Square Halo Conference: Creativity, Community, and Carrying On
By Erin Jones

Ned Bustard and Carey Bustard discuss Leslie Bustard’s life and legacy with Amy Knorr.

A lamppost is an unexpected sight in the middle of a forest, as C.S. Lewis knew well. A glowing lamppost on a conference stage is also unexpected. But both the lamppost of Lewis fame and the lamppost on the stage of the Square Halo Conference have this in common: they both signal a return to Narnia.

“Return to Narnia” was the theme of the 2024 Square Halo Conference, which took place March 8-9 at the Trust Performing Arts Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The event served a creative buffet of offerings from lectures to printmaking, theater, and music. Matthew Dickerson, author of the newly-released book, “Aslan’s Breath: The Holy Spirit in Narnia,” served as keynote speaker. Byron Borger, who gave a lecture on why reading matters, wrote of the conference, “Beside the lectures by folks that know the Chronicles so very well there was a Narnia play, a gallery display of art inspired by Narnia, original music inspired by Narnia — everything but Turkish Delight. It took us further up and further in.”

Despite the fanciful theme and whimsical attention to detail, the event was permeated by acknowledgments of grief, both individually and corporately. A pronounced absence pervaded the event, as this year’s conference marked the first since the passing of its founder and champion, Leslie Bustard, in April 2023 following a three-year battle with cancer.

Leslie Bustard

Ned Bustard, creative director of Square Halo Books and Leslie’s husband, intentionally began the conference by acknowledging the losses felt by many in the room. He enlisted pastor David Bisgrove, who served alongside the late Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City for many years, to open the conference. Bisgrove spoke on the sorrows of the Garden of Gethsemane from Luke 22.  

“I wanted him to come and be a pastoral voice at the beginning of the conference,” Bustard said of Bisgrove’s presence. “Both Tim [Keller] and Leslie would say it’s the gospel and the kingdom of God that needs to be focused on. [We tried] to think through, how do we honor them, appreciate their work, but not let their loss keep us from kingdom work?” 

While subsequent lectures related to Narnia and creativity, another common thread emerged. “A theme of suffering and God’s presence in the middle of all that kind of ran through a number of the talks, not intentionally,” Bustard said.  “It was very encouraging to have that, personally for me. I was doing this without my wife and missing her.”

Leslie conceived of the Square Halo Conference after attending the Rabbit Room’s Hutchmoot conference. She envisioned an event locally in Lancaster combining art, music, and theology, all with an emphasis on community.“This vision of creativity, collaboration, and community was something that really sparked in her mind.” Ned Bustard recalled.

The first conference was planned for 2020, but had to be postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. By this time Leslie had begun her battle with cancer. In a July 2022 interview with Brian Brown on the Anselm Society’s Imagination Redeemed podcast, Leslie described the early days of her diagnosis.

“Very soon after I received my diagnosis of cancer, I said to the Lord, ‘I really want to know what Psalm 23 now means.’ If he was going to call me to walk through cancer and call my family to walk through cancer I wanted to know what it was like to be sustained by him and see even the good things in what is like a death sentence. I feel like in his kindness he started showing me that right away.” 

While subsequent lectures related to Narnia and creativity, another common thread emerged: suffering and God’s presence in the middle of it.

The aim of creating ministry from trial began to shape Leslie’s cancer journey and became the impetus for  Leslie’s final book, Tiny Thoughts I’ve Been Thinking,” published posthumously in February 2024. The book draws from Leslie’s writings in a variety of forms, what the Square Halo website calls “a magpie’s nest of reflections on art, faith, literature, community, caregiving, and mortality.”  

“Once we realized Leslie wasn’t going to be writing anymore, we wanted to grab everything and preserve it.” Ned Bustard said. 

Considering Leslie’s Legacy

Théa Rosenburg edited the book and moderated a panel discussion on Leslie’s work at the conference. The discussion included readings from the newly-released collection, an experience deeply moving for both those who knew Leslie and new readers, Rosenburg remembers. “Her writing is so intimate and deeply hospitable, and yet her later works especially have this quality of pointing to something just beyond us, something she could just glimpse, but that we can’t quite see.” 

The striking cover of the book includes a painting of Leslie by Bruce Herman, as part of the Ordinary Saints project. Leslie and Bruce corresponded during her battle with cancer, which led to her inclusion in the project and his painting a portrait of her. As it turns out, the completed painting arrived just in time. “She was released from the hospital, came home, got to sit and look at the painting that evening, and then she had another stroke and was back in the hospital. That was the last time she was at the home.” Ned said. 

Leslie died April 14, 2023. Even as early as the funeral, there was talk of how to continue propelling forward Leslie’s vision for the Square Halo Conference. Ned took the helm, and daughter Carey also stepped into greater involvement. Carey not only spoke at the conference, but has taken over hosting the Square Halo Podcast, previously hosted by Leslie. 

How does one rally the courage to lead a conference in the face of such loss? “Leslie’s life, death, and suffering was not about us.” Ned said, “So many people have been moved by Leslie dying well that it just seemed to be part of her calling. It was a job she and we were given: to steward this catastrophe to bless other people.”

See You Soon, Leslie by Bruce Herman

Blessing others in the face of loss carries on the spirit Leslie instilled in the conference from the beginning.  Rosenburg said: “Leslie was such a warm and welcoming presence at past Square Halo conferences that her absence this year was palpable. Yet the vision she’d cast for the conference was one the rest of the Square Halo team caught and continued so faithfully this year that, though she was deeply missed, the event still felt like this abundantly hospitable place.”

Corey Latta, who spoke on the topic of Lewis and Creativity, saw Leslie ‘s vision reflected in this year’s conference. “The conference honored creativity from a place of faith and personal openness,” Latta said. “It was this collection of visual beauty, musical expression, and written creativity, all things Leslie championed as a poet, writer, and Christian. And all things that Ned continues to champion.”

In an April 2022 interview with Jonathan Rogers on The Habit Podcast, Leslie said, “How can I take what’s been given to me and move it forward to the people, young or old, in front of me so that they then can have seeds? I want to think about what I do mostly as seed planting.” 

The seeds planted by Leslie in the form of the Square Halo Conference continue to bear a harvest of encouragement, according to the response Ned and the Square Halo team received following the conference. “There were letters and emails from people just saying how much it meant to them, and that it was so refreshing.” Ned said.  

Next year’s conference is scheduled for March 7-8, 2025, in Lancaster Pennsylvania, with the theme Creativity, Collaboration, and Community. For more of Leslie’s writing or to sign up for the conference, visit https://www.squarehalobooks.com/.

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