Woodstock '99 Report #52: Saving Souls At The Year's Biggest Rock Fest

Pastor preaches love to the '90s Woodstock Nation.

Ask most folks about the date of the first Woodstock, and they'll reply with confidence that those three days of peace, love and music took place in 1969.

Not the Rev. Magead Salloum. He maintains that the original act of rebellious love took place 2,000 years ago, half a world away, when Jesus Christ was crucified.

"That was the first Woodstock," said the 55-year-old pastor, who spent the weekend on call at the 30th-anniversary edition of the concert. "And [Jesus is] here in '99 to give people hope."

Salloum — who heads the nondenominational New Testament Church on West Dominick Street in Rome, N.Y., where Woodstock '99 is taking place — is a man on a mission.

After the cacophony of Korn and Rage Against the Machine, he offered prayer at a Sunday morning (July 25) service. Amidst the festival's rampant nudity, he performed four weddings. And amid the omnipresent scent of marijuana, he provided counseling for youths who feared they'd gone astray.

"I just talked about the fact that God is a living God, that He's not here to destroy, but to love them and bless them," Salloum said.

Considering that the sounds of DJ Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" (RealAudio excerpt) were still reverberating at 3 a.m. Sunday, it's not surprising that no more than a few dozen people roused themselves from their bedrolls to make Salloum's 8 a.m. service at the festival's Alcoholics Anonymous tent.

Nonetheless, he stuck to the weekend's musical theme. Keyboardist Isaac Bennett played church music, sang and rapped the Lord's praises. Salloum and the Rev. Willie Scott of the New Hope Baptist Church delivered sermons.

"One girl came to us with her ankle hurt, and we prayed for her, and she went away healed," Salloum said.

One of about 20 clergy members who were offered a free ticket and three meals daily at the three-day concert, Salloum seemed to take pride in the wedding ceremonies he performed.

Starry-eyed kids looking for a quick, Las Vegas-style hook-up had to turn elsewhere — Salloum demanded to see a wedding license, which the lucky couples had to apply for before the concert even began Friday. His youngest couple pledging fidelity was a 21-year-old Australian man and a 25-year-old Canadian woman; his oldest was a 48-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman, both from the U.S.

Three of the four ceremonies took place outside the office of Woodstock founder Michael Lang on the third floor of Hangar 100 on the decommissioned Griffiss Air Force base.

For the most part, Salloum stuck close to the concert's crisis tent, a counseling-services center for those both spiritually and physically lost. Some were desperate to go home; others struggled with disorientation from the heat or drug use, he said.

"I invited them to receive the freedom of God," he said.