Death of my mentor

Yesterday we buried the ashes of the Rev. Dr. David Schattschneider. It was a beautiful memorial service that David and his wife Doris planned. David chose the music (mostly Bach) and the Scriptures (Philippians and John). The church was crowded with friends from different aspects of his life. There was a section of Moravian pastors, a section of Moravian College and Seminary folk, a section of people from his congregation, and even several people from the model train club he loved. The head of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church, Betsy Miller, read her memoir of David’s life. We all learned things about David and his family that we did not know. His daughter, Laura, read one of the scripture passages and I read the other as if I were part of the family. It was hard to read through the tears in my eye because David was my second father in so many ways.

I had received word that David was going into hospice care just a week before his funeral. I read the email just ten minutes before I had to teach the same introductory church history course David had taught for so many years. It seemed fitting somehow that I would be carrying on his work as he prepared for his passage into the next life. You see, I am now a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary and one of the successors of David Schattschneider. I work in the same office that he used before he was promoted to the Dean’s office.

My life intersected with David’s in many ways. After I graduated from MTS with my MDiv, David hired me as the Assistant Dean. We worked closely together and sometimes joked that I was responsible for all of the extroverted things (admissions, recruitment, alumni affairs, and student life) while he took care of the introverted things like faculty and curriculum. David supported me through one of the darkest periods of my life as my first marriage collapsed and he ordered me to seek therapy. I lost many friends in those years, but David stayed true to me. I was honored that he was willing to preside at my second marriage. David wrote recommendations for me for graduate school, and he allowed me to teach my first graduate-level course while I was still working on my dissertation. Eventually I was hired to teach Moravian theology and history at Moravian Seminary, but David had already retired at that point.

The morning after I learned David was in hospice, I served communion at a retreat for Moravian pastors and church educators. It was hard to say the words of institution and the remembrance of the death of Jesus as I thought about the death of my teacher. But it was when I looked into the eyes of my former students who are now pastors that I began to weep. David was my mentor, my friend, my father, my Obi-Wan Kenobi. I wondered if my students ever think of me that way and if they would grieve one day as I grieve now. Have I been as good a teacher and mentor to them as David was to me? After communion I checked my email and learned from his wife Doris that he had already died before I celebrated communion. When I had said to the congregation that we were communing with all of the saints who have gone before us and live in eternity with Christ, I did not know that David was already part of that invisible choir. Or perhaps I did. It certainly felt like David was there with us.

I met David when I first enrolled at Moravian Theological Seminary in the autumn of 1984. He was the second youngest member of the faculty, but he had already been at the seminary since 1968. I remember sitting in his office and petitioning to be exempted from the required introductory course in church history. Lane Sapp and I did a double major in college in history and religion, and David agreed that it would be a waste of time for us to sit in his intro class. I did take four other courses that he taught: American Religious Experience, Moravian History I and II, and History of Worship. ARE was a delightful class with a tradition of creative group projects. I still remember Lane dressing up as an Episcopal bishop illegally ordaining the first women priests. My group focused on the religion of the African American slaves, and I still use some of the research from that project. David had one of the driest wits I have ever known, and frequently I was one of a handful of students who got his jokes in class. He encouraged my research and my pursuit of a PhD. He also taught me a lesson in humility when he awarded the annual Moravian history prize to someone else. David was also the professor that allowed me to vent about the other professors from time to time. They could be a frustrating group of people.

David chose me to be part of the Inter-seminary seminar that brought together students from Moravian, St Charles Borromeo Catholic, Philadelphian Lutheran, and Eastern Baptist Seminaries. David was a life-long ecumenist as well as a scholar. The seminar was interesting, but the weekly car ride to Philadelphia was even better as he shared nuggets of wisdom about the church and life. For years David kept me up to date with developments in Moravian interchurch dialog. He also shared lots of personal stories about the great historian Martin Marty such as the fact that kept a typewriter by a filing cabinet and when he had a thought he would type it and put it in a file. When the file got thick enough, it became a book. David used to schedule the last appointment of the day with Marty so he could walk him to his car and get an extra fifteen minutes of his time. David himself was much more generous with his time for students. I also heard stories about the legendary (and fictional) scholar Franz Bibfeld at the University of Chicago whom students invented as an elaborate prank on faculty. Speaking of pranking faculty, none of us at MTS will ever forget the times that “Count Zinzendorf” would make visits and spoof the faculty.

David took me on my first trip to Manhattan and my first academic conference. The annual meeting of the American Society of Church History was in the Hilton in midtown. David had grown up on Staten Island so he knew his way around, but I was a redneck from North Carolina in the city for the first time. I felt like I was in Midnight Cowboy or some other movie. It was the 80s and New York was still dangerous so David taught me basic urban survival: “Don’t look people in the eye. Keep moving on the sidewalk. Remember Manhattan is a grid. Don’t keep all of your money in your wallet.” We took the bus to the Port Authority and walked quickly past the topless joints to get to Broadway. We didn’t have places like that in Bethlehem! We ate lunch at Le Bonne Soup where I still eat about once a year. For dinner we went to an old fashioned Italian restaurant with velvet flocked wallpaper and a maître de who looked like he stepped out of The Godfather. He said to me “Youse want wine.” It wasn’t a question, so I agreed and let him bring me whatever he wanted. The food was excellent, but I never got over the feeling that I might not survive the meal. David was amused or perhaps bemused at my discomfort. When I offered to pay, David told me that I would pay him back by taking one of my students out to dinner when I became a professor. I have taken several and I always tell them the same thing. It cost me more money than that meal, but it is worth it.

The conference was not memorable, but I later joined the ASCH and presented papers myself. David showed me how to do that. But it was also David who gave me permission to skip sessions at conferences and enjoy the city. I now choose conferences based as much on geography and cultural allurements as the topic of the conference.

I stayed in touch with David during graduate school. He was interested in my dissertation, but I think he was disappointed I did not ask him to be an official reader. It was years before he actually read my dissertation, and he was surprised at how different my interpretation of Moravian history was than his. We experienced some of the tension that fathers and sons feel as a son takes what he has learned and does something different with it. But we continued to respect each other’s scholarship. I admired his willingness to travel to obscure parts of the world (like Labrador) to lecture on the Moravians, and in that, too, I have followed his example. I only wished David had published more than he did. I learned from him that unpublished research will be lost.

One of David’s crowing achievements was securing funds to establish the Center for Moravian Studies at Moravian Seminary. I am honored to serve as the current director, and every two years I give the David Schattschneider award to a scholar whose work expands the field of Moravian studies. When David retired as Dean of MTS in 2001, I hoped that I would be chosen as his successor. I think he wanted that, too, but the search committee chose someone who was already on the faculty. Frank has been a worthy dean, and I was very grateful when he hired me to teach Moravian theology and history in 2010. It is strange, though, to sit in David’s old office where I had spent so many hours discussing my research thirty years before. I even have some of his old files.

David took me to my very first meeting of the Moravian Historical Society back in 1985, and if I had had a hundred dollars then I could have become a lifetime member. He later served as president of MHS and guided the society through some of its most tumultuous years. I had the honor of being elected president a few years ago and was able to bring to fruition some of the projects that David had started. I often told him that it wasn’t fair that I got to be president during the fun years while he had struggled through the dark years.

This past year I began writing a one-volume history of the Moravian Church. From the beginning I planned to dedicate it to my friend and mentor. I assumed that I would complete the manuscript while David was still alive and could present a copy of the book to him. I was able to share with him the section on 19th century American Moravian history, and once again he was the professor and I was the student as he critiqued, corrected, and disagreed with my account of the history. I was looking forward to sharing every section of the manuscript with him so he could correct and improve it. I never wanted to get out of the shadow of the great Moravian historian. I wanted him to illuminate what I wrote and be proud that my work is part of his legacy.

But now he is gone. David had a wooden sign on his desk that said “Fact” on one side and “Opinion” on the other. He used it in class to teach students about historical fact and interpretation. He used it in faculty meetings to clarify what his colleagues were arguing about. At his memorial service it sat on the pulpit. For most of the service it said “Fact.” Fact. It is a fact that David Schattschneider is dead. I didn’t want it to be true. I want to believe that he is off on an adventure, riding some train to some obscure historical site, or fishing in Canada. But he isn’t. He is gone.

I missed my chance to say good-bye with a last meal. I missed my chance to tell him that he was my second father and that my career has been an attempt to be like him. Fact. At the memorial service I saw the grief in his wife’s eyes and in his daughter’s tears. Fact. But David’s legacy lives on. His work continues in the work of his many students. This, too, is fact rather than opinion. Many of his students became pastors, church executives, and even bishops. A handful like me became scholars. In my classes, in my lectures, in my writing, and in my work in the world I try to honor the man who taught me so much about history and life.

I will miss him. I will miss his wit and his wisdom. I will no longer be able to learn from him or to share my ideas with him. But in many ways he is with me every day.

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