The Great Inviter

W. Dale Brown, put in front of an audience, was always disarming: smart, artless, arch – and Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing put him in front of many audiences.

Given his druthers, though, Dale would station himself at the back of a crowd. From there, he could wink at the latecomers. He could chuckle, a little less than circumspect, at the speakers’ jokes and quirks. He could whisper along with the poets and commit the orators’ maxims to memory. He could pace. And in the end, he could startle at the applause overtaking the auditorium. In fact, he often did.

What Dale never did, though, was claim commission on those ovations.

And heaven knows (no doubt but that it knows firsthand, by now) that he wouldn’t want that unclaimed commission like this: in one lump sum – and presented to him (albeit in absentia) with some pomp, like an outsize Publishers Clearing House check. Which makes writing this ungainly elegy all the harder. Then again, as Thomas Lynch, whom Dale invited to the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2004, once observed, “The dead can’t tell the living what to feel.”

Apart from Dale’s hospitality, the Festival of Faith and Writing would have moved fewer people.

“The dead can’t tell the living what to feel.” It is the kind of line Dale would have whispered along with, the kind of maxim he would have committed to memory. What’s more, it’s true, and so is this: the living feel indebted to Dale Brown for a whole host of reasons, but one of the most common is his extraordinary work in shaping Calvin College’s biennial Festival of Faith and Writing.

Genesis of a festival

For the record, that extraordinary work dates back to 1990, when, with a handful of colleagues from Calvin’s English Department, Dale helped see the Festival of Faith and Writing into existence.
The first iteration of the festival was relatively humble, the work behind it largely a matter of dreaming-up and hustling-after. Indeed, that first festival came off thanks primarily to a few faculty who proved especially gifted at cajoling and calling in favors and corralling the like-minded (along with a few of the merely inquisitive). Will Campbell gave the keynote speech the first night of that first year, and Larry Woiwode delivered the Stanley M. Wiersma Memorial Lecture the second. During the rest of the weekend, away from the main stage, seasoned editors lent rookie novelists an ear, a half-hour. Poets futzed with their lyrics, then read them aloud before workshops. Scholars quarreled cordially. Avid readers swapped paperbacks and addresses. And nearly everyone was hooked.

Dale, I suspect, most of all. Well, no surprise there – for years, he had been striking up conversations about the territory that belongs mutually to faith and writing. And in the festival, what he found was the means to sustain and widen such conversations as he had known thus far to be fruitful but fitful. Consequently, Dale became what my dear friend and colleague Jennifer Holberg called him at his memorial service this past October. He became the “Great Inviter.” He became, that is, the generous and canny director of the Festival of Faith and Writing, a demanding post he filled until 2004.

The festival thrived.

It thrived because of multiple and complicated influences, as any great enterprise will. It thrived thanks to openhanded individuals and communities, thanks to the infectious zeal of its charter speakers and audiences, thanks to a college and a city that made it at home. Dale, in fact, would have credited the festival’s success entirely to such entities.

But the fuller truth is that, apart from Dale’s hospitality, the Festival of Faith and Writing would have moved fewer people. It is just barely possible, if improbable, that it would have impressed as many. (Visionaries who happen to be gifted at horse-trading and sausage-making don’t come along that often, though Dale was one of them. He frequently convinced speakers to halve their fees and sponsors to double their patronage, and with apparent ease. Even as he bargained, though, Dale was hospitable.)

True, hospitality is an easy-to-slight virtue – at least until you’ve known the real thing: its pointed welcome and unfeigned curiosity, its plain camaraderie and quick charity. So when I describe Dale as hospitable, don’t mistake me. He was not a virtuoso of small talk. He did not smell of pie baking. He did not bask in the role of host.

Dale’s generosity cannot be reduced to manners or gestures. It was innate, a way of being rather than a flawless set of manners, an agility as opposed to a series of gestures.

Generous to writers

Dale was generous to writers, the kind of attentive, charitable reader they would have chosen for themselves, were the published permitted to handpick their audiences.

He read hungrily, and his tastes were broad. He relished a good plot, but he also admired books in which little happens – stories, for example, concerning quiet changes of heart. He savored highly wrought prose, but he also valued the conversational. And to look back at the Festival of Faith and Writing’s many iterations is to see those wide sympathies enacted. It is to see Ernest Gaines, the adept of plotting, and Kathleen Norris, the poet of the contemplative, each take the stage at Fesitval 2002. It is to see John Updike, the prodigy of style, and Jon Hassler, a genius of the ordinary, end and begin (respectively) Festival 1998.

The list could go on, obviously, but the point is this: Dale didn’t assume that popular writers must be shallow or that difficult writers couldn’t draw crowds. Neither did he consider the as-yet-unsung beneath his notice. On the contrary, Dale was always noticing exactly such new voices, always pegging writers as worthwhile well before they became bestsellers – Anne Lamott and David James Duncan among them.
Anne Lamott and David James Duncan, by the way, also stand as sound examples of Dale’s hospitality as it applied to “varieties of religious experience.” Simply put, neither of these two writers is the most conventional of believers; nonetheless, Dale welcomed them to the festival – as he did many other more or less orthodox, more or less conflicted writers of faith.

For Dale was never stingy in his understanding of faith. Conversely, he trusted that doubt was a species of belief, and when it came to the traditions that the festival’s speakers prized or contested, he recognized a broad church – and he respected the synagogues and mosques at which he never worshipped.
So, yes. Dale was, for better than a decade, the Festival of Faith and Writing’s Great Inviter, and many of the speakers who graced the festival’s stages and podia showed up because Dale Brown asked them to show up.

Generous with the audience

Obviously, Dale asked thousands of other folks to show up to the festival, too, and they also – the festival’s audiences – came because he asked. Many of them, moreover, turned up year after year, in part because the conference’s director treated them as hospitably as he did the glitteriest literati. Note, as evidence, the letter that began the conference program for 2004, in which Dale extended a “welcome to those holding forth as well as to those taking in.”

Even that line offers a stunted idea of Dale’s graciousness, though – for, whenever he could, Dale flouted the distinction between “those holding forth” and “those taking in.” Stories on this front abound.
In Books & Culture’s recent tribute to Dale Brown, the writer Paul Willis, one of the festival’s frequent presenters, remembers how “on impulse, [Dale] and his wife, Gayle, took a whole random roomful of us out for pizza.” Then he adds, “Somehow he made us believe that we were each a valuable part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s because Dale was bigger than himself.”

Were it not for Dale, I might have gone on being part of something exactly the size of myself for a much longer time.

Others who faithfully attended the festival have pointed, in the wake of Dale’s fatal bicycle crash, to similar episodes. Among my favorite stories is Bev Vanderwell’s: Bev recounts how Dale introduced her, spontaneously, to Frederick Buechner. Dale “looked [at me] sideways,” she wrote. Then he “leaned in, and said conspiratorially, ‘Do you want to meet Buechner?’” and, on her say-so, he ushered her “into a side room” where she managed a “sheepis[h …] conversation with Dale, Frederick, and his wife. What generosity Dale showed to me that day,” she concludes.

No doubt – and what generosity Dale habitually extended to all those in his reach.

Learning extravagance of heart

After all, just as it would have been easy – and not at all unkind – for Dale and Gayle Brown to opt out of lengthening a tiring day with “a whole random roomful” of people or for Dale to chat, uninterrupted, with his longtime friends Frederick and Judith Buechner, it would have been easy to leave the Festival of Faith and Writing entirely in the hands of professionals. Dale, however, insisted that the festival be a common cause, an endeavor shaped by both Calvin College’s faculty and its students.

Suffice it to say that this is not standard practice. Almost any other conference with the festival’s status will, at most, let a handful of graduate students handle its website. The Festival of Faith and Writing, by contrast, pairs each of its speakers with a student host. It enlists undergraduates to research the writers it features. It trusts them to write copy for its program, to ferret out errors in its schedule, to stage-manage its workshops. And this is hospitality, too: to cede important work to promising amateurs, to cheer them on and check on them (even when doing so takes more time than it would to finish the task yourself). Granted, to practice this particular form of hospitality is also to gamble.

Then again, as I reread the old rosters of students who worked on the Festival between 1990 and 2004, and as I scroll down the online tributes to Dale, all the evidence suggests that his gamble has been sanctioned. Sanctioned not just by the fondness of those students he trusted, so many of whom wrote in stricken gratitude to him – although that is no small thing – but by their stories, some well plotted and some still musing, some highly wrought and some homespun.

I set my story beside theirs. In 1998 and 2000, Dale Brown was the director of the Festival of Faith and Writing, and I was its student director. It was a peculiar job, given over in almost equal parts to finicky paperwork and abstract thinking, and I was not, strictly speaking, qualified either to manage the festival’s minutiae or to bandy about its principles. Nevertheless, the work suited me, or I suited it, or Dale pretended the match was a good one until that fiction came true.

By now, those particulars don’t matter much, or at least not as much as this: Dale welcomed me to take part in the Festival of Faith and Writing, and I showed up – like hundreds of writers and editors, like thousands of conferees, and like dozens of student volunteers – because (to crib from Paul Willis) he “made [me] believe [I could be] a part of something bigger than [myself].” By the same token, were it not for Dale, I might have gone on being part of something exactly the size of myself for a much longer time.

And that is true for many of us whom the festival moved: Dale, by inviting us to take part in it, also invited us to learn more extravagance of heart, to grow more generous of mind.

All told, then, the question is not how we could have repaid him while he was living. We never could have (which is not to say that we have yet reconciled ourselves to the grief of no longer trying). Still, failing that chance, the question is how we can repay him by living – what novices we can welcome to important work, what “random roomful[s]” we can feed, what stories we can attend to as bigheartedly as if they were our own. The question, in other words, is where we can show up to try on that munificence Dale always wore so lightly.


Jane Zwart teaches English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.