To celebrate Image’s twenty-fifth anniversary we are posting a series of essays from people who have encountered our programs over the years. Read the other installments, Stumbling into the Waterfall and The Notecards of Paradise.
By Dan Wakefield
I was happy to be asked to speak at the first Image conference in Berkeley in 1992 and delighted to learn that Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest and Dutch theologian, would be there to deliver the Sunday homily.
My minister at King’s Chapel in Boston had introduced me to his work when he gave me Nouwen’s book Reaching Out: Three Movements in The Spiritual Life, and a friend introduced me to Henri himself when he was at Harvard Divinity School in 1983.
I had gone with a group of friends from King’s Chapel to hear Father Nouwen give a public lecture at Harvard in 1982, where the Divinity School had scheduled him in a room that held about a hundred people, which meant that another hundred or so had to be turned away. We learned later that some of the Divinity faculty were piqued that Nouwen had drawn such a big crowd—we were condescendingly described as “people from the suburbs,” i.e. non-academics, and Nouwen was whispered to be “popular,” a mortal sin in elitist theology.
The only speaker I have ever heard to match the power of Nouwen was James Baldwin, a street corner preacher as a boy in Harlem before becoming a writer. Nouwen spoke with a slight lisp, and his whole body seemed to bend forward with his hands sometimes “reaching out” in a physical effort to get across his message, not histrionically but with a passion to communicate, as if he were trying to implant his words in the hearts of his listeners.