Peace Blogger Interview #9: Daniel Schweissing, pt.I
Welcome to a special American Independence Day edition of the Christian Peace Blogger interviews. [Previous installments can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8.]While 04 July 1776 should be remembered as the day that many of the British colonies in North America declared their Independence and formed these United States, a noble experiment in self-government, maybe it’s long past time that Americans, in the words of one of our greatest presidents, John F. Kennedy, declared their interdependence with the rest of the world. With that in mind, this latest peace blogger interview is with Daniel Schweissing, an American with much cross-cultural experience and who splits his time, these days, between his native Colorado and his home in Nassau, the Bahamas. Full disclosure: Unlike with most of these interviews, I know Daniel from our common membership in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. We “met” on the BPFNA email discussion list before meeting in person–at a time when neither of us had yet heard of “blogging.” He runs the blog, Doing Theology from the Caribbean, which should be much more well-known. Welcome, Dan!
MLW-W: How would you describe yourself?
Daniel: Coloradoan, Baptist, missionary, teacher, theologian, not necessarily in that order.
MLW-W: Those self-descriptions are always very interesting. Tell us about your immediate family.
Daniel: I am married to the former Estela Luisima Yeven. Estela was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian immigrant parents. We met during the two years that I spent as a volunteer missionary at her church during the mid-1990s and married shortly after my term of service ended. We have no children, but Estela comes from a big family. So we have fifteen nieces and nephews, fourteen on her side of the family and one on my side of the family.
MLW-W: I always wondered how you and Estela met. I still don’t know what spell you cast on her to make her fall for a lug like you, but, then, if women weren’t extraordinarily kind and gracious, I’d still be single! What do you do for a living?
Daniel: Estela and I are American Baptist missionaries, presently assigned to Nassau. I teach theology at Atlantic College and Theological Seminary and Estela works in general ministry with the local Haitian Baptist churches. We are in an urban ministry context where we are attempting to teach and minister according to the principles of Christian community development.
MLW-W: Briefly, could you describe or maybe just list these principles of Christian Community Development?
Daniel: The basic principles as conceptualized by John Perkins are known as the 3Rs: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. But other practitioners have added additional principles that have gained wide acceptance as well.
MLW-W: That’s helpful, thanks. In addition to your other work as a missionary, you teach theology at Atlantic College and Theological Seminary in the Bahamas. Not to promote the “cult of the Ph.D.” or anything, but do you see yourself pursuing further theological education with this cross-cultural educational work in mind?
Daniel: I’m certainly interested and opened to that possibility. Unfortunately, my options in that area are largely limited to taking a three or four year leave of absence from my ministry in order to take up residence near a PhD granting institution. That’s not really feasible right now and it doesn’t appear that it will be any time in the near future. There are a handful of European institutions such as the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and the Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague (both of which supervise doctoral dissertations under the auspices of the University of Wales) that could work with me on a part-time basis, but the expense involved in commuting back and forth to Europe to meet with advisors is simply beyond my reach. Perhaps the best option at this point is Fuller Seminary in Pasadena which has recently revamped their DMiss program to accommodate field missionaries who wish to pursue studies on a part-time basis. They are currently enrolling student cohorts on a quarterly basis that focus on specific missiological themes. So assuming that a cohort is ever offered in Afro-Caribbean studies, contextualized theology, missions history, or a related area, then I would likely give very serious consideration to enrolling.
MLW-W: Well, I hope something along those lines works out. When not working or blogging, what do you like to do?
Daniel: I am a native Coloradoan but have spent most of my adult life in the Caribbean so—not surprisingly—I find the two most amazing aspects of God’s creation to be the mountains and the ocean. When we’re at home in Colorado, I enjoy camping in the mountains and, when we’re at home in Nassau, I enjoy relaxing at the beach.
MLW-W: Tell us something about your faith. How long have you been a Christian?
Daniel: I was raised in a Christian home and have attended church for as long as I can remember. So like many of the other church kids that I grew up with, I received Jesus Christ as my personal savior when I was eight years old and was baptized, shortly thereafter, on Easter Sunday. In hindsight, that early commitment was probably a greater reflection on what I believed was expected of me and what I saw other kids doing than a genuine commitment on my part. The decisive turning point in my spiritual life came years later as a teenager when my youth pastor did a four-week series on hunger and poverty in our Sunday night youth meetings. Not coincidentally, he did this when the publicity of the Ethiopian famine (1985) was at its height and the result was that I began to seriously consider what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Within two years of that study, I had been on a short-term missions trip to Mexico with a Christian relief and development organization and had committed to pursuing a career as an overseas missionary.
Other important influences during my teenage years were the music of Steve Camp and the preaching of Tony Campolo. God sort of blended all of these things together to gently push me forward in the direction that he wanted me to go. The interesting thing is that my calling and commitment emerged in a context where holistic ministry was assumed to be a given. So I never struggled with theological questions of whether or not to emphasize evangelism or social action. By the time I realized that such a debate existed, it was already clear in my mind that it was an issue of both/and not either/or.
MLW-W: Campolo, I know, having first met him in college. But, I confess to being rather “tone deaf” about “contemporary Christian music.” My rock music days were pretty secular. What about Steve Camp’s music influenced you?
Daniel: I hear where you’re coming from. I haven’t listened to contemporary Christian music on a regular basis since shortly after I graduated from college in 1992 so I’m a bit “tone deaf” in that regard myself, especially since Christian music from pre-1992 is probably no longer considered “contemporary.” :-) That being said, Steve Camp influenced me during my high school years mainly because of his call to radical discipleship. His songs made it clear that being a Christian was more than just going to church on Sunday morning and attending youth group on Sunday night. He challenged his listeners “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.” During my freshman year in college, his album Justice was released and strongly reflected progressive Evangelical sentiments on a variety of pressing social issues, which served to further reinforce my commitments in that area. That was actually the last full album by Steve Camp that I ever heard before graduating from college and going off to the Dominican Republic as a volunteer missionary. I remember reading a review of one of his subsequent albums in an Evangelical publication that was very critical of the fact that he had watered down his prophetic voice. I don’t know if that’s true but, if so, then his music may have very well taken a different direction from the mid-90s onward.
MLW-W: You have somewhat answered this, but of what local congregation are you a member? If your local church is part of a denomination, what is it?
Daniel: I grew up at Crossroads American Baptist Church, a conservative evangelical congregation in the north Denver suburbs. I was baptized there, ordained there, and continue to be a member there to this day. I’ve obviously been heavily involved in a number of other churches—mostly Baptist—during my college and graduate studies as well as through my overseas missions work. Currently, my wife and I attend Emmaus Baptist Church in Nassau, which is the oldest Haitian congregation in the Bahamas.
MLW-W: You were raised in the evangelical wing of the American Baptists. Have you ever been part of a different Christian denomination or tradition?
Daniel: My grandfather was an American Baptist pastor, so my family has been heavily influenced by those roots. I guess I could say that I’ve been an American Baptist since about nine-months before I was born. :-) During my years at Fort Lewis College, I attended a Conservative Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in Campus Ambassadors—the campus ministry of the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society (currently known as Mission to the Americas). It was through my involvement in both of those groups that my understanding of ministry and social justice issues was greatly deepened and expanded. In some ways—ironically—the progressive wing of the Conservative Baptists was quite a bit to the left (socially, not theologically) of the conservative ABC congregation that I grew up in.
Having lived and traveled in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas, I have been involved in a variety of Baptist churches that are really very culturally different than the largely white suburban middle-class congregation in which I grew up. In Puerto Rico, we attended the Presbyterian Church for our first year and then a charismatic congregation for our second year. Then we found a new ABC church start that—while theologically challenging in some respects—was a much better fit for us.
MLW-W: How did you get into blogging? What do you like about it? Are there problems you see with blogging?
Daniel: At some point last summer(’06), I heard you promoting the virtues of blogging and encouraging others to get involved. [N.B.: Noticing that more rightwing Baptists had blogs than centrists or progressives, I suggested to members of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America that some of us work to change that dynamic.] Upon further reflection, I realized that most of the theology blogs that I read tended to be very Eurocentric in their orientation and that I could contribute a distinctive voice to the blogosphere by drawing on my own cross-cultural context and experience.
So far, I’ve enjoyed blogging as it has enabled me to share my ideas and interact with a much broader audience than what I am normally able to do on a typical listserve or message board.
The biggest problem that I see with blogging (as opposed to, say, private listserves or message boards) is that they are public in every sense of the word. It’s like having a private conversation amongst friends but anybody can google your name and find out exactly what you said, who you said it to, and then go quote it out of context and cause a lot of damage. This fishbowl effect makes it difficult to honestly and openly explore sensitive or controversial topics without creating an anonymous identity for oneself. Yet anonymity—by nature—diminishes one’s credibility when speaking to such issues. So it’s like walking a tightrope—a real-balancing act—to be able to avoid superficiality yet still communicate clearly to non-specialists on a given subject.
MLW-W: Those are important insights. I allow anonymous commenters on my blog (although encouraging people to give their name) because sometimes people want to comment on very sensitive topics, but fear for jobs, family, etc. And the “fishbowl effect” has made me more cautious, I think, than I otherwise would be.
MLW-W: How do you relate your faith to issues of peacemaking? What sources of strength have you found?
Daniel: My faith has been important in helping me to get a grasp on social justice issues and, in the last few years, has begun to lead me towards a better understanding of peacemaking as well. As I already mentioned, my call to discipleship and missions service developed in the midst of a context in which holistic ministry was assumed to be normative. This commitment was reinforced by my years of volunteer missions service, graduate study, and church involvement in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
While I developed a good understanding of many of the major biblical teachings on social justice during that time, my subsequent studies at Denver Seminary really deepened my understanding and enabled me to articulate my beliefs with much greater precision. In particular, I was challenged by my Old Testament professor Daniel Carroll, my theology professor David Buschart, and my academic advisor and world missions professor Ray Prigodich. Each of them, in their own way, has helped me to conceptualize the whole notion of contextualizing theology which has given me a greater appreciation of the contributions of the various third-world liberation theologians as well as given me the tools to analyze culture and help me to think theologically within the context of the distinctive social location in which I minister. So in regards to justice issues, I have been especially challenged by the theological writings of Justo González, James Cone, Cheryl Sanders, Miguel De La Torre, Kelly Brown Douglas and similar authors.
MLW-W: One of your profs. you don’t mention is NT Prof. Craig Blomberg, who was also my New Testament professor in college before his move to Colorado. Craig influenced me, more than I think he expected, by introducing me to liberation theology and to biblical studies on hunger and justice. (I think he never expected me to move as far to the left of him on some other issues as I have, though.) I wonder if Craig was one of your influences, too, even though you were already concerned about hunger, economic justice, poverty, etc.
Daniel: I deeply appreciate Craig’s scholarly commitment to world missions and social justice. His greatest impact on me, however, was in a very different area. I attended a public liberal arts college and, during my senior year, took a couple of courses in Judeo-Christian tradition with a professor that was well versed in the nuances of biblical criticism but also took great pleasure in creating cognitive dissonance for religiously conservative students like myself. While I had appreciated the intellectual challenge and opportunity for spiritual growth that such classes had brought earlier in my undergraduate career, this was my first exposure to biblical criticism and this particular prof really pushed me over the edge intellectually and spiritually. Worse yet, my circle of evangelical friends and mentors were ill-equipped to help me work through those issues and, in more than a few instances, simply dismissed what I was learning in class as “trashy theories.” In hindsight, the anti-intellectual stance of my friends probably did more to challenge my faith than anything that my non-Christian professor actually threw at me. When I finally ended up in seminary seven years later, I still had a lot of unresolved doubts about my faith that had been raised from that one particular grueling semester in college. In that respect, both Craig Blomberg (NT) and Richard Hess (OT) of Denver Seminary were outstanding role models for me as I observed the way that they engaged with the Bible as well as with non-conservative biblical scholars. They helped me to see how intellectually narrow my own Christian upbringing had been and, more importantly, they taught me how to engage in healthy dialogue with a broader spectrum of Christian scholarship. For those lessons, I will always be grateful.
End, pt. I
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