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Sacramento priest finds ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ at Burning Man

The Temple of Promise has been a tradition at Burning Man since 2000. Visitors of the Temple leave messages of reflection, celebration, bereavement or release. On the last night of the festival, the Temple is burned to ash to release the mementos and emotions of its guests.
The Temple of Promise has been a tradition at Burning Man since 2000. Visitors of the Temple leave messages of reflection, celebration, bereavement or release. On the last night of the festival, the Temple is burned to ash to release the mementos and emotions of its guests. Courtesy of Brian Baker

The Very Rev. Brian Baker of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento has always traveled outside the box, promoting interfaith conversations with the Dalai Lama, motorcycling through Indian reservations and leading the fight for marriage equality.

Last summer, his daughter, Laura, offered him a fresh test of faith: She invited him to spend a week in the broiling Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada, enduring five-hour dust storms to join the 70,000 people who had left behind cellphones, capitalism and judgments for Burning Man, the festival of “radical self-expression” that will be held this year from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5.

“When my amazing hippie, dreadlocked, tattooed, ‘I’m more of a Buddhist,’ 22-year-old daughter asked me,” Baker said, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse – especially since the 53-year-old Episcopal priest had always wanted to experience what’s been described as a slice of utopia.

“I never got to have a hippie phase,” said the West Point graduate, who joined Laura and about two dozen of her friends in Camp Perky Parts, featuring department store mannequins, a bar and music. Every camp was a monument to creativity. “One was called, Wine People with a Yoga Problem,” Baker said. “I went in, said ‘Can I join you?’ and was immediately welcomed.”

Father and daughter said they were deeply transformed by the vibes and ethos of Burning Man, which is built around 10 principles aimed at fostering new ways of looking at acceptance, love and community.

“About halfway through, I realized I was on my own spiritual retreat, and I was experiencing things in that community I believe the church is aspiring to be – an authentic community where everybody has your back, a place of open generosity where people were ready to share and give, a place of profound nonjudgment where people loved one another no matter what their crazy was,” Baker said.

“It gives you a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven, if you will, that raises your own expectations as to how you’re going to live, how we can live with greater love for one another.”

Baker and his daughter – also a Burning Man rookie – found the experience so spiritually fulfilling they’re headed back this year along with Baker’s wife, Andrea, a fellow Episcopal priest who served as a chaplain in Afghanistan. Her first reaction was “I’ve already spent enough time in the desert,” Baker said, but she has warmed up to the idea, even though the things you have to pack in outnumber those required for her deployment overseas.

I realized I was on my own spiritual retreat, and I was experiencing things in that community I believe the church is aspiring to be – an authentic community where everybody has your back.

The Very Rev. Brian Baker, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

Baker’s sermon, “A Reflection on Burning Man,” at vimeo.com/138479600, has been seen by 33,000 people, and he has been invited to do a TED talk at this year’s Burning Man on “looking at every human through the eyes of love and how to turn down the part of us that judges ourselves and other people as being evil or not good enough,” he said.

“When we give in to that smaller part of us that wants to diminish the humanity of others and look at them primarily through the lens of how they’ve hurt us or what we think they’ve done wrong in the world, we continue be part of the problem and continue to perpetuate the divisiveness in the world.”

Baker will also perform holy communion in the temple, the most spiritual place in all of Black Rock City, where people share their prayers, hopes and pain in writing and honor those who have come before. When the temple is set ablaze on the last day, it produces a giant catharsis that gives people a chance to heal by letting go of their sadness, Baker said.

Most participants don costumes and bring gifts to share at Burning Man – last year, some offered hand massages, others grilled hot dogs and made crepes. Baker decided to “be” a priest, so one of his church’s 1,400 members, Charis Hill, helped him turn an old coat lined with gold fabric inside out and stitch a cross on the back. His gift was to offer the following blessing to various people he encountered: “The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful for anything but love. I anoint your eyes so you see God in everyone, your ears so you hear the cry of the poor, your hands so everything you touch is a sacrament, your feet so you run to those who need you. And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire, that your love, your love, changes everything.”

At his favorite spot, a platform with a classic park bench, four street lamps with globes and an old mailbox with a lantern, he met a young woman from Israel who’d just finished college and a young man who wore a black bra on his head and a red nose and said, “I’m a mouse.” Baker blessed both, and after he finished blessing the mouse, “he sobbed and sobbed,” the priest said. “Everyone I blessed either teared up or sobbed and wouldn’t let me go ... there was such a yearning for love.”

Like the woman from Israel, Laura Baker said she came on a journey of self discovery as a young adult “on the brink of the real world” and its rigid constructs of self-absorption, consumerism and adherence to the status quo. “These requirements leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled ... far too often, we also end up feeling alone,” she said.

Burning Man, which she called the closest thing she’s found to utopia “led me to ask some hard questions about my own life: What in my everyday life inspires me? Am I truly following my passions? Am I pleased with life?” Burning Man becomes “whatever you need it to be,” she said.

Laura, who bought last-minute tickets for herself and her dad, said it was beautiful to share the experience with him, a beacon of “positivity.”

“He blew me away with his radical openness and acceptance,” she said.

Baker thanks his daughter for helping bring him closer to heaven on earth. “It deepened our already strong bond.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher, who attended the 2015 Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev., talks to other attendees who answer his question: "What is Burning Man?"

Stephen Magagnini: @SteveMagagnini, 916-321-1072

Burning Man

The 10 guiding principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy

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