A Landmark Unity Festival

Written by Terry DeBoer on . Posted in Local

Tammy TrentTammy Trent sang and shared her story at the 20th Unity FestivalThe Unity Christian Music Festival in Muskegon completed its 20th anniversary with a look back and a look ahead.

And also with some words recalling its co-founder and avid supporter Roger Eikenberry, who passed away July 26 at the age of 74.

Included on this year's concert bill were two artists who performed on that very same stage 20 years ago.

It was 2001 when the newly-formed Alive on the Lakeshore organization took a giant step of faith and led in the planning and production of that first, three-day, August festival at Heritage Landing along Muskegon Lake.

"When Unity began, we counted on sponsors, churches, and families to rally around the idea of Christ-honoring, family-friendly entertainment that brought the Body of Christ together," said festival director Kevin Newton. "The community responded and the past 20 years have been full of memorable stories, powerful ministry and life-changing moments."

Through the years they've survived tight budgets, uncertain weather, and of course the pandemic onset in 2020 which forced the festival to delay its 20th anniversary celebration until this year.


One of the music artists for the 2021 festival's closing day was singer Tammy Trent. Twenty years ago she had performed there as a relatively new voice in Christian music, already garnering two No. 1 radio hits.

But it was just a month after that initial festival that she lost her husband/manager in a diving accident.

"That began a new journey for me – learning more about the character of God and allowing him to heal the broken places in my life," she told a hushed crowd.

"When I look back at that first Unity, I can see now how God had already been putting things together for in my life," said the Grand Rapids area native.

Her ministry now is much more than music: it's bringing hope with a testimony of God's restorative healing as we yield to him, even in the tough times.

"We can never interpret our numbness as God's absence....I promise you God is in the middle of it all," she challenged the audience.
Smalltown Poets also played at the first Unity Festival two decades ago.

"Sure, I remember it," said lead singer Michael Johnston during a backstage interview following their set. "Everyone was so enthusiastic about starting a festival here and it came through in everything."

This time around the band performed some of its old hits (such as "Everything I Hate" and "Prophet, Priest and King") and several new songs. "It was back in 2004 when we went on hiatus but then a Christmas album (in 2011) brought us back together," noted Johnston, 52.

Amazingly, the original five band members are still there, even though they now live in four different states and do only limited tours.
For Smalltown Poets, Unity still rings true 20 years later. "People have gone out of their way for us, and the hospitality has been great. Those things stick with you when you've been out on the road," said the singer.


Before Saturday's headliner TobyMac took the stage, festival officials took time to honor the late Unity Festival co-founder Roger Eikenberry. Alive on the Lakeshore board members Shannon Enders, Christopher VanOosterhout and Chairman Dan McKinnon were among those on hand to honor the former Plumb Foods executive who the prime mover of what has become the state's largest Christian music festival.

"Roger was a giver and a doer," Newton said. (See the telling of some of the history at https://www.facebook.com/unitymusicfestival/videos/274884723973236)

The crowd of more than 10,000 had a chance to celebrate Eikenberry's legacy of a financially self-supporting festival which has generated funds to help other area ministries and non-profits.

This year the festival passed the one-million dollar mark in total monies raised for its regional ministry partners. And Unity continues to rally hundreds of volunteers each year to make it go.


This reporter remembers attending that modest, first festival experiment in 2001. I recall seeing Tammy Trent and her husband backstage. One of the headliners that year was the Latin-infused band Salvador. For all anyone knew, this was a trial balloon that might have a limited run. Or it could begin to build a foundation that would propel it into the future.

Already ticket sales for Unity 2022 are running at a record pace, even though the music artist roster had not yet been announced. And the clock is now ticking on its next 20 years.
Author Information
Terry DeBoer
Author: Terry DeBoer
Terry is a journalist/feature writer for newspapers, magazines and websites, with a background in radio broadcasting. His usual beat is arts and entertainment, specializing in Christian/gospel music. A married father of two, he is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan Contributing Writer: West Michigan Christian News August 2011 – Present Feature writer: -Mlive.com (website and various newspapers) 1988– 2016 -Spotlight New Christian Music Magazine 1997-2008 -Church News Editor, Church Herald Magazine 2004-2009

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