Last week from April 10-12, the population of Calvin College increased by nearly half when the campus was inundated with about 2,000 readers, writers, panelists, authors and speakers from around the world for the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing. Despite the daunting logistics, the event was a success, according to English professor Dean Ward, one of three professors on the festival planning committee.
“It really seemed to go smoothly,” Ward said. “In terms of the logistics of it, I can’t think of any significant problems that we ran into.”
Social media played a significant role in this year’s festival, allowing attendees to converse and exchange thoughts, quotes and reflections about the sessions.
“It’s a writing and reading conference, so many of our attendees are introverts,” said Beth Heinen Bell, program coordinator for the festival. “They do solitary work … so three days of constantly being ‘on’ gets exhausting. … People [are] able to share the ideas and the quotes that they’re hearing, but they’re not necessarily having to do that publicly in a way that is draining. So social media really functions as a way to keep the education going, to continue to share those thoughts and ideas … and also the fact that we have many concurrent sessions, you’re able to glean at least a little bit from the sessions that you weren’t able to be at.”
The unseen and untold stories that took place during the three-day event are what really make the festival exceptional, said English professor Debra Rienstra, one of the professors on the festival planning committee.
“People have asked what was special or different about this one,” Rienstra said. “I think the answer to that is a hundred things that we don’t necessarily even know about. Conversations and encounters people had. And that’s the most wonderful thing. We engineer this big party, but then it’s the stuff we don’t engineer that’s really neat — the students who come away with little author crushes.”
For Rienstra, another meaningful aspect of this year’s festival was its exhibition of authors and genres that aren’t typically in the limelight.
“I think for me some of the most exciting moments were the G. Willow Wilson sessions,” Rienstra said. “I thought she had marvelous things to say about fantasy and superheroes and genres that have not necessarily been taken very seriously, but she does take them seriously, and there are a lot of people who do.”
Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel “American Born Chinese,” addressed the intersection of art and faith in his opening plenary lecture, “Is Art Selfish?”
“I thought Gene Yang’s plenary was fantastic,” Rienstra said. “It was just perfect for our audience. Once again a person who is a wonderful artist in a genre that we are just sort of getting to know at a festival and we’re pretty excited about.”
Preparation for the festival was not a halfhearted undertaking. The three-day event took two years of recruiting, planning and preparing by committees of students and professors. The student committee was instrumental in preparing and managing the festival, Ward said.
“The student committee is great,” Ward said. “This is nothing new. This has been the case for as long as we’ve been using the student committee. The student committee is one of the best things about Festival — for the festival governance, for the festival committee and for the students. It’s a great thing all around.”
At various time slots during the festival, attendees had a wide array of authors and speakers to choose from. But the multiplicity of options did not seem to diminish attendance at lesser-hyped events, Ward said.
“One of the things you worry about is those times when you got some big names up, the Anne Lamott interview or something like that, and then there are six or eight other sessions going on at the same time,” Ward said. “But all the reports I heard is that there were good crowds in all the sessions.”
Overall, the festival committee is pleased with the festival and is already looking forward to Festival 2016.
“At this point it’s just a lot of gratitude,” Ward said. “Gratitude for the gratitude, because there are so many people spontaneously saying ‘thank you’ when I’m walking around campus.”
The festival committee already has at least eight authors who have expressed interest in participating in Festival 2016.