’s annual pride festival, his first gig outside the Christian circuit). He remains friends with members of Switchfoot and Relient K, two of the Joshua Fest headliners, and looked forward to seeing them. Then he got a call from one of the members of Five Iron Frenzy, a ska-punk band he says he grew up on, which recently reunited after a long layoff.
“They were like, ‘Hey, what would you think about coming up and singing our last song with us’ — ‘Every New Day,’ which is one of their biggest songs,” Pearson says. “They were a band that I went to tons of their concerts in high school and looked up to, and so to have them ask me to do that was amazing. They checked with the owners first, and we all decided — it’s not me doing my own set, but it’s still a way that I can go up there and be a part of the festival. So it turned out to be a really beautiful thing. I think there were a couple of surprised looks that I was there by a couple of people who didn’t want me there, but everybody was friendly. Of course I wish I could have done my own set, but in some ways this almost felt more powerful, because it was this band that I looked up to growing up that a lot of the fans looked up to, and all these guys from the other bands, too, standing with me in love.”
Five Iron Frenzy drummer Andrew Verdecchio says that, despite consulting with the festival owners, the band otherwise “played this one pretty close to our vest,” for fear that there might still be a walkout “if we made a stink about it or there was a rumor going around we were going to do that. … Having Trey come up on ‘Every New Day,’ which is sort of our worship anthem at the end of every set, I think made a pretty big statement. Like, he believes in the same God you do, but you’re going to excommunicate him because of his sexuality?”
The band’s singer, Reese Roper, says that “we had all talked as a band about just dropping off of [the festival], just to make a statement, like if you’re not gonna let him play, then we’re not gonna play. We don’t like to deal with that kind of intolerance. Especially to me, if you’re espousing being full of the love of Christ, that’s just not how you do it.” In the end, “I think it was very positive. I see on our Facebook page just a lot of people saying, ‘Thanks for doing that.’ I really wish we could do more. I feel like the church is just hemorrhaging over this issue, and it bothers me so much to know that what we choose to do with the love of Christ is to ostracize people. If you talk to the guys in my mind, I think there’s a gamut of feelings about homosexuality and whether or not it’s sinful, or what a sin is” — from Verdecchio, who has become an atheist since joining the band, partly due to his changing feelings about the church’s treatment of homosexuality, to other members who maintain more traditionally evangelical viewpoints. “Personally,” says Roper, “I feel like the Bible is not clear enough on it to say. But I do know that it is clear that we are to love each other as Christ loved us, and I don’t think the church is doing that.”
While hoping for a less harrowing Joshua Fest 2017, Diello is seeing the good in how things worked out. “I believe that everything happened the way it was supposed to happen,” the festival owner says. “God took a bad situation and made it glorify him. Maybe not the way Trey and myself foresaw or wanted it to pan out, but if it didn’t happen the way it did, then I think the result would have been different, maybe even manufactured or forced. We really got to see something raw and unique happen to the core of people’s souls. I think there’s a lot of annihilated kids out there that need the politics and theological debates of the church shelved. Jesus showed up in a powerful way during that performance. People were in tears, and not in a crazy Pentecostal way. Something bigger than us and our issues happened at that show.”