Archival VHS tapes from early Festivals
#47: History Panel: Henry J. Baron, Donald Hettinga, Gary D. Schmidt, and Jennifer L. Holberg 2022
Festival of Faith & Writing 30th Anniversary Retrospective, April 13, 2022
In Rewrite Radio Episode #47, CCFW co-director Jennifer Holberg interviews some who have been there since the beginning of Festival: Henry J. Baron, Donald Hettinga, and Gary D. Schmidt. This episode shares the journey of the Festival’s past 30 years–its speakers, triumphs, difficulties–all driven by the idea for a place where writers of faith can learn from, appreciate, support, and affirm one another.
Jennifer Holberg: [00:00:19] Hi, I'm Jennifer Holberg, co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing and the chair of the Calvin English department. I'm so delighted today to be hosting this episode of Rewrite Radio, especially because it's about the history of the Festival of Faith and Writing. Joining me today to talk about it are people who were there at the very beginning, beginning with some of my current colleagues: Gary Schmidt, who joined the department in 1985, and Don Hettinga, who joined the department in 1984. And then we're especially glad to have Henry Baron with us, who is an emeritus colleague of ours, and served in the department from 1968 to 1997. Most importantly, Henry is the founding director of the Festival of Faith and Writing. So we're especially pleased to get to talk to these three folks about what happened in the early days of the Festival, at the first conference and really in those early years.
So I actually want to start off by asking you all, what was happening in the department and maybe in our profession more generally in the late 1980s that led you to want to host this kind of initial gathering? What kind of things were you talking about with each other that made you think this would be a great thing to start?
Henry Baron: Can I say something? I don't remember us talking about that together, actually, as a department. It really started when Rudy Wiebe, the Canadian Mennonite author, visited the department and he and I had a conversation at one point. And we talked about how important it would be -- how needful, really -- for serious writers and readers of faith to get together and to be together in each other's company. Readers who appreciated literary craftsmanship, depth of character, substantive themes that deal with reality, complexity. Writers who were sometimes attacked by the Christian community, were underappreciated, sometimes just ignored, at worst even rejected, often criticized because they were using language and dealing with subjects that reflected a reality that readers didn't approve of. So writers and readers who didn't necessarily shy away -- not the typical Christian bookstore kind -- who didn't shy away from a reality that can be dark, lived all around us and throughout the world.
So that conversation planted an idea in my head that refused to go away. And more and more, I thought about the need to make that happen, to have these readers and writers of faith get together somehow to maybe learn from each other, to appreciate each other, to support each other, to affirm each other. That need became increasingly more of an urgent thought to me. So we had to make that happen somehow.
Jennifer Holberg: So Henry, what did you do to take this idea that you had-- this really important idea of moving beyond the Christian bookstore and thinking more about what it means to be a faithful writer? How did you get the rest of the department involved with that?
Henry Baron: Well, everything started from scratch, right? Good thing I really didn't think long about what I was biting off, because it required an awful lot of work. You had to go to the department chair to get the approval. You had to go to the provost to get the approval. You had to get your colleagues along with you. Then you had to go to select colleagues who you thought might serve-- would like to serve on the committees, because there would have to be many committees. Then the committee appointments, each committee with its own focus. So much work needed to be done.
There were so many meetings that you had. You were going to talk about [questions such as], what audience are we talking about? Whom do we advertise for? What kind of writers are we going to select? How are we going to get-- So, meetings with publishers, meetings with all kinds of people, and emails and phone calls, and where would we get the money, sponsors, and so forth? All of this for all the committee members, and it was beautiful how they participated and how they took hold of this and became enthusiastic about it and spent much time [on it]. Because all of us had our normal teaching load, and this was on top of all of that.
So it was a lot of work, but eventually it got off to a tentative kind of small start, somewhere around a hundred people, a bit more than that. But the idea was to form a community of writers and readers. And with that small group, you easily had that feeling of community, as you can tell from the title: "Contemporary Christian Writers in Community."
Jennifer Holberg: [00:06:23] For those of you listening on our podcast, I'm holding up the program from the very first-- what is now the Festival. What we date it from when it says on the front, "Contemporary Christian Writers in Community, April 19-21," a date that we've continued, a spring date, we've continued to hold.
And I want to talk a little bit more about what's in here. It's exciting to think about this idea of the contemporary writer. Because my understanding from hearing some of you talk in the past is that there's a lot of conferences on folks from the past -- Flannery O'Connor or John Donne or whatever -- but there was this important emphasis on contemporary. Gary, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the importance of the contemporary part?
Gary Schmidt: What Henry has described is really exactly as I remember much of it too. There was a lot of resistance. I mean, Henry, you were one of the -- in terms of the senior members of the department -- you were pretty much alone on that. And a lot of the resistance was: "This is something that we can do, but is this something that we should do? Is this the kind of work that we are hired here for? Will it interfere with our teaching?" And we still have some of that, right? Where there is so much work to go into this. And I think those of us who went into it -- and Don, you're certainly one too -- we really did face issues of people who were thinking, "No, no, no, this is not what you should be doing." And we were not tenured then. I mean, we didn't even have term-- I think we were both on term positions in these early years and days. So there was a lot of that that went on.
But then, you're right, I think there was this real interest in, is it possible to create the kind of community that Henry was talking about, where we have people come talk about their work who really don't have any other place to go talk about it like this? We became a unique venue for people to do that. And the repeated conversation from those folks was how wonderful it was to be able to come here and actually talk about issues of faith and writing in ways that they cannot do elsewhere. Anywhere, really. And that became a really exciting thing for us. It became a way to not only minister to our audience as they listened to these writers, but for those writers to be ministered to, which I think is still true today.
Donald Hettinga: [00:08:53] And I think that was an animating-- that was something that animated a lot of our work after the first meeting. We realized that there were these different communities: the Christian Bookstore people, the CBA Bookstore, and the American Bookstore people, and that there were teachers and readers that were in these separate communities that didn't get a chance to talk. And I remember the gatherings, the tired gatherings at the end of a conference in the Manor House, and attendees saying, "We're so grateful that we found a place where we can have this conversation. At our university or wherever we might be, we couldn't have it."
And it truly became something that we realized: we can set up this big tent and bring in people that might not talk to each other. I remember-- it probably wasn't the first or the second conference, but I remember calling up an editorial house of a prominent writer who wrote for the ABA market, and saying, "I'm from this festival that talks about faith and writing." And the editor said, "She's not a Christian" or "She's not a Christian writer." This is someone who had "Amazing Grace" in the title of her most recent book, and it was about snake handling in the fundamentalist south. She clearly was thinking about spirituality and writing, but it seemed the Christian world was very distinct in the bookselling market from the [unclear].
Jennifer Holberg: It's interesting, I went in the archives yesterday and found some of the minutes, of which there are many. So I brought something along; it's not the final, but it's a preliminary draft. Your general description says, "The conference will focus on writers who, however nonsectarian their intentions and audience" -- so getting at that American Bookselling audience -- "are identified as participating in or originating from a religious community. Participants will consider how such writers see their craft and vision, what forms they find most compelling, and how they see their potential markets and publics and how those markets see them."
The other thing that I think is kind of interesting that I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about is this next part: "Differing from a traditional academic conference, this conference is directed towards a wider audience of current and would-be writers, editors, and publishers, and the general reading public." I think that's another real distinctive that got set in motion with the very first conference: the sense that we're not this, but we're also not this. You used the word "big tent" earlier, Don. How do you think that-- why was that important to you, and why do you think that's been so important over the next thirty years?
Donald Hettinga: Well, I think we simply realized that readers were the group of people that were being overlooked. We went to academic conferences, there were regional Christianity and Literature conferences, and we'd find ourselves talking-- and Dale Brown, who was in the department then and who was significant in the development of the Festival, really had a passion for readers and readers' groups and book clubs.
And so we started thinking about why not? And Lionel Basney, who died early on in the years of the Festival, was really influential in its formation, and he talked about a circus or a carnival atmosphere.
Gary Schmidt: He came up with the word "festival."
Donald Hettinga: [00:13:14] Maybe that's how we came up with "festival." I remember debating those minutes [that you just read aloud]. And I remember, wordsmiths that we are from this tradition, debating those specific words and thinking about what kind of implication they would have for the sort of people that would come and [for] the atmosphere. Having those conversations were really important.
Early on, too, we thought, we don't just want sessions. We want to set up conversation tables, or have rooms for discussion, or have dinner times when people can meet with people of similar interests in an unstructured way.
Jennifer Holberg: [For] readers and writers. So that we have lots of things for people who write, but also people who read in all the ways that happens.
We've had a strong tradition in children's writing. And both of you are expert in that. Can you talk a little bit about how that emerged? That emphasis-- was it just your interest? Because it's important, I think, that we have so many different genres. I noticed in the minutes there was a debate about Christian romance: should we have a Christian romance session?
Gary Schmidt: Which we did.
Jennifer Holberg: Which we did. If you look at this program, there's lots of different things in here, including faith community in writing, the alienation of women from faith -- I thought that was quite fascinating -- even this idea of what is Christian literature? I know in 1994, Doris Betts came and said she didn't like "Christian" as an adjective. And that's kind of in one of our things as well; what does the "Christian" mean? Or as we've moved into other faith traditions, what is "Jewish" or "Muslim" or "Hindu" or these others? What does that mean as an adjective? Is that a necessary adjective?
Even things like communion or community. Anyway, I think it's fascinating that even in the very first [gathering] that had eight sessions, we still had lots of interest in different kinds of genre, but also that interest in community.
Can you all think a little bit and talk a little bit about the genres? Because we could have called it the Festival of Faith and Literature, which we didn't. It's "Writing," to try to be as broad as can possibly be.
Gary Schmidt: And neither is it Faith and Christian-- I mean, it's not the Festival of Christianity in Literature. We meant it to be a larger tent. And that took a while for it to grow. We did begin with people like Elie Wiesel, and Chaim Potok, and Yaffa Eliach, and an amazing number of people who were in the Jewish tradition. And then finally Satanic Verses' Salman Rushdie. And that really opened things up in ways that we were all pretty excited about. The children's literature, too. We didn't want it to just be one narrow area. We wanted to have all sorts of writing, all sorts of reading, so that anything could open, even Christian romances, even though [unclear].
It was terrific just to see the extraordinary variety. And I think it goes back to-- didn't we want to put together a festival we wanted to go to? Isn't that really what was happening here? You know, the scholarly conferences are great and we learn a lot, but this was more than that. It's to live something. And I think that really informed us: what would we enjoy?
Donald Hettinga: Yes. And we wanted to have conversations.
Henry Baron: It was so gratifying after the first one. You mentioned getting together in the Manor House and people were talking about how much this had meant to them. So gratifying that they said, can we do this again? Can we stay in touch?
So it evolved from there on, and as you mentioned, Dale Brown was very much the person who led that evolution, I think, that's still going on.
Jennifer Holberg: Yes, I think every single one is a little bit different. It struck me, too, in your minutes: the very first list that you had of people you wanted as keynotes, you didn't get a single one of them. But every single one of them came though in the next six to eight years. Every single one of your dream people ended up coming.
I also think it's kind of amazing, if you visit our website or look at any history of the Festival, the incredible level of talent that you were able to bring in those early Festivals as they moved into 1994, 1996. By 1998 you have Elie Wiesel, you have a Nobel prize winner. That work in those first ten years is incredible. To see how many writers were hungry to come and wanted to be part of that.
Henry, it strikes me, as I look back at some of our central shaping principles, that hospitality really seems to be an important part of the DNA. Can you talk a little bit about hospitality as a kind of key value?
Henry Baron: [00:18:31] Well, hospitality is part of being a community, right? You want to be together. I think that hospitality has widened the tent; that's a function of hospitality. And people keep coming back-- many of the readers keep coming back, they can't wait for it to happen again. They just love it. As well as writers-- there's some writers who have been to practically every one of these, have come back again and again. So I think the whole atmosphere has been-- even though it has grown, and the danger is that as it grows wider, bigger, and so forth, that the hospitality pulls back a little bit, that you don't feel it as intensely as you did it at first. But I trust that value is still very much a part of the ongoing "We hope we can meet in person again sometime." That's when you can really show hospitality.
Donald Hettinga: I think we tried to be really intentional in the invitations that we made and in the shaping of the Festival. One thing we thought about academic conferences in particular would be, these people who never saw each other before were suddenly on the stage together, and no one had really thought about the content of their presentations.
And so one important role of the department members was to anticipate the kind of conversations that they might have, and to suggest titles, and to put people together that might not ordinarily be on the same panel at a conference, and to do interviews, and to give the opportunity for these writers and all the participants to talk about areas that they hadn't talked about before.
And so it wasn't only the Christian writers that were getting an opportunity to finally talk to a bigger audience, but it was writers who were Christians or people of faith that suddenly found themselves in a more open community. And I don't know how many people, young adult writers, have turned and said, "I've never been asked that question before about spirituality." And they realized what a unique forum this was, and what kind of approach Calvin [University] took to these questions.
I think when John Updike was on the podium, he had a moment of realization in which he realized, "Hmm, this is a really different audience. These people care about ideas, they care about faith."
Jennifer Holberg: And lots of different kinds-- so people who maybe are Christian, but not in the same faith traditions, actually speak to one another. We've always tried very hard to have people from progressive, conservative, however, or you maybe have a background but are not an active practitioner. I think that's been important too, that we're hospitable to all the different ideas.
One of the other key parts of our DNA that really strikes me is that from the very first conference, we've had students involved. In so many of these things, we as the faculty could basically hang out with the writers and have a great time, or have other community members, but we've always included students as a really important part. So I guess I'm curious-- talk to me about student involvement over the years and why that's really key to what we do here at Calvin.
Gary Schmidt: [00:22:39] Well, I'll give you one really good example. As we've gone along, we've had the writing major come in[to existence] since the first [Festival]. And it's not just the writers that our students have been hosting, but it's also the editors and the publishers and the agents and people like that. And for a new writer, a student writer, to connect with an editor is fabulous. I mean beyond belief fabulous.
And here is a very practical way that this really helped a student, a writing major, whose internship in New York city dried up. She is literally Nowheresville: in a few days, she's [supposed to be] going to New York, or she had planned to. All I had to do was call up an agent that had been here from-- not an agent, an editor from Little, Brown, and I said "I've got this student, here's the situation, would you talk with her on the phone, would you be interested?" She said, "I don't need to talk to her; I know you guys. Yes." And that was her internship, and that's completely because of the Festival. It's just been a wonderful, wonderful thing for a writing major to have those things. To listen to the writers, but also to meet the others.
Jennifer Holberg: And all our [major] tracks, right? Whatever track you're in, if you're a reader-- I still remember the two students who hosted Maya Angelou and them walking with her across campus and sitting with her in the green room. What a thrill to get to [unclear] dinner with Frederick Buechner or sit with her or all of them. As you say, the editors, the publishers, all of that.
Donald Hettinga: That sparks so many memories. I just remember these wonderful moments when students would realize that these writers are people too. Sitting in the Commons and Mary Carr leaning over and asking a student, "Now, what are you interested in? Could I see some of your writing?" It really opened an imaginative world, I think, for the students.
Jennifer Holberg: Yes, I think it's an incredible opportunity that you don't get a lot of places, whether you're a faculty member or a staff member or a community member or our students-- to really be involved in this incredible conversation and hopefully launch you on a lifetime of reading and writing, or working in the publishing industry, or just having a great book group at your church. You mentioned that before.
Gary Schmidt: What we'll never know is how many of our students who were part of this, or continue to be part of this, then go on to be secondary teachers and can say [to their students], "You know, I had dinner with Maya Angelou and she told me [about] this time . . ." What that does in the classroom -- "I had dinner with Maya Angelou" -- we'll never hear those stories, probably, but we know that their students will be different [as a result of] our student having had that experience.
Jennifer Holberg: If you're one of our students listening on the podcast today, please feel free to email us and tell us those stories. We'd love to hear them.
Because we always say, and this is interesting -- I mentioned the April date [earlier] -- we've always [gathered during] the school year. And that's an interesting choice. I've heard in the past that there [questions about] maybe could we move [the Festival] to the summer or could we move [it] to spring break? But I think we've tended to resist that, because it's so central to our educational mission. Do you want to talk about that a little bit more?
Gary Schmidt: Well, you guys [the co-directors] in the last few years have brought lots of schools. Maybe you should talk about that, because there's so many schools who come to hear the YA folks and the elementary stuff and the younger kids as well. Imagine the effect of that. Imagine the effect of someone actually seeing: this is the writer we've been reading. It's fantastic.
Jennifer Holberg: I think we've really tried to live into this idea of how do we serve the community well. So we open up our first opening event to always be a children's or adolescents' writer, and extend that hospitality as much as we can.
Gary Schmidt: Having the school groups [sit] in the first three or four rows, right? They're right up front. It's fantastic.
Jennifer Holberg: And we really want to cultivate lifelong readers. And we want to say you're invited: wherever you are, whatever your interest is, we have the genre and we're interested in you coming and chatting with us.
Don, a few days ago we were talking a little bit. One of the things that happens at every Festival is the Stanley Wiersma Memorial Lecture. You were mentioning how important he was in your thinking, just being in the department at the beginning, overlapping just a tiny bit with him before his premature death. Can you talk about that part of our heritage?
Donald Hettinga: [00:27:35] Well, Stanley was both: he was a mentor of mine, he was a wonderful teacher, and of course a very creative person who always sought to bring out creativity in students and in the department.
After his death, the Wiersma family wanted to sponsor a lecture. I don't know if Rudy Wiebe came as the Wiersma lecturer, but I know that that for many years there was kind of a parallel there. And then the Wiersma Lecture became part of the Festival.
For those who were there in those times, Stan was someone who really represented community in the Christian Reformed Dutch community. He stood out as a person who was the chronicler of Dutch American culture in Iowa. And that was a contribution that the Festival could draw on and build on and grow with.
Jennifer Holberg: Yes. As someone who joined the department later in 1998, I really did feel, when I came to the department, the heritage. We had people [with] memories of Stanley; I actually had his office, and I had people wanting to stop in and look at it again or tell me stories about him. My very first CALL [Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning] class was about him.
You mentioned Lionel [Basney], who we also now have a Memorial Reading for. Bill Vande Kopple, who was another longtime department member. Dale Brown. All of whom we now try to honor with the Festival and really keep up the memory of all these [people].
My sense of the Festival is how many hands have had to do work to get it done. There's so many people: untold students, all the faculty, the staff here at Calvin, and of course our local publishers too. This is just an all-hands-on-deck kind of event. It's wonderful to come out of a place with such a strong heritage of interest in this kind of thing.
I wonder if you can mention a little bit about the publishers, because they were also a part of it from the very beginning.
Henry Baron: They were. I remember we had dinner meetings with Eerdmans and some of the others, trying to get them on board. To help with the finances, of course, but also be very much a part of the Festival. And it was really amazing. We didn't run into a lot of "No, we don't want to have any part of this." They all got on board and excited about it, and they're all still part of it.
Jennifer Holberg: They sure are.
Henry Baron: And we've appreciated that. I remember Ed Ericson was the chairman at the time, so he had to give the approval in the first place. [He said,] "Yeah, sure, go ahead and see what you can do." He came along to a meeting with Bill Eerdmans and we had a good session. What was this thing going to turn into, and how much of the resources were worthy of being part of this? Well, they had no idea, of course; none of us knew what it would eventually evolve into. But it was wonderful to have their support at the beginning.
Jennifer Holberg: And as Gary mentioned earlier, such a wonderful resource to have us thinking about publishing -- publishing from the professional end and from the writerly end -- and really trying to think about how story gives us more to be faithful with in all these different ways, and having that wonderful partnership.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit-- we've talked about the first title was "Contemporary Christian Writers in Community." How did it evolve through conference 1994, which was called "Christian Writers and Their Communities" instead of "Writers in Community"? And then in 1996, we finally get to the very first one that's that's called "Festival." So maybe you could talk about what was that evolution between 1990 and 1996? [What were] those steps that were taken?
Henry Baron: [00:32:27] I think you already mentioned -- Gary did -- that the tent became wider. It was people of faith; I think from the beginning when Rudy and I talked about it, we were talking in terms of people of faith. And since Christian faith was closest to us, that became part of the title. But there are many other groups of people of faith that became represented eventually and fairly early on. Because you know, every two years: it started in 1990, and by 1996 you have "Festival." So that expanded quite rapidly.
Jennifer Holberg: Very rapidly. From 120 people, I think is the official count for the first one, to almost hitting 900 for the attendance in 1996. That's sort of amazing growth.
Gary Schmidt: It wasn't always easy though. We don't want to send that message that this just happened easily. Because there was sometimes resistance to having people from this or that faith tradition. And there were, even in our department, folks who just were: no, that's not what we really do.
So when we had Elie Wiesel-- it's pretty hard to argue that you shouldn't have Elie Wiesel, so that opened up a lot. And then we had Raymond Singer, who's a Buddhist. He wrote the film "Mulan." And he was brilliant, he was absolutely brilliant here. And that helped us. Both of those guys helped us to get past that sort of difficulty.
And then there were all the issues with Rushdie. There were folks who didn't want Rushdie to come. And the issue was still under the fatwa. So there was a big security fear with that. There was a lot to get past.
And we had to convince people. Even one of our presidents, who was not so sure about Elie Wiesel coming, but then when he came, was really won over and became a really big supporter of the Festival.
Donald Hettinga: I think what you see in the [changing conference] names is our attempt-- these English types' attempt at marketing and trying to-- we have the notion of all these different groups and how they could come together, but how do you reach them? How do you keep people from maybe having a negative response to "Christian" as an adjective? And so I think that's how we went from those various names to thinking of it as a Festival, as we realized the kind of conversations that were taking place and the more festive atmosphere.
And we really recognized, too, that-- when we set up that tent, I think Susan Felch, who was one of the people who worked on the committee in some of the middle years, said, "Unless we have people from every side complaining to us, we're not doing a good Festival." So we need someone complaining about Salman Rushdie. We also need a fan of Salman Rushdie complaining about some of the CBA writers: "Why would you have that Christian romance writer?"
Jennifer Holberg: I think that's really important to get out there, that the Festival really has thrived partly because of its vision-casting. It continues to say, how can we think about all of this? What is story? How is story transforming us?
But you're right to say it's never been easy. Money is always tight. I was noticing some of your early budgeting. I almost brought some of the early budgets, [but] I thought that was maybe a little too painful to look at early budgets [laughter]. Every single time, we have to think about how to pay the writers, how to put on all of-- before we went on air [today], Henry, we were talking about shuttles and meals, and it's a ginormous undertaking with a very thin staff and a very small budget.
Gary Schmidt: Yes, I would say part of that is the daring. If you think about this committee or this group that's put this on for all these years, it's a daring committee. Do you remember that meeting, Don? We were in Dale's office: you, me, and Dale. And Annie Dillard had said "yes," and then she gave us the figure, and we all turned white, like "Really?"
And we worked through it and we worked through it. We didn't even actually work through it financially. We just said, do we want her? Can we possibly make this work? And we said yes. And she came. And then it was maybe the next year when John Updike asked us, "How much did she get?" He wanted $1,000 more. "Whatever Dillard got, I want a thousand more" [laughter].
And then Wiesel came, and it was quintuple what she [Dillard] had asked for. And each time it was a daring group of people; Dale led us and it was, "Let's do it. This is what we have to do to evolve, to grow." It's exciting.
Jennifer Holberg: [00:37:43] Yeah. When the Center [for Faith and Writing] was founded, our founding verse was from Ephesians: "Above and beyond what we can ask or imagine." Because I think that that has been really the testimony of the Festival from the very beginning. We continue to have people who help fund us, or generous donors, or partnerships with various folks, or just "the daring."
I wonder if we can end with each of you telling either a favorite story from one of the early Festivals or a favorite story about an author. Something to close with. I have one final question, but for our penultimate question, a fun thing you remember or something that you would love people to take away from those early days.
Gary Schmidt: I've got one. We had had Elie Wiesel at night-- and I mean, it's Elie Wiesel. And then we were going to have John Updike the third night. And it was Katherine Paterson in the middle night. So after she was introduced, she said, "I'd like everyone to take out a piece of paper." And then she goes, "I want you to write the name 'Elie Wiesel' at the top, like this. Then I want you to write the name 'John Updike' at the bottom." So everyone does this. And then she says, "Now I want you to put your name between them." And then she goes, "And now you know how I feel" [laughter]. It was fantastic. It was so wonderful.
Henry Baron: That's great.
Gary Schmidt: And she was as good as all of them.
Jennifer Holberg: That's exactly right.
Gary Schmidt: It was [unclear] humility, first off, but also an acknowledgement of how extraordinary to be between these two giant writers.
Jennifer Holberg: Yes. Wonderful.
Donald Hettinga: A couple of things stick in my mind about Madeleine L'Engle's visit. It was the first time I had a sense that a writer could have-- could be like the Rolling Stones or something and have these incredible fans. Because we would say, "She'll be speaking in the Fine Arts Center," and I went over to the Commons area where we were going to have a book signing. And there were people who were skipping her talk in order to line up for the book signing.
It was also so incredible to see the kind of connection that so many readers had. They would not only want books signed, but they would maybe show a passage that had been memorable to them and show pictures of family. And you realize that in the storytelling, there's an incredible intimacy between writer and and reader. We don't often get a chance to see the effect of that. And I think in some of the signings and in some of the greeting situations, you do get a glimpse.
Jennifer Holberg: Dale used to call that, "Mister, you changed my life." And we have so many of that; if you stand in any book line, you see the incredible power of words and story to help people and change people's lives. And as you say, rock stars.
Henry, did you have a memory or an author that you particularly--
Henry Baron: [00:41:06] One of my favorite memories is when, after the evening main speech presentation, Rudy Wiebe and I were met by two attendees: both really writers but readers too, local people, one from Holland, Michigan and the other from Grand Rapids, had done a lot of writing, both with Mennonite roots.
So we talked together. We sat there until late at night, after everybody was gone. We sat there together just talking about what it meant to be a Mennonite, all kinds of stories that they had. It was just a very small community, but it was really sweet. And I think all of us will remember that as really a wonderful conclusion to the Festival.
Jennifer Holberg: It's wonderful, both the ginormous events [like] Katherine's speech, but then those very small moments that you can have with other people too. I think that really kind of encapsulates why people love the Festival so much.
So, the final question. If people have never been to the Festival -- and we have some in the room today, some of our filmers who are hoping to watch the virtual Festival -- what's a word or a phrase that you would say to people, like, "The Festival is ___" or, "This is the adjective for it: ___."
Donald Hettinga: Serendipity.
Jennifer Holberg: Great word.
Donald Hettinga: There is always-- it always was amazing. I mean, we'd work so hard and hope. And we'd recognize that things would go wrong; you know, maybe it would rain, maybe the lunches wouldn't show up or something. But there would be such goodwill on the part of the attendees because they did have these moments of serendipity, where they connected with a writer or they had a small conversation with people of similar interests. And there was just something very, very rich. So we could see the Festival as a structure that would bring around little moments of grace and opportunity.
Jennifer Holberg: Beautiful.
Gary Schmidt: I'm not exactly sure how to express it. I think this Festival is the real thing. You know, there are opportunities to go see a writer and just to worship and adore the writer; you don't learn from that, really. And there are opportunities just to see someone strut across the stage, and you don't learn from that. But you come here and you see people who are really serious -- and this is what you set up, Henry -- really serious about the art. They really are serious.
And a lot of these people are being asked questions which are essential questions. And they're wrestling sometimes with them for the first time. And I think that goes out, because any question asked to someone who's being interviewed or who's talking is also being asked to our audience.
And so if you see a whole audience of 2000 -- right around 2000 still, right? -- people who are thinking about these issues for themselves, it's the real deal. It's not screwing around, it's not just "Let's have a good time," though it's some of that. It's really, "Let me think seriously about what it means to be a writer and to be a person of faith." And I don't know where that happens very often, but it really happens here every year.
Jennifer Holberg: Thank you.
Henry Baron: [00:44:55] I think it's an immersion and something that expands your spirit, that grows your love for the word, for images, and certainly intensifies your appreciation for having this community together. So yes. Come to the Festival.
Jennifer Holberg: Well, I'm not surprised you three gentlemen thought of excellent words. My word would be gratitude, both for your time today but also for this incredible gift. When I interviewed in the department, it was right before the 1998 one, and I remember everyone being very excited about it. And I thought, this is an interesting place to be; this is a place I would want to come to.
And I'm so proud to get to carry on the legacy that you established, Henry, all those years ago, and has been carried forward by my colleagues, both represented here and obviously through our whole department. I'm just so grateful that you had that idea. And here it is all these years later. So grateful to you, Henry, and so grateful to get to be a small part of the Festival of Faith and Writing myself.
Henry Baron: And so grateful for you carrying it on being here.
Jennifer Holberg: Thank you, Henry. And thank you all for listening today to this episode of Rewrite Radio. We hope you'll check out our other episodes and join us online for all the many things that the Center for Faith and Writing has on offer. God bless you and thank you again for listening.
Heidi Groenboom: [00:46:28] Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.