Faculty profile – Doug Schirch

Faculty profile – Doug Schirch

Based on a sermon by Doug Schirch, Jan. 7, 2005; Edited by Jodi H. Beyeler

When Associate Professor of Chemistry Doug Schirch ’82 was working with the ecumenical Christian organization Witness for Peace (WFP) in Nicaragua during the late 1980s – the height of the country’s violent civil war – he joined his co-workers in committing not to eat Domino’s pizza. Little did he know how this vow would be tested in his walk of faithfulness to God.

Left: Doug Schirch ’82 joined Witness For Peace in Nicaragua several years after graduating from Goshen College, at a time when the decade-long war in that country raged between the U.S.=backed Contra guerillas and the Sandinista revolutionary government’s army.

At that time, the U.S.-based pizza company was owned by one of the organization’s “enemies”: Tom Monaghan, a conservative Catholic who reportedly helped finance the Contra guerrilla movement. The U.S.-backed rebels were waging war against the Sandinistas, the revolutionary government that had recently toppled the country’s 45-year-old Somoza dictatorship. While remaining neutral in Nicaraguan politics, Schirch and WFP opposed U.S. government’s involvement in the Contra war. “We brought delegations to witness the impact of the war; we documented Contra human rights abuses; we worked with the U.S. media to foster more accurate coverage of the war; and we lobbied [the U.S.] Congress to cut off aid to the Contras,” Schirch said.

During a cease-fire late in the war, Schirch was impressed by the determination of Nicaraguans to end the destructive hostilities. “Three of us were in a hamlet in a conflictive zone when several dozen Contra guerrillas and Sandinista army soldiers arrived, peacefully, to discuss their differences. Both bands had come fully armed with rifles, machine guns and grenades, which a couple weeks before they would have been using against each other,” he said. “For two hours they mingled like guests at a cocktail party in the dusty, barren opening in the center of this hamlet, disagreeing ardently about the war’s causes, but agreeing unanimously that all Nicaraguans suffered as a result. Afterward, two Sandinistas shared how painful it was to dialogue with Contras who had recently killed a close friend and wore his hat as a war trophy. They admitted that the necessity to find common ground with their enemies had compelled them to be there. That left an impression on me.”

Left: Schirch, associate professor of chemistry, returned to the campus Science Building this academic year to teach a new generation of students.

It was in 1987 that Schirch had first traveled to Nicaragua, influenced by the call of Jesus Christ to love one’s enemies. “In graduate school I was deeply impacted by what Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi wrote about Jesus’ teachings on loving the enemy, and what that means in today’s modern, politicized world,” said Schirch, who quickly found out that his enemies were not poor Nicaraguans fighting on both sides of the war.

However, ideological enemies – individuals and institutions in the U.S. that supported the Contra war – still existed, but WFP workers in Nicaragua did not have to encounter directly. Monaghan was not the only influential person in the United States supporting the Contras; Humberto Belli, a Nicaraguan exile, was well known as a lobbyist for U.S. aid and arms to the Contras. These men were both on Schirch’s enemy list.

Does God talk to our enemies?

Left: Schirch, left, stands with Humberto Belli, a lobbyist for the U.S. aid and arms to support the Contras during the Nicaraguan civil war. The two found common purpose in higher education in Nicaragua.

The decade-long Nicaraguan war abated in 1990 – devastating the country’s economy and leaving 75 percent of Nicaraguans living below the internationally defined poverty line, a level that persists even today. That same year, Schirch married Nicaragua native Maria Sanchez. The couple started a family, and Schirch needed a job, so they moved temporarily to the United States but planned to return to Maria’s home country. He had earned a doctorate in biochemistry after graduating from Goshen College, where he said he had discerned God’s call to, someday, become a college professor at a small, liberal arts, church-affiliated college. But that type of school didn’t exist in Nicaragua. “If you imagine God sending someone to igloo-making school, and then to the Sahara to find a job, you’ll appreciate how I felt,” Schirch said. “[I thought that] somewhere I must have misunderstood God.”

During a visit to Maria’s family in the small village of San Marcos, Schirch learned about a new university to be established there. It would be a branch campus of the University of Mobile (Ala.), a Baptist liberal arts college. “At that moment it became clear,” Schirch said. “This was where I was going to work.”

It was a perfect fit. The U.S.-based college was pleased to have found an American professor who was a committed Protestant, fluent in Spanish and had previous experience in Nicaragua.

Then three years into his faculty post in the chemistry department, unexpected institutional challenges began that eventually impacted Schirch’s career. He agreed to serve as academic dean, though he did not seek the position; another candidate could not be found. “I can accurately say that when I took office, everything began to fall apart,” he said.

The school experienced significant upheaval after Nicaraguan media publicized reports of financial mismanagement and impropriety by the presidents of both the university’s Alabama and Nicaraguan campuses. Students withdrew from classes, leaving no money to pay the bills, and a new president at the campus’s parent institution threatened to close the Nicaraguan campus. “Although obstacles seemed to dissipate just in time to avoid disaster, it was never enough to get us out of the woods,” Schirch said. “For two years it seemed the campus could fall like a house of cards.”

As academic dean, Schirch was put in a difficult position when asked by parents whether they should withdraw their children “before it was too late.” The college’s future weighed on him heavily. “I had terrible doubts about what was right to do. Convinced that God had asked me to take this job, I told Him I couldn’t do it with integrity if I didn’t know what would happen to the campus,” Schirch said. “I didn’t expect the prayer to be answered, any more than I expect God to tell someone how the stock market will turn.”

Later, when he happened to read the biblical book of Esther, he found a source of hope. “Most intriguing was the reminder of how God transformed impending catastrophe, turning the tables so that those who appeared doomed were miraculously delivered,” he said. “I was skeptical, but God continued to speak convincingly in different ways, until I realized that I needed to act on my convictions and be assured of the campus’ future.”

But Schirch couldn’t have foreseen the irony in God’s plans.

When the University of Mobile decided to attempt to sell the Nicaraguan campus to another U.S. institution, Schirch was involved in courting potential buyers. It was then that he came face to face with his former enemies in a completely different context – as collaborators on a joint mission.

In 1999, Humberto Belli, the Nicaraguan who had raised support in the U.S. for the Contras, stepped forward to endorse the school’s last chance for survival: a purchase by Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), a conservative, evangelical Catholic school where Belli had taught.

“More than once I asked myself if I had sold out,” Schirch said. “Later, when Humberto Belli said that he had discerned that God wanted him to leave his current job and become unemployed, so he would be ready to work at the campus under its new owner, my head reeled. I caught myself thinking, ‘God, you expect me to believe that you talk to Humberto Belli? What’s next, you eat Domino’s pizza?'”

Amidst his internal struggles, Schirch remembered something he had read while a student at Goshen. “A theologian was decrying the gulf between Christians on the political right and left in the U.S. Since the two sides often don’t associate, yet each can work alongside non-Christians with similar political leanings, the author asked: ‘Can the divided Christians both claim to be centered on Christ?’ God wasn’t asking me to join Humberto to support the Contra war. He was asking me to work with Humberto on something I felt passionately led to do: save a Christian liberal arts college. I realized that the success of the endeavor was going to require some tolerance on my part.”

But for a time, this too seemed destined not to be. Just prior to finalizing the sale, the potential buyer backed out of the negotiations; the University of Mobile would close the Nicaraguan campus after all. “Humberto Belli was wrong about his future job, and I was wrong about the institution’s future,” Schirch said. “It was a depressing, leveling experience. We were both equally delusional in thinking God had spoken to us.”

When God works through an enemy to perform a miracle

Left: The Schirch family – (left to right) are Juni (11), Maria, Doug, Joshua (7) and Jessica (13) – moved to Goshen in July 2004 as Doug left the faculty of Ave Maria College of the Americas in San Marcos, Nicaragua, to become an associate professor of chemistry at Goshen College.

With faculty and students concerned about the school’s impending closure, and with three days left to find a donor to contribute $1 million to keep the classroom doors from being closed, Schirch said he knew that “only a miracle could save the campus. But I hardly dared to pray for one.”

The next day Schirch received a phone call. A priest in California, Fr. Joseph Fessio, asked to help. He said he had a friend who used to own Domino’s Pizza, Tom Monaghan, who had sold his business for $1 billion so he could dedicate the rest of his life spending his entire fortune to promote Catholic causes. Monaghan said he had been inspired by Jesus’ New Testament lesson to a rich man about inheriting eternal life.

Monaghan eventually bought the Nicaraguan campus and incorporated it as part of a new Catholic college in Michigan, Ave Maria College, dedicated to the liberal arts and cultivating a vibrant Catholic spirituality. The Nicaraguan campus didn’t close, and Humberto Belli became its new president. Schirch said, “It was undeniable God had an unfolding plan for the campus, and I was expected to work for it along with Humberto Belli and Tom Monaghan.”

The college was not transformed overnight, and initial campus ministries efforts to encourage spiritual development were largely unsuccessful. “Although 90 percent of the student body was at least nominally Catholic, most had no interest in the school’s Catholic mission,” Schirch said.

Belli instituted new policies, but the result was considerable rebellion by students and faculty; many of the Catholic students said they wanted to return to the Baptist leadership. “Dr. Belli and I had such different ideas about how to proceed,” Schirch said, “that it almost reached the breaking point.” Eventually the crisis dissipated and the new policies were dropped.

But the next year, miracles began to happen, and the new Catholic campus experienced a profound spiritual renewal. Schirch said, “One year no students were interested in weekly prayer meetings, and only 14 of the 450 on campus wanted to go on a spiritual retreat. Two years later, there were 100 students attending weekly prayer meetings and 200 went on spiritual retreats.” The Holy Spirit was at work.

“Although I’ve read articles accusing Monaghan of starting a college in order to cultivate narrow-minded storm troopers for conservative political causes, and I still feel strongly about what happened in the 1980s, I found my Catholic colleagues were primarily desirous that students take a closer walk with Jesus. I have no disagreements there. My colleagues share some human traits that make all of us weak, but I also saw them be kind, forgiving, prayerful, humble and sincere,” Schirch said.

“I’m glad I stayed long enough to see, after God saved the campus from closing, a glimpse of the purpose that he saved it for,” Schirch said. “It seems it is all too easy for us Christians to fight among ourselves. It doesn’t always have to do so much with a lack of fundamental beliefs that unite us, but perhaps rather with our tendency to focus on what separates us.”

Has Schirch ended his boycott of Domino’s pizza? “At an Ave Maria board meeting, I sat at a table with Mr. Monaghan and other Ave Maria administrators, and we broke pizza together.”