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Raising their voices at Kingdom Bound The faithful will fill Darien Lake next weekend for the Christian music festival

If you've ever wondered what divine intervention looks like, events starting next Sunday at Darien Lake can show you. Thats when the amusement park will become a slice of heaven on earth.

RVs, tents and trucks will consume the area, turning the park's campgrounds into a small city. More than 20,000 people are expected to willingly make the small space their home for four days, during which another 45,000 will bus in.

This is Kingdom Bound. For the past 20 years, Kingdom Bound Ministries has made a name for itself with its annual Christian music festival. The event celebrates the fundamental messages of faith by bringing together music artists who promote the teachings of Christianity. This year the event playbill boasts more than 50 bands and spiritual speakers, with acts ranging from swing and blues to pop-rock and rap. Still, one wonders: What is it that draws so many people?

"You're going to get a different answer from everybody," said Donna Russo, executive director of the festival. "But I think for a long period of time now, our anchor statement has been faith, fun and fellowship for the whole family. It sounds a little cliche, but the truth of the matter lies there. The common ground is faith. We're in an amusement park, so you know everyone is going to have fun, and fellowship is present in the anywhere from 800 to 1,000 different types of churches represented at the festival."

>More than music

Big-name artists also help, and plenty are on the lineup this year, as youth pastor rockers Casting Crowns prepare for their Monday show and Grammy nominee tobyMac returns, stressing social awareness and family values. Directors of the event, though, insist that at it's core, it's not just about the music.

"The music is the drawing part," Russo explained. "And I'm not saying that the musicians themselves don't present the Gospel, because they do, and that's why they're here. But we always make sure that we are including very strong teachers that are going to bring not only the word of God, but they're going to reinforce it in a practical daily way."

Art and discussion are combined by having bands and speakers encourage concertgoers to check in with their spirituality and ask where they are in their relationship with God. Oraganizers say that bands enjoy playing to the crowd, but also embrace talking to concertgoers about their struggles with understanding faith and adopting a positive outlook on religion.

Tina Marie Williams knows about this firsthand. Williams had troubles (including selfmutilation) as a young teen, but the West Seneca native eventually discovered a safe haven in her religion. For the past two years, she has appeared as an artist at Kingdom Bound, sharing her music and her story with audiences.

"When I'm writing, I don't write with the intention to sing these songs for other people," said Williams, who turns 19 on Kingdom Bound's opening day. "I write them for myself. As a reflection, and to gain perspective on what I've learned through experiences. And without telling people that are listening to me my story, it wouldn't be consistent with the honesty of my music."

Russo said it's young, fresh artists like Williams who appeal to the younger crowds.

"We always look for the idea of 'Who is God raising up for the next generation?'" Russo said. "I'm 50 years old, and if I'm talking to a 17- year-old, I'm older than some of their parents. Sometimes there's just not that relatability. But when you put someone in front of them that's only a year or two older or even the same age, it's different."

Although Williams sees herself as able to identify with young audiences, she says some of the issues she speaks of reach out to older crowds as well.

"I think there are some things that I've been through in my life that kids haven't gone through, and adults can more so relate to," Williams explained. "Life in general kind of breaks down the barriers of age."

>Interest grows

Distance doesn't deter the masses in search of this connection. Although an estimated 60 percent of the festival population will come from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and New York, concertgoers hail from as far as California, Texas and even Europe.

The Rev. Michael Bowyer, a pastor from Hamilton, Ont., has been attending the festival for 15 years. Over the past decade, Bowyer has bused in hundreds of youth and adults alike, and said he has only seen interest grow.

"I've never taken someone to the festival that doesn't want to go back," Bowyer said. "What happens is I take them one, maybe two years, and then I set them up to go themselves. I think this year I have about 270 people going to the festival that have come with me before."

This growing "family" attends in part because of the close-knit, family-friendly atmosphere that Kingdom Bound provides.

"I think ministry has to be more than just a worship service on a Sunday morning," Bowyer said. "It's about family to me, just about nurturing the family and giving people good opportunities to have fun together and learn together and to enjoy life together."

When the festival comes to a close, the miles traveled don't seem to matter. Russo says many concertgoers insist they left with much more than they paid for.

"We get all kinds of e-mails after the festival is over," Russo said. "People say, 'I came and I literally didn't know anybody, and I met friends, and I built relationships with people that I will maintain all year long now because of this festival.'"

mhirschbeck@buffnews.com.

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KINGDOM BOUND

What: Four-day Christian festival including over 50 bands and speakers

Where: Darien Lake Theme Park When: Next Sunday through Aug. 8.

Info: www.kingdom bound.org

Tickets: Tickets.com or the festival's Web site

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