Since he passed away on Monday, I’ve been thinking with gratitude about the many ways that Don Beisswenger shaped my life. I moved to Tennessee the fall of 1979 after having grown up in my dad’s churches in Oklahoma. Edgehill was the first church I actually chose to join on my own. Don and Joyce Beisswenger were in that church and I’m blessed for it.
I was a disillusioned, impassioned young adult wanting to change the world. I attended a program at Don and Joyce’s house and learned about “liberation theology.” “There is hope for the church,” I thought, and ended up at Vanderbilt Divinity School working on my M.Div. (I signed up for the course on Contemporary Theology and waited in vain for the unit on liberation theology to come along.)
I marched all over town protesting with activists like Don and Hogan Yancey, telling the story of the U.S. War in El Salvador and the martyring of Bishop Oscar Romero. I went to Washington, DC, slept in a church with activists from Jonah House, and stood with others to block the entrance to the Pentagon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents — commemorating the slaughter of the male Hebrew children by King Herod.
Don was in charge of Field Education while I was a Vanderbilt. I interned with social justice groups. And then, needing one more field education unit, I served for a summer with Alive Now Magazine at The Upper Room. I found my vocation during that summer of Field Education. Since I had figured out what I wanted to do — be an editor — I got tired of doing school work. One Sunday, Don mentioned to me, “Hey, Beth, Y’know, the faculty has approved your graduation, pending the completion of your incomplete." I went home from church and finished the paper that day.
But Don’s influence didn’t end there. It was about that time that he and Joyce bought the Cheatham County land that became Penuel Ridge Retreat Center. I count myself fortunate to have been included in the small group of 8-10 of us who walked the land and listened for God’s purpose for that place. I became a part of the “core team” who discerned that the land would become an interfaith place of solitude and retreat, rooted in social action.
For a number of years, then, I lived next door at the retreat center. Don and I built decks together, worked on projects like the construction of The Well, led and attended retreats, walked the trails, and stood around looking at the tractor when it wouldn’t start. (In fact, my mind’s eye sees him sitting on the tractor, that wry smile on his face.)
In 2004, Don served a six-month federal prison term at the age of 73 for his non-violent protest. His book, Locked Up: Letters and Papers of a Prisoner of Conscience was published by The Upper Room. (It’s on my goals, Don, but I still haven’t gotten arrested for a matter of conscience. I’ll keep working on that one.)
Don Beisswenger has joined the communion of saints. Thank you, my friend, for all the ways you influenced, changed, nurtured, and enriched my life. You are present in this world through all of us who were shaped by you.