Ignoring the heat and the insects, Bill Thompson maneuvered his way through the tall grass, weaving through the maze of parked cars and pop-up tents that were jammed together in the massive open field at Great Stage Park in Manchester, Tenn.
Bill Thompson and Sue Simpkins visit with attendees of Bonnaroo. They passed out frisbees and Bibles to anyone who wanted them.
The path wasn’t especially easy to navigate for the 85-year-old Thompson. But he relentlessly pressed on, determined to complete his two-pronged mission: Sharing the Good News of Jesus to the massive collection of attendees at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and honoring the legacy of his late wife, Gerri.
Thanks to a supply of frisbees – yes, frisbees – Thompson was able to accomplish both objectives.
Seeking a simple way to connect with Bonnaroo’s crowd, largely comprised of 20-somethings, Thompson purchased several boxes of frisbees this year and had them custom-made for the occasion. Inscribed on the frisbees was this simple message: God and Gerri love you.
Prior to her death in 2016, Gerri had established an annual tradition of attending Bonnaroo, which is held annually in early June. For several years, she and her husband volunteered to serve as part of the “Jesus Tent,” an outreach ministry of First Baptist Church, Manchester, and supported by a team of churches from Duck River Baptist Association and other associations, along with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“She loved coming (to Bonnaroo) and connecting with the young people,” Thompson said. “One of her favorite things to do was to get out and throw the frisbee; it was her methodology to reach the kids. … Gerri loved missions, and (Bonnaroo) was her passion.”
Thompson said he and his wife were strong supporters of the outreach efforts at the music festival.
“Where else can you potentially reach thousands of people for Christ in one setting?” he said, adding that he and his wife believed it was “one of the finest ministries” in which they participated.
Keeping the tradition alive, Thompson signed up this year to work the Saturday morning shift at the Jesus Tent.
When he arrived at Bonnaroo, Thompson, along with several other volunteers, passed out the frisbees. By mid-morning, Thompson was surprised – and also delighted – to learn that the entire supply was gone.
“Next year, I’ll have ’em make twice as many,” said Thompson, with a chuckle.
The absence of frisbees didn’t stop Thompson from making his rounds. Accompanied by long-time friend Sue Simpkins, who was Gerri’s best friend, Thompson went from one tent to the next, witnessing and passing out Bibles to anyone who was interested.
At each stop, Thompson would strike up a conversation by asking the attendees where they lived. He would then pass along his message: “We are so glad you’ve come to Tennessee, and we hope you will come again. And what we really want you to know is that we love you – and God loves you.”
The message was well-received by many of the attendees, including some who accepted the offer of the free Bibles that the couple was passing out.
Thompson said that, through the years, the attendees have generally been very receptive.
“Of the times I have been here, there has only been one instance where someone bluntly rejected the idea of having a conversation (about Jesus),” said Thompson, a member of Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Old Hickory.
Thompson knows that he doesn’t fit into the normal demographic in regard to Bonnaroo’s crowd. But he uses that as a witnessing tool.
“I get some strange looks when I tell people I am going to Bonnaroo,” Thompson said. “But then I say, ‘Well, let me tell you why I am going.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Dawson writes for the Baptist and Reflector, baptistandreflector.com, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.)