Hear Me Out: A South-African Mini-moot
Didn’t get Hutchmoot tickets this year? Ever found yourself dreaming about starting your own “rabbity” gathering, but feeling like it is beyond your ability? Amy Jo Stimson and Steph Ebert discuss their experience creating an in-person gathering called a “Mini-moot” in their small town of Hilton, South Africa. In the following conversation, they share their introduction to Hutchmoot, their experiences with the virtual conference during the global pandemic, and what it took to get their gathering off of the ground in 2022.
Stephanie Ebert: Wendell Berry, in Hannah Coulter, shares the famous line, “You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”
Berry is constantly calling us to dig into the present: to the local community right where we are, to these bodies, these hands, this place. Sometimes, as a dreamer and a wisher, and an art-maker, this can be difficult. I think back to places I’ve lived and communities I have been a part of: late-night conversations about philosophy until 2 am in college, being knee to knee with fellow pilgrims on El Camino De Santiago in Spain, passing the wine bottles down the table and laughing at the stories and challenges of the day, or that one time I went to Oxford for a few weeks and got to read Victorian Children’s Literature.
Amy Jo Stimson: When beginning our Mini-moot journey last year, there was a significant amount that we didn’t know. We knew we wanted to have a day of community and discussion. We had a lot of ideas of how our conference/not-conference should not function: hollow and pale in its mimicry of other greater gatherings. Somehow, we wanted lived-in, dirt-under-your-fingernails, fresh, warm… vibes? A gathering. And whoever came, came, and would be welcome. As it was for Berry, it’s about beginning with the right instructions.
Stephanie: Exactly. Where I live now doesn’t have the gleam and glamour of such romantic possibilities as Oxford and the Camino. I feel the hard, practical edges of limits. Limits on my energy, now that I have two children. Limits on my time. I am not gathered with people from all around the world around some fascinating idea, I’m kind of just stuck in a small town with people who have grown up here their whole lives. (A beautiful town, of course, to anyone else.) It can be lonely, sometimes.
After feeling so isolated, my soul lacked deep, rich conversations with like-minded people about beauty, art, and faith, and the diversity of artists and thinkers at Hutchmoot was a breath of fresh air. Amy Jo Stimson
Amy: When you don’t live in Western/Euro-centric cultural hubs, many experiences take on a fairy-tale hue. It’s what you get “Over There,” always at one remove (usually many more). A few writers had recommended Andrew Peterson’s music to me about the same time as I heard mention of this conference in Nashville that brought together creatives of all kinds in a glorious, soul-nourishing weekend that was so intentional about building community that attendance was deliberately limited and highly sought after.
Stephanie: We each found an online community through reading articles on the Rabbit Room. Realizing that they had an in-person event where these conversations would happen in real-time (With music! And food! And guest artist speakers!) was so exciting for me, but we could never consider attending all the way here in South Africa. So when Hutchmoot went online during the pandemic, it was a gift of grace. After feeling so isolated, my soul lacked deep, rich conversations with like-minded people about beauty, art, and faith, and the diversity of artists and thinkers at Hutchmoot was a breath of fresh air.
Amy: For me, it was the thrill of finding my community, of inspiration, of home for every creative impulse, zinging through my heart at all times.
Stephanie: The following year, Amy and I managed to recruit a group to enjoy the sessions together. We camped out at someone’s house, had a fire going, and shared thoughts late into the night. We couldn’t wait to do it the following year. I wasn’t magically transported to a cosmopolitan city brimming with museums and symphonies, of course, but even within the small edges of our little town, God pulled together the eight of us to share artists and stories and thoughts and exclaim in a Lewisian way, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Amy: Hutchmoot, the highly sought-after, limited-attendee conference for theists and artists in the States (that I would probably never get to in real life), became a 2000-member-strong virtual and spiritual gift. So it was something of a loss when the focus shifted back to an in-person event, as it should.
The 2022 idea
Amy: Community is important. Even streaming the content and sharing the meals (and kazoo symphonies) in group-viewing weekends could not replace it. In 2022, when discussing what to do with those yearnings, Steph and I discussed several options. We could host a weekend in which we streamed previous content from the Rabbit Room resource banks on their website, podcasts, and Spotify, until one of us said, “Unless we make our own…?”
And that’s what started it.
Stephanie: There were a few things that came together to make this happen. Some things had changed in the course of that year. One is that my husband and I now owned about 3 acres of land, with a large-ish house called Windhover. Rather than escaping to new, far-flung adventures, we were trying to answer God’s call to be present, to be neighbors, right where we were.
There was a lot that went into this: our property is situated on a fault line between two very segregated communities, and we dreamed of Windhover being a place of peace and hospitality for our neighbors on all sides. There were practical ideas of what we should do with the space—job creation, small-scale farming, affordable housing—but the one longing I had (which sometimes feels a bit frivolous in the face of such dire economic needs around us) was that it would also be a gathering place of beauty.
I kept dropping hints that Amy should turn our house into a North Wind Manor and host gatherings and symposiums there. Since she has her PhD in Literature (in Tolkien studies, no less!) she is more than qualified. So, when Hutchmoot online was canceled, we looked at each other, and she took up the mantle.
Amy: We took up the mantle. We began by prayerfully pooling our resources. Who did we know? What could we do? What did we have already? Steph had some knowledge of events, and I had only post-grad conference experience. There were logistical things that had to happen, and the possibility of scheduled power outages on the day to contend with. And then there was the challenge of trying to explain what this gathering was. A gathering like this is quite a “taste and see” experience. It wasn’t testimonies or worship songs (though nothing wrong with either).
We looked around the room and saw that our local community was rich in these things. Stephanie Ebert
Stephanie: We were looking for artists and thinkers and makers who wanted to share about this intersection of faith, art, and community. We emailed out a very specific invitation to people we thought might have thoughts to share, in which we quoted Hopkins and Lewis. We linked The Rabbit Room and Hutchmoot as inspiration and hoped people would go for it.
Amy: It often astounds me how God answers the prayers we haven’t even thought to pray. As we sat to brainstorm with our acquaintances the people likely to take on our vision, it turned out we were sitting on a goldmine of talent and passion. Most speakers were personal friends (many even Masters and Doctoral graduates), thrilled to have a chance to share something they were passionate about integrated with a Christian worldview—from creation care and conservation to culture and anthropology, and place-making. I had to repent of my small thinking; this is a small town, things don’t land here. It is a small town, and there is very little happening that makes it a viable place for a Mini-moot of this kind. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value hiding always just a little beneath the surface.
Stephanie: We met for a prequel event on a Friday night and watched and discussed a short film. On Saturday, friends filled the spaces as the program made its way through talks, choirs, gardens, and dancing. We had a few local visual artists display their work. We looked around the room and saw that our local community was rich in these things. We didn’t have an Oxford pub, but we had students from the Bible College next door teach us about traditional forms of Zulu song and dance as incorporated into worship. We had avocado sandwiches at lunch with bread from a local bakery and avos picked from Windhover’s trees. We weren’t a huge bunch, but once we moved out our furniture, we were able to fit the 40 or so people who attended in our living room. It was life-giving and inspiring.
Amy: When we asked our attendees to fill in a survey for a little feedback, the one thing each had in common was, “I hope this is going to be a yearly event?” Yes, it is amazing how much logistical effort just offering tea for 40 people can be. But in so many ways, this event was its own simplest, sweetest reward. I’ve had to recant my small-town thinking: the this-won’t-work, I’m-in-the-wrong-space-and-I’m-the-wrong-person mentality. It’s no Gideon and an army of three hundred, or the feeding of the five thousand. But God can do much with only the little that you have when you give it to his use. “I am not all the way capable of so much,” said Berry, “but those are the right instructions.”
A Mini-moot DIY kit
Here are some things we learned in our first Mini-moot:
You don’t have to start big. We decided Windhover would host the event, and in case of rain, we had to limit the numbers to those we could fit inside our house! When we advertised, we told people we only had 50 tickets available. In the end, we didn’t have to turn anyone away, but starting small meant that the logistics were all much easier. Forty people are still enough to make something an “event”.
Advertising and Registration: We used Canva to create a poster advertising our event, and shared it on our personal social media networks. We had a hashtag, but we didn’t have our own social media pages or website. We looked into using something like Eventbrite for tickets, but in the end, we went with a Google form for registration, with a link to an attached PDF that had instructions for the day, an outline of the speakers/program, etc. It worked just fine.
Money. This was complicated as we are not some massive nonprofit. We were not paying any of our speakers, and the location was free, so the overhead costs were minimal. South Africa has massive economic inequality, and (in the spirit of Hutchmoot) we wanted to make sure the table was open to all, so we put a suggested donation price of R50 and asked people to bring cash on the day, along with “something to put on bread” for lunch and a “bring your own mug” request. We borrowed sound equipment from a local church. This kept our expenses low: thank-you gifts for speakers, bread from our local bakery, muffins and scones from a neighbor for coffee breaks, disposable plates, tea, coffee, milk, and some basic sandwich fixings. We were nervous about how lunch would go, but people showed up with more than enough “fixings” – from ham and cheese to Camembert. We sliced up the bread and ate lunch picnic potluck style and it was lovely. If we were to have a larger gathering (maybe up to 65 or 100) we could probably do something similar, but if the gathering was exponentially bigger we would need to think of something different. In the end, the money people brought pretty much exactly covered costs. We told people if there was extra, we would save it for next year’s Mini-moot or release it to a local charity.
Speakers. We debated “zooming in” some more accomplished, well-known artists from overseas, or even from bigger cities in South Africa, but in the end, we decided to “go local” and embrace the beauty within our own circles. We realized that we collectively know a lot of visual artists—this area hosts an arts festival every year—but we didn’t know enough Christian musicians! Our speakers ended up being a bit more “literature/philosophy/culture” focused (although we did have a conservationist share!), and next year we will try to recruit people earlier for more diversity. But we also think it was good to celebrate who was already in our circles and just hadn’t had a chance to share before. And it was cheap!
Breakouts. We had one “prequel” event on Friday evening before the main event on Saturday. The prequel was a smaller gathering, Amy led a discussion of a short story and a short film around brownies and coffee. We would love to do more of this next time—perhaps identify different “host” homes in the area who are willing to host poetry readings or read-aloud one-act plays, or if we could recruit more musicians to do a concert before or after the main event this would be cool! We also want to be more intentional about helping attendees connect next year during the main event. We intentionally tried to invite people from a diversity of cultural backgrounds in our area, and we want to put more thought into how to facilitate rich, meaningful connections around the art and speaker’s themes during the breaks. Perhaps we will have 10 minutes of random “group discussion” time with a question prompt, or some other scaffolding to allow for deeper interactions. Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering” is an amazing resource for planning an event like this.
Program – Beginnings and Endings. Priya Parker points out that people remember beginnings and endings most clearly. So from the moment people pulled into the driveway, we tried to set the tone. We made extra signage to direct people. We also sent out a “packing list” the night before, to remind people to bring their mugs for coffee and tea, and their picnic potluck lunch item. When people arrived there was tea and a playlist of music from Rabbit Room artists mixed in with South African artists playing in the background. Amy started us with a compelling vision for the day, orienting people to what this was (as for many people this was their first time experiencing something like this), and getting them excited for the day. It’s tempting to start or end an event with “housekeeping”, but we tried to make sure we didn’t start or end with admin, but rather with beauty and wonder. Our finale was a time of corporate singing and dancing, led by students from a neighboring Bible college, which really summed up what the day was all about: the beauty of God across cultures, languages, and art forms, using our bodies to be creative. We had a bonus of swing dancing lessons for those who wanted to stay.
So, dear reader, we encourage you to be present in the spaces that God has put you in. Look locally and find you do have a local flavor: this is not a poor man’s copy of an exclusive international event. This is a real embodiment of Christ and his church, and how Christianity looks and feels different in different cultures, and that’s what makes it important and valuable.