Everybody loves the WE Fest chaplains
Ben Walther is a hard-core WE Fester -- going up and down the campgrounds at 4 a.m.
He is looking for trouble, and he'll be the first to tell you that.
That's because he is part of the Chaplains Program -- a volunteer organization that is growing at WE Fest.
Walther says he knows some people think ministers and church leaders don't belong in a WeFest campground at 4 a.m.
He thinks that's exactly where he should be.
"I see all these young girls who get separated from their groups," Walther says, tooling around on a go-cart. "They're lost and there they are... walking around in the middle of the night by themselves. So we will pick them up and make sure they get back to their campsite safely."
The chaplains in this program make their way around the WeFest bowl and campgrounds, on a mission.
"We are here to comfort and serve -- to make sure patrons stay safe and have a good time without getting into trouble," said Bob Bliss, who started the program 15 years ago when he says WE Fest was even "wilder" than it is now.
"I met up with the president of the company at the time, Jeff Krueger, and told him my idea -- I'm sure he thought, 'Who's this guy?'"
But Krueger agreed to it, and as he introduced Bliss to the WE Fest board, the chaplain says he remembers what former Becker County Sheriff Tom Hunt said.
"He said, 'It's about time we have some help like that in the midst of everything that's going on'," Bliss recalls, adding that he now also heads up a Chaplains Program with the Becker County Sheriff's Department.
But not everybody grabbed onto the idea at first.
"Not only did I get heat from patrons and whatnot, but from other people in the church community who wondered what the heck I was doing out at WE Fest," said Bliss.
But as the chaplains proved themselves year after year to WE Festers and event organizers, the program grew.
What started out as a 9-man program in 1996 has now grown to roughly 75 chaplains and church leaders.
The core group is from the local area, but, like WE Festers, some come from all over the U.S.
Bliss says a few church volunteers from Florida took the idea back with them and started up a similar program at the Daytona Speedway.
"I think more and more people at events like this realize that hey, these chaplains aren't so bad," laughs Bliss.
WE Fest organizers have also taken stock in the good-hearted volunteers, providing them go-carts, radios and whatever they need to effectively serve.
"They've come to realize we're a good little addition here," said Bliss, who has since worked his way up to chief operations officer at WE Fest.
"I'm not as directly involved with the chaplains as I was before, but I always have my chaplain's hat on no matter what I'm doing," said Bliss, noting that his daughter, Crystal and his son-in-law, Cory, have since stepped up to help oversee the program.
The 75 or so members are split up into shifts, with around 35 being "on duty" at all times.
People call on them to help with a number of situations that inevitably come up when you pack 50,000 bodies in one place, with a large percentage of those people drinking.
"Last night I had a boyfriend and girlfriend fighting, and even though it was escalating, security couldn't do anything but wait for it to erupt," explained Walther. "So they called me, and I was able to go over and there and help them calm it down before it got out of control."
Helping with disputes, counseling, assisting handicapped and lost people with rides and even pitching in to help others set up camp is all part of the job description for these volunteers.
And although the chaplains say they do occasionally get a hard time from somebody, regulars at WE Fest have grown accustomed to seeing the blue T-shirts, marked with a cross.
And while Bliss says their ministry at WE Fest is built more on relationships than preaching, they do get the occasional request for prayers.
"And sometimes conversations about God do come up, but we're not pushy," said Bliss. "About the extent of our pushiness is dropping somebody off after giving them a ride and saying, 'God bless you -- stay safe."