Before arriving to Reno, my only impression of it had been what I had gleaned from a couple of scenes in the film Sister Act. I landed in the Reno-Tahoe airport after arriving from Birmingham. A local in the airport advised me against my plan to take a cab and find a hostel for the night. She said, “Reno’s hurtin’ bad. Take a free shuttle downtown and you can stay at a hotel for $35.” Praise God for putting locals in every single city I visit.
I took the shuttle to Circus Circus hotel and was told that the room would be $47, plus tax and plus some additional fee. For a hotel room it wasn’t bad, but I thought that I could do better. When I said I might go down the street and compare prices, they dropped the price $10 and I checked into the hotel.
I had arrived to Reno two days early for the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference taking place at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino. After settling into my hotel, I strolled the streets of downtown Reno observing the hotels, restaurants, movie theatre, and street names.
On August 1, I woke up and soon after phoned Joan and Michael who agreed to host me during the conference. I arrived to their home on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if I’d like a drink, I said yes and Mr. Cassity offered to make me a martini! As we drank our martinis we discussed liberal arts education, great books, tradition, conversion, conservatism, travel, and more. Mrs. Cassity made a delicious dinner and served wine. I was well taken care of by my Chestertonian host parents.
The next day, they offered to take me to Lake Tahoe. I am so glad that they did. It was a beautifully scenic drive. They told me that their children can ask themselves in the same day whether they’d like to go skiing or golfing. The Cassitys told me about Mark Twain’s visit to the region in 1861. Of Lake Tahoe Twain wrote:
“At last the lake burst upon us–a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft three thousand feet higher still! As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords.”
After returning home, Joan and I prepared for the conference. Then, we drove to the venue. Walking through the Silver Legacy Casino en route to the conference room was an interesting experience. Chesterton would probably get such a kick out of conferences being held in his honour in Reno, of all places! Joan and I arrived to the conference with plenty of time to register and browse the various tables that were set up to feature various organizations, initiatives, and books for sale.
I approached one very eye-catching display for Titanic Heroes. “Tell me about your display,” I said to the young woman waiting to greet passers by arriving early to the conference. An impressive young woman named Cady explained that she and her brother Benjamin had taken an interest in studying the Titanic. “Here is my new book,” said fifteen year old Cady holding up a copy of her just-published book A Titanic Hero: Thomas Byles. It’s the story of “One man…one ship…one night that was to be remembered forever. Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest on board the R.M.S. Titanic, had the saying, ‘Give what you have,’ instilled into him from a very young age. His training, commitment, and love for others culminated into one shining example of fortitude in the face of danger. This book, historical fiction, narrates the life of Thomas Byles.”
Cady and Benjamin and the other three Crosby siblings are a shining example of homeschooled children. Since they are homeschooled, they have plenty of time to participate in speech and debate, publish books, and to “cultivate titanic virtue” by sharing the stories of Titanic heroes through their presentations across America.
The conference kicked off with an introductory lecture by Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society. He encouraged attendees at the Reno conference to “put their money on the Chesterton table” and to support the Society by buying Chesterton books and even the “CHE-STERTON” t-shirt. The Chesterton Society has plenty of quirky rituals and this is exactly what a good society requires. From allowing whoever experiences the greatest series of unfortunate events throughout the conference to drink from the “cup of inconvenience” and then be awarded the “mug of consolation” to having an annual clerihew contest where the prize-winning four-line biographical poems are recited and celebrated at the final banquet.
Next, Joseph Pearce delivered a lecture titled, “The Humor and Humility of Chesterton.” Pearce’s message celebrated tradition and repudiated what he terms “DWEM-ism”, which represents the contempt held by progressives for “Dead, White, European, Males.” Joseph Pearce asks, “Can a person help that they are dead? Can a person help that they are white? Can a person help that they are European? Can a person help that they are male?” Of course not. Hating tradition is like racism. This is Pearce’s message and it is a very sincere one. It comes from a man who was formerly aligned with a white nationalist party in England before his conversion. Pearce’s conversion from racism to Catholicism was greatly motivated by his reading of Chesterton. Pearce is now a tremendous apologist for the faith, an excellent biographer, and active in promoting homeschool education, the great books, and liberal education.
The following day, there were many excellent lectures given by: Cameron Moore, PhD at Baylor University; Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University; Jason Jones, President and Founder of Whole Life America and Producer of the film Bella; Mark Shea, Author and Master of Blogosphere; and Kevin O’Brien, President and Artistic Director of Theater of the Word Inc. Needless to say, the conference far exceeded any expectations that I had. The lectures were top-notch and paid good tribute to Chesterton. Key themes of the lectures included: transcendence and mystery, wisdom and humility, the goodness of existence, paradoxical truth and conversion, and wonder and awe.
My favorite speaker was Jason Jones who delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches I have ever heard. He began by joking that he is a Chesterton fan “more like a twelve-year-old girl feels about Justin Beiber.” For Jones, reading Chesterton also played a significant role in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jason was raised a scientologist, but rejected scientology in eighth grade and became “a hardcore Randian objectivist” until his early thirties. Jason grew up in south-side Chicago, surrounded by anti-Catholic bias.
I knew that Jason Jones had helped to produce Bella, a pro-life film released in 2006. Jones said to us, “As of today, 581 women who were going to have abortions saw Bella, changed their minds, and let us know.”
He said that receiving text messages informing him that another woman has chosen life for her child is the very best part of his job. All of these details become even more beautiful in light of Jason’s conversion story.
Jason was sixteen. It was two days before his seventeenth birthday and a Saturday morning after a Friday night high school football game. His girlfriend came into his bedroom, “the room of a boy” and informed him that she was pregnant. “There I was with my girlfriend and we needed a strategy,” recalls Jason. The plan we came up with was this: On my seventeenth birthday, I could drop out of school and join the army. She would wait for me to come back.” His parents were supportive and the principal was happy to sign the papers. And so that’s what Jason did. He piled his belongings into a pillow case, along with a razor that he didn’t yet need and went to join the army so that he could support his family upon his return.
One day, a call came in and Jason took the phone, though he knew he wasn’t meant to leave his station. His girlfriend was on the phone and she was crying, “like I’ve never heard a woman cry before. And the only way that I can describe it is that her soul was crying. She kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Then, her father picked up the phone and said, “Jason, I know your secret and your secret is gone. I took Katie to get an abortion.”
Just then, someone came and hung up the phone and told Jason to get back to task. Jason, angry and shaken, said, “Sir, call the police. My girlfriend’s father just killed my child.” In reply the man said to Jason, “Why would I call the police? Don’t you know that abortion is legal?”
Jason did not know.
Jason was a poor student, but he says that he knew then that life began at fertilization. He was heart-broken. When he had the opportunity to phone his girlfriend back, he said to her, “Katie, I promise you that, even if no one cares about abortion and if it takes me the rest of my life, I will end abortion for you and our daughter Jessica.”
Jason and Katie know that the abortion ended the life of their daughter because when the abortion was done, the abortionist then said to Katie, “By the way, your baby was a baby girl.”
Since this experience, Jason truly has dedicated his life to striving to end abortion and to help create a culture of life and build a civilization of love. He converted to the Catholic faith and now has six children. He is producing more life-affirming films, directing the organization I Am Whole Life, and travelling the world advancing respect for the sanctity of all human life from the moment of fertilization until the moment of natural death.
Conversion stories are awesome. They make the most beautiful stories because they bear witness so wonderfully to the path of salvation history consisting in passion (suffering), death (dying to self), and resurrection (new life in Christ).
On Friday evening at the Chesterton conference, there was the world premiere of the film Manalive, based on Chesterton’s novel by the same title. Manalive is the story of Innocent Smith, a character who is tried for such crimes as burglary, desertion of a spouse, polygamy, and attempted murder. If I may excerpt from Wikipedia, here is a summary of the wonderous Chestertonian paradoxes in the film:
“[Innocent Smith] fires bullets near people to make them value life; the house he breaks into is his own; he travels around the world only to return with renewed appreciation for his house and family; and the women he absconded with are actually his wife Mary, posing as a spinster under different aliases so they may repeatedly re-enact their courtship.”
After watching the film, I thought: I am a “cradle Catholic” yet I think I ought to convert to Roman Catholicism. I imagined myself taking Rite of Christian Initiation for Adult (RCIA) classes. Of course, life is a continuous experience of conversion, of return to God. Chesterton’s wit and wisdom adds wonder to the experience and reminds each reader that he is also “the man who with the upmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.”
On Saturday the conference sessions included a lecture by Nancy Brown on The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton, a session by Julian Ahlquist on Chesterton and Aliens, a small group discussion on the economic ideas of distributism, and finally a closing lecture by Dr. Andrew Tadie contrasting Chesterton and H.G. Wells.
There was 5:00pm mass on Saturday evening celebrated at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral with the Most Reverend Randolph Calvo, Bishop of Reno.
Then, everyone returned to the casino to a ballroom where the closing banquet was held. There were jokes, toasts, songs, drama and musical performances, clerihew readings, a live auction (a signed Chesterton book was the top prize), plenty of wine, and lots of other fun.
The conversations that evening at my table centred around the presidential election, Austrian economics versus distributism, summer travels, music, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and our favorite Chestertonian aphorisms. It was an absolute delight to dine with young people who light up while discussing Chesterton because of how instrumental he has been in helping them to see more colourfully. Chesterton helps souls become poetic optimists. Chesterton writes:
“The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in light of the supernatural.”
I look forward to reading more works by Chesterton.
To everyone, I recommend his book Orthodoxy.
G.K. Chesterton, pray for us.
This blog post is dedicated to Joan and Michael Cassity in gratitude to them for having hosted me in their home and for having shared many wonderful conversations during the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference in Reno, Nevada. God bless you!