ESR Associate Professor of Pastoral Studies and Williamsburg Friends pastor Phil Baisley shares about his travels to attend Soulreaper gatherings in Vienna and Budapest in this recent sermon:
Do you remember those days? It would be the first or second day of class and the teacher would assign an essay: How I Spent My Summer Vacation. You would have to write about the things you did and then make a speech before the class. This is my speech, but it won’t start with what I did. First, I want to tell you why I did it. To do that I need to acquaint you with a very special group of people: the Soulreapers.
I don’t really know where the name Soulreaper came from. I only know that about six years ago Henrik, an acquaintance from an online forum for fans of an Italian band called Lacuna Coil invited me to join a chat room on the Soulreaper forum.
Let me define some terms. An online forum is a website where people interact. I use them in my classes as well. People can post questions, comments, recipes, essays, or many other things. They can open what is called a “thread” to initiate a discussion that anyone who is a member of the forum can contribute. They can do that any time of day or night, and people can read it any time of day or night. A chat room, on the other hand, is where people “talk” online at the same time, meaning a person in Williamsburg would be writing notes back and forth with someone in Paris even though in Williamsburg it might be 11:00 a.m. and in Paris, 5:00 p.m.
People can get to know each other in forums. They share stories and pictures. But there is always a bit of anonymity. Each forum member creates an alias, which is the name you use in the forum, and an avatar, which is a picture that represents you. In many forums, no one ever knows each other’s real names. That’s a nice safety feature so people you don’t really know can’t find out who you really are. Such things are only known by a few moderators who handle the technical parts of the forum and who are on guard for spammers who would fill the forum with junk mail or maybe inflict a computer virus, phishers who would attempt to steal members’ identities, and trolls who join conversations for no purpose other than to make people angry with each other. Moderators have a tough, unpaid job.
So, at Henrik’s suggestion, I joined the Soulreaper forum, and on my first day, in a chat room I met people from Finland, Hungary, Holland, Greece, Brazil, Serbia, Sweden, Turkey, and Estonia. It was weird, but it was fun. I also learned that Soulreaper was a forum for fans of a band I’d never heard of, Anathema, whose members were from Liverpool, England.
Just after joining the forum, I had a birthday. I opened the forum that day and found a thread had been started for me. Soulreapers had written me birthday greetings—dozens of them—some with pictures of birthday cakes and candles. It made me feel really special. That day I learned how to write “thank you” in all the languages represented, and I thanked each Soulreaper individually for their greeting.
It wasn’t long before I knew most of their real names, and they knew mine. We learned what kind of work we do, what music we like and don’t like, the movies and TV shows we watch, the books we read and authors we love, the things we believe or don’t believe about God and life and love. In short, we became friends, real friends, not just aliases and avatars.
In the fall of 2007, I went to Kenya to speak at an East African pastors’ conference. On my way there and back I had layovers in Amsterdam. I’d gotten to be good friends with “Vision” on the forum. Her real name is Carla, and she lives in Brunssom, near the Belgium and German borders, and she’s only a few years younger than I. (That’s Carla on the right in the picture in the upper right corner of the bulletin insert. She’s being hugged by Heidi from Finland.) I’d made plans to visit her family on my way back from Kenya. (I’d learned Soulreapers do visit one another from time to time, plus have gatherings at Anathema concerts.)
On my way to Kenya, my flight was delayed and I wound up having to spend twelve hours in Amsterdam. I didn’t know what to do, so I called the number Carla gave me. She said, in her very Dutch-accented English, “I live about three hours away by train. I will see you around noon.” I was amazed. This “stranger” was traveling three hours to show me around Amsterdam. When Carla arrived, we recognized each other immediately, and hugged like siblings who hadn’t seen each other for a long time. It wasn’t long after that that we began calling each other “Bro” and “Sis” in our many long online messages. You know how the same thing has happened for me in Turkey and in Hungary and in Austria over the years. It even happened for Soulreaper Dries when he visited Richmond a couple of years ago.
Last March, Anathema was going to play a gig in Amsterdam. Dozens of Soulreapers were going, and the band even dedicated to concert to them. Everybody kept asking me to come, but I just couldn’t. Then, after the show when the pictures started appearing on Facebook and in the forum, I knew what a special time I’d missed.
A few weeks later, Agnes, my Soulreaper friend from Hungary, posted that
Anathema was going to have gigs on consecutive nights in October in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. She said wouldn’t it be great to have another Soulreaper gathering. People started making plans.
Just for fun, not really expecting anything, I talked to Jay Marshall, dean of Earlham School of Religion. I told him about Soulreaper, about the March gathering, about the upcoming concerts, and I said, “I’d love to go there and ask those people what it is that motivates them to travel great distances, spending hundreds of euros just to be together. Is it the friendship? Is it the music? What holds a group like Soulreaper together, and is there anything the church could learn from a community that is both online and face-to-face? Jay said it reminded him of ESR’s Access program, where students can earn an M.Div. in five years of online classes coupled with on-campus intensive courses. We talked about the kind of community that develops in such a setting. Now getting serious, I asked if I might use my “professional development” allowance from ESR to finance a trip to the Soulreaper gatherings in Vienna and Budapest. He said yes!
I ordered my plane tickets, my concert tickets, and, with a little help from Andra, a relatively new Soulreaper from Romania studying at a university in Vienna, I developed a list of questions to ask my Soulreaper friends:
- What makes Soulreaper forum so special, so unique?
- What one or two or three words would you use to describe Soulreaper?
- Why do Soulreapers travel so far and spend so much money to be together at concerts?
- What is the relationship between Anathema and Soulreaper?
- Does Soulreaper need Anathema to exist?
- What are the implications of these answers for the church?
So that’s why I took my fall vacation.
My first stop was Budapest, where I stayed in the home of Mandula’s mother and brother. Mandula is not a Soulreaper. She is a friend of Agnes, a Soulreaper whom I met the last time I went to Hungary. Agnes had arranged for me to stay with Mandula’s family while I was in Budapest last week. What hospitality! Then, after a nice day’s rest last Sunday, Agi arranged a night in a Budapest pub where a bunch of people I’d met last trip joined us, and we were met by Soulreapers Zsuzsie and Juliana from Hungary, and Carla and Heidi, who’d traveled all the way from Holland and Finland. What a wonderful reunion! I already knew something special was beginning.
The next day I went to Vienna. Heidi and Carla stayed in Budapest where Agi would be their tour guide. I was going to Vienna to meet up with Caroline from Austria, Gűlşah and Cansu from Turkey, and Natty from Russia, along with Andra. We arrived at the Szene club for the gig that evening. Danny Cavanaugh, the lead guitar player from Anathema met us before the show and chatted for a while. I’d met him once before at a metal festival in Belgium.
After the gig, we waited outside the club. We had nice conversations with the support band, a German metal trio called “A Dog Named Ego.” Then Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanaugh, the female and male vocalists from Anathema came out and talked with us. They’d met some of the others before but didn’t recognize me. Lee asked who
I was. I said I was Phil from America but on the forum I went by the alias GrandpaJoe. “GrandpaJoe!” she said. “Vinnie, this is GrandpaJoe from the forum!” We were like old friends after that. (You can see Vinnie and Lee in the concert photos, and also Lee talking with Heidi and Caroline in another picture.)
After the gig, Andra, Cansu, and I walked back to our hotel. Gűlşah had stayed behind since she’d been at the Prague gig and was going to the Budapest gig tomorrow. In the hotel, I interviewed the girls about Soulreaper. I’d already talked with Heidi and Agnes the day before. I would talk to the rest at various times during the week.
The next afternoon, after Natty had gone back to Russia, Andra, Cansu, Gűlşah, and I took the train back to Budapest for the gig at A-38, a restaurant and concert venue on an old river barge moored to a Danube pier. I took a tram from Mandula’s mom’s house, and met up with Juliana and her friend, Laura, when I got there. The others came from wherever they were staying in Budapest. As some of the others got off their bus, they met Romin, a young man from Iran. He too was going to the concert. Romin walked the rest of the way with Cansu and Gűlşah and Andra and learned all about Soulreaper. Even though he was a total stranger to the group, he joined us for drinks before the show. He was totally accepted into the group.
Caroline, Heidi, Carla, Agnes, and Viktor soon arrived and we all had a great time eating Turkish delight that Gűlşah had brought. It got even better when Anathema’s bass player, Jamie Cavanaugh, came out to visit with us for a while.
What could have been a disaster in some groups turned out to be a real blessing. Not everyone had tickets for the gig at A-38. Danny had promised to guest list whoever needed tickets, but the event was sold out and Danny could only let four of us in. I had a ticket but had given it to someone else, thinking I wouldn’t need it. It came down to two of us not getting into the gig. Gűlşah and I volunteered to spend the evening in the restaurant having a wonderful dinner and 90 minutes of great conversation as we watched the concert on a video screen.
After the show, Danny invited the Soulreapers to the green room—which was actually the ship’s boiler room—where we all celebrated Lee’s birthday with cake and singing and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. Now I truly know what it means to “party like a rock star.” (The photo in the lower right hand corner is of Jamie and me in deep conversation in a quiet area away from the main party.)
The next day some of us met for breakfast and others for lunch as we said our goodbyes. When I arrived in Budapest this year, I truly believed it would be my last trip there. Now Jen and I are already talking about going there together so she can meet my Soulreaper family.
So, what did I learn?
First, what makes Soulreaper special? Cansu said she was a member of other groups, but they have no interest in becoming personal. She remarked how unusual it is to meet strangers and stay in their homes and invite them into yours, but that is what Soulreaper is all about. As I write that, I think of Romin. He’d never even heard of Soulreaper and yet he was welcomed into the group immediately. Now he’s a member.
But what makes that happen?
Well, music is a factor. And the desire for genuine friendship is a factor. But, according to many of the Soulreapers I interviewed, the number one factor is trust. Carla talked about the “open and honest way we communicate.” Heidi spoke of mutual “support and understanding.” Cansu said there was “no fear of being sincere” on the forum. Heidi added that Soulreaper forum is “a really safe place” where you can share things honestly, and “no one is mean towards you.” Natty talked about people who are “connected by something they have inside.” Juliana put it best, I think, when she said, “Lovely people. It’s good to be a member.”
And what about Anathema and its relationship with Soulreaper?
Heidi called the gigs an “excuse for meeting.” Gűlşah said the band is the reason for us being together. Natty likes the fact that the band is part of the forum and band members occasionally post there, and they meet with us in person at gigs. Heidi added, “If there wasn’t a gig, would we still get together? The band says when to go and where to go.” Still, I know there have been many travels among Soulreapers even with no gigs on the schedule. I think Andra summed it up in speaking of the Budapest concert on the train from Vienna, “We do not need the gig, but the gig was the reason for the trip.”
So what are the implications for the church?
Juliana is a devout Catholic, a true sister in Christ. She said the church “needs a group like Soulreaper. We can trust each other.” She said that in Soulreaper we have the “freedom to say what we want.” That builds trust. That freedom is what the church needs.
In her book Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass talks about an informal survey she took among people who attended her lectures. She asked for words they associate with the word religion. People responded with words like institution, organization, rules, dogma, authority, buildings, structure, principles, hierarchy, and boundaries. Add people’s concept of religion as a source of much of the hate and violence in the world and you have a pretty good idea of how the world sees religion and religious people. It’s how the rest of the world views the church.
That’s a far cry from the first century observer who remarked about Christians, “See how they love each other.” It’s a long way from the apostle Paul’s desire for the church as we read in Romans chapter 12:
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
I keep thinking about Romin, the Iranian university student. He met a group of strangers at a bus stop. They were going to the same place, but they were going in love and in trust. And he met more of them. He even got to meet one of the ones who called them there. They welcomed him. They accepted him just as he is. Now he’s part of the group.
Isn’t that what the church is supposed to be like? People who exemplify love and trust so much that others want to be around them? And then you can have the joy of introducing them to the One who calls us all together.
I truly believe the church should be the ones the world describes as “lovely people.”
How? Demonstrate that same level of love, honesty, understanding, and trust that a bunch of metalheads does in Soulreaper. It’s what the world needs. We know that. It’s what the world wants. They know that.