Before 2000, Lisa Cockrel had never heard of the Festival of Faith & Writing – a biennial celebration of literature and belief at Calvin College. Living in Chicago and attending college at the time, she was given the opportunity to travel to Grand Rapids and attend the festival. After an unforgettable weekend, she came away with an encouraging thought: “I found my people.”
Cockrel hasn’t stopped attending since then, and she’s now living in Grand Rapids and has been the festival’s director since the summer before the 2016 festival. She can still recall the impact of her first experience and the way in which it broadened her thinking.
“It was a magical weekend for me and an exposure to a new kind of conversation,” Cockrel said. “To come to a Christian college that was deeply engaged in faith but also not policing any sort of theological boundaries was new for me.”
Cockrel’s insights from her first experience are interwoven into what she now hopes the festival will be. For her, it represents “the best of what reformed engagement with culture and literary arts can be,” creating space for conversations across differences while celebrating a common enjoyment of language.
These ideals have been at the core of the Festival of Faith & Writing since the first one back in 1990. What began as a project of Calvin’s English department has since evolved into a gathering of more than 2,000 people from across the globe that participate in three days of lectures, readings, workshops, films and more.
As the festival’s director, Cockrel is involved with a variety of tasks and responsibilities that help put it together. From brainstorming with the planning committee to helping manage the festival’s website to organizing travel schedules for incoming authors, she oversees the big picture of the festival while helping with some of the minute details.
Despite all the planning to make sure the festival runs as smoothly as possible, some of the most meaningful moments for Cockrel have come about in ways that weren’t planned. Amid hovering around and supervising various events at the 2016 festival, she witnessed a simple moment that has stood out to her.
“I was sitting in on an interview with George Saunders and happened to look down the row and see Tobias Wolff, our opening keynote speaker, who had been a teacher of George Saunders’ when he was getting his MFA,” Cockrel said. “Tobias is a legendary writer and George is now an incredible talent, and to see Tobias humbly sitting there in the crowd and full of teacherly pride for his former student was so cool to see.”
It’s these kinds of moments and connections that Cockrel hopes festivalgoers will notice and value. She sees the festival as a platform that gives people the opportunity to engage in real communion with one another – to connect with old friends, to make new ones, and to be fully present with one another in an age when social media connections are sometimes predominant.
Yet above all, she hopes they will have experiences that are uniquely their own.
“I hope that they get what they need from the festival, whatever that may be,” Cockrel said.
The magic that Cockrel noticed when she first attended the festival and found “her people” is still there. She knows that the people involved—from the planners to the speakers to the attendees—largely contribute to that.
“It’s what the people bring that makes the festival so special,” Cockrel said. “That’s where the real magic is.”
Taking place April 12-14, this year’s festival will feature speakers that include children’s and young adult novelist Kwame Alexander, fiction writer and memoirist Edwidge Danticat, science author Bill McKibben, poet and essayist Jamie Quatro, and many more. While hearing from speakers, attendees can now enjoy refreshments from a Madcap Coffee pop-up café – a partnership that is new to the festival.
While registration for the full festival experience is closed, some events are open to the public. To check out the schedule, see the full list of speakers, and find out more information, visit the festival’s website.