by Reinder Bruinsma | 22 December 2022 |
Around 2003 I made an extended visit, together with Dr. Bert B. Beach, to the Baltic countries. He was at that time the director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) of the General Conference, while I combined that same role at the division level with that of general secretary in the Trans-European Division. The main goal of our visit was to contact government agencies, in particular in Latvia, with the request that several properties, which had been taken away from the denomination in the Soviet-period, be returned to the church.
It had been a busy week, and on Friday afternoon I felt more than ready to return to our hotel and enjoy a few hours of rest. However, as we were winding up our activities for the week in the Latvian capital, Riga, Beach suddenly asked Pastor Valdis Zilgalvis, the president of the Baltic Union, whether his predecessor, who had led the church in Soviet times, was still alive. “Yes,” was the answer, “he is.” “Does he live far away from where we are now?” was Beach’s next question. It turned out that it would just be a short drive. “Let’s go and pay him a visit,” Beach suggested. He overruled the reluctance of Zilgalvis and me, and we paid what proved to be a much appreciated visit to the—now elderly and frail—former union president and his wife.
A few weeks later, Beach and I were in Hungary for a similar assignment, and on Friday afternoon I experienced a repeat of what had happened in Riga. Here also Beach insisted on visiting a long-retired church administrator.
On our way back to the hotel in Budapest, I asked Beach about this, wondering whether this was some peculiar Friday-afternoon habit. “Well,” he said, “when my father was the secretary of the General Conference, everybody knew and acknowledged him. However, once he was no longer in that post, most people were no longer interested in him. I realized that this is what happens to most church leaders upon their retirement. So, I decided that it would be my modest pastoral contribution to visit some of these old-timers as I travel to various countries, and show them that they are not completely forgotten.”
By that time, I already had a great respect for Bert Beach, but these experiences in Riga and Budapest showed me a side of him that I had not seen before, at least not to the same extent: his personal warmth and care for people, not just at official functions but also in private settings, when there were no on-lookers.
A giant has passed
Dr. Bert Beverly Beach is no more. But he will be remembered by many worldwide as a unique and wonderfully gifted human being, a person of great erudition, and one of the truly remarkable and talented statesmen of the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the second half of the twentieth century.
During the period when his father was serving the Adventist Church in various capacities in Europe, Bert was born in 1928 in Gland (Switzerland). He received his education in Europe and in the United States. After his college graduation at Pacific Union College in northern California, and a few semesters of graduate work at the universities of Stanford and Berkeley, he returned to Europe for his first church assignment. He had received a call to become the principal of the Italian Union Training School in Florence, where he would stay for six years. In the process he became fluent in Italian, in addition to his mastery of English, German, and French (and a smattering of Dutch). He was given the opportunity to pursue a doctoral degree at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, where he was awarded his PhD degree in 1958 magna cum laude.
Not only did he get his doctoral degree from Europe, but he also found his wife, Eliane, there. They married in 1954 and would be together for almost 70 years.
After a two-year intermezzo in the history department of Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland, Beach was elected as the educational director of the Northern European Division. He would also, during a few years, care for the Sabbath School department and the Religious Liberty department. In 1973 he became the executive secretary of the division, while continuing to lead the Religious Liberty department.
It was in this period, when Beach was in Europe, living and working in St. Albans in the UK, that I became acquainted with him. The first time he visited in our home was when I was the principal of the small secondary school, Annex Theological Seminary, in Huis ter Heide, near Utrecht, in the Netherlands.
At a given moment our son Peter, who was around five years of age, climbed onto his knees. Beach then asked him whether he would like him to do some magic tricks. He needed a deck of cards for this. Could Peter provide him with this dubious object? It so happened that shortly before, we had visited a local fun fair, and Peter had skillfully worked a coin-operated claw machine and obtained a deck of cards. We had not paid any attention to his catch, but when Peter handed the cards to Beach it appeared that all cards had scantily clad ladies on the back of them. It was embarrassing, but Beach remained unperturbed and showed his mastery of magic.
At another occasion, not long after this, Beach had once again been visiting our home. Before returning to the hotel where he was staying, he wondered whether we had something “light” for him to read. From a number of options he chose a rather thick thriller. He did not finish the book before returning to the UK. A week or so later his secretary wrote me a short note, informing me that Dr. Beach would return “the document,” which he had borrowed, at his earliest convenience!
In those early years of my career in the church, I met Dr. Beach on a regular basis. During the time when I was the school principal he made regular inspection visits in his capacity of division educational director. One incident from that time stands out. Having graduated with a master’s degree from Andrews University, I had obtained a further degree as an external student at the University of London (UK). During a meeting of our school board Beach emphasized that obtaining this degree, while working more than full-time, was a major achievement. I was happily surprised by his remarks, for the Dutch “brethren” did not seem to have noticed that for the previous three years I had been enrolled in a heavy academic program, investing all my spare time and getting up very early in the mornings!
Bert Beach cared for the division religious liberty department with great skill and enthusiasm. A high point in this period was his role as an observer on behalf of the Adventist Church at the Second Vatican Council. He was in Rome during all four sessions of the council (October 1962–December 1965). He reported extensively about the council proceedings in denominational journals and in a 350-page book which the Review and Herald published in 1968. Taking this book from the shelf, and leafing through it as I was writing this short piece, I was once again impressed by his comprehensive treatment of this important event and his sympathetic approach to the topic—honest, respectful, diplomatic, and, yes, critical, but without being judgmental, and without any semblance of traditional Adventist hostility toward Roman Catholics.
Representing the church worldwide
In 1980 Beach’s influence in the Adventist Church and his global impact on the church’s relationships with civil and ecclesial authorities moved into a different gear when he was elected as the director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department at the General Conference—a post he would occupy for a quarter of a century. [A favorable factor was the relative freedom with which he could operate during the administration of several General Conference presidents. Unfortunately, his current successor in this role is much more restricted in his outreach to the outside world.]
Besides being a regular observer at the annual meetings and other major congresses of the World Council of Churches and of other ecumenical organizations, Beach would serve during most of these 25 years as the secretary of a smaller but significant consultative body: the Conference of Secretaries of the Christian World Communions, which provides an opportunity for representatives of global Christian communities to meet and discuss issues of common interest.
Beach played an important role in the organizing and implementing of a series of high-level consultations with other Christian bodies, such as the Lutheran World Federation, the Salvation Army, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. [Unfortunately, the Adventist Church has, partly in response to severe criticisms from people at the fringes, discontinued such projects.] Being the general-secretary of the Adventist-sponsored, but more broadly supported, International Religious Liberty Association, provided Beach with many other occasions to represent the Adventist Church in non-Adventist settings.
Most controversial among Beach’s activities were his audiences with several consecutive popes. When it became known to the ultra-conservative segment of the church (to which Beach would often refer as the church’s “lunatic fringe”) that during a meeting with Pope Paul VI, Beach had given a commemorative medal to the pope, he became the victim of a bombardment of criticisms. Even today, in ultra-conservative Adventist circles this story is regularly repeated as an example of how an Adventist church leader fulfilled The Great Controversy, 588, 589—reaching “over the abyss to clasp hands” with Rome.
An event that in a special way stands out from my term as PARL director in the Trans-European Division was the 1997 international congress in Budapest, Hungary, about church-state relationships. It was the only time in my life that an official government car came to pick me up on the tarmac as I came down from the plane. The Hungarian Union president had established excellent contacts with the Hungarian Secretary of State for Religious Affairs, and during one of the meetings with him (in which I participated) this official asked me if I would be willing to organize an international congress devoted to the new church-state reality after the drastic changes in Eastern and Central Europe. He would invite his colleagues from the Eastern European countries, and the Hungarian government would pay all expenses. I could make the selection of the speakers and would be in charge of the program. It was an unexpected but awesome project. Fortunately, Bert Beach was very willing to come to my aid. It became an unforgettable experience.
About three years ago I had the pleasure of meeting once again with the (now retired) Secretary of State, Dr. Ivan Platthy. A few of the leaders of the Hungarian Union had organized a meal, to which Dr. Platthy and I were invited. Platthy proudly showed pictures of himself and Dr. Beach, who had made a lasting impression on him. In the context of the Budapest congress Beach clearly manifested an important aspect of his gracious personality. Even when he had played the most prominent role, he was always ready to share the available credit, or assign the credit mostly to others.
Beach remained a great admirer of his father, Walter R. Beach. One way of underlining this was his founding and funding of the W.R and B.B. Beach Lectureship at Newbold College. I was honored to present the 2000 lectures, dealing with Seventh-day Adventism and Fundamentalism.
A loyal friend
My friendship with Beach would further develop over time. It was gratifying to read in his autobiography that he came to regard me as “an old friend,” whose “courage and integrity” he respected, and as someone who is “always alive with witty Dutch humor.” Our meals together in the center of Brussels—where he and Eliane would visit regularly—were always pleasant occasions, and I also fondly remember the times when he invited me along to the prestigious Cosmos Club in Washington, DC.
Being with Bert Beach always carried the assurance of a lively conversation and of being brought up to date on the latest news from the church’s headquarters. He could keep an interesting discussion going with anyone he happened to meet. I remember accompanying him in 1995, just prior to the General Conference session in Utrecht, to the residence of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Simonis in Utrecht. When Beach told the cardinal about his youth and later years in Europe, and added that his wife was of Belgian pedigree, the cardinal suggested that he might keep in mind that in the Netherlands people were keen to tell jokes about their Belgian neighbors. The cardinal then gave an example of such a Dutch-Belgian joke, that I have successfully kept in my arsenal of jokes ever since. But even under such circumstances, Beach could skillfully shift the topic to a spiritual theme and create an atmosphere of genuine Christian friendship and respect.
I could add many other stories of my interactions with Dr. Beach. Around the world many others could add countless memories of their associations with this remarkable man—Dr. Bert Beverly Beach, a spiritual leader-cum-diplomat, a competent scholar and a gifted author, a talented preacher and a proficient lecturer, but above all a warm human being, who will be greatly missed by family and by friends around the world.
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching, and writing. His latest book is I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine.