Børge Schantz, one of the Adventist Church’s top theologians in Europe, saw a passion for Muslims and mission service unexpectedly converge in Denmark in recent months when he was reunited with an Ethiopian man whom he had saved from certain death nearly 40 years earlier.
Schantz subsequently baptized the man’s family in a remarkable story that could be viewed as a final testimony to the influence of an Adventist leader who died suddenly on Friday morning, Dec. 12, at his home in Bjaeverskov, Denmark. He was 83.
But Schantz, former dean of theology at Britain’s Newbold College and founding director of the Seventh-day Adventist Global Center for Islamic Studies at the college, painted a different picture in conversations with the Adventist Review. He saw an amazing example both of how a person can find Jesus decades after learning about Him and how a little marketing can yield significant publicity for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
His reunion with Hassen Anbesse, who was abandoned by his Muslim parents after a hyena bit off much of his face, received prominent coverage in Denmark’s biggest newspaper, the BT, on July 20. Schantz was working on a story about Anbesse with the Adventist Review when he died.
“The Hassen Anbesse affair may give the church in Denmark a chance to be featured for the first time in the Adventist Review’s Breaking Church News section,” Schantz wrote in an enthusiastic e-mail in September. “Both Hassen and I would be pleased to see it as a worthy story for Adventist Review.”
The story began in 1978 when Schantz was invited to present week of prayer meetings at Ethiopian Adventist College in Kuyera, Ethiopia. The badly disfigured Anbesse, who lived at a nearby Adventist orphanage, was seated with other children in the front row.
“He made a deep impression on me,” Schantz said. “What kind of future would he have?”
A gaping crater marked the spot where Anbesse’s nose once stood. His eyelids and surrounding skin were missing from his eyes, and his mouth sagged. As the boy listened to Schantz speak about Jesus and heaven, a desire welled up inside him for a new face. He knew that without one, he would end up an outcast and die early.
The boy approached Schantz after the meeting and blurted out, “When Jesus comes again, I will get a new face from Him.”
Schantz said the words stuck in his head for weeks afterward. Anbesse, the son of nomads who wandered on Ethiopia’s border with Somalia, had been attacked by a hyena at the age of 4 while he slept in a tent. An adult had chased the animal away before it killed the boy, but doctors had not been able to do much to repair the damage.
When Schantz returned to Denmark on furlough, he convinced journalists at the BT newspaper to raise funds among readers to bring the boy to Denmark for surgery.
The newspaper published a story with the headline, “Help Hassen Get a New Face,” in large letters across its front page on July 26, 1978. The effort raised 80,000 Danish crowns, a considerable amount at the time.
Anbesse underwent a series of operations with a plastic surgeon who waived his fees. Afterward, he stayed in Denmark for a few years, moved to Norway, returned to Ethiopia, and settled back down in Denmark.
“His life with a very visible scar on his face after the operations was not easy,” Schantz said.
In Copenhagen, Anbesse met and married a fellow Ethiopian immigrant, Helen, and they had three children. He lost contact with Schantz after the operations, and eventually stopped attending the Adventist Church, Schantz said.
Schantz, meanwhile, pressed ahead with what would amount to 47 years of church service.
Schantz put to use his strong background in theology and missions, which included an undergraduate degree from Newbold College in 1962, a master’s from Andrews University in 1974, and a doctorate from the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in 1983.
He served as pastor in Denmark, the Faroe Islands, the U.S. and Britain, and as a missionary in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Lebanon and Cyprus.
Notably, he was the only staff member from the former Afro-Mideast Division who was allowed to visit Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein and Uganda under Idi Amin because he carried a Danish passport, which those countries honored.
Schantz also taught medical ethics to Muslim nurses on special assignment for Loma Linda University in a strict Muslim country for 10 years.
“He lived a very active life and has done many different things for the church,” said Arne Sandback, a pastor and friend who will conduct Schantz’s funeral on Friday, Dec. 19, at the Nærum church. “Just to mention a few things, he has been preaching, lecturing at schools, and giving lectures on Islam. He was even scheduled to preach the Sabbath after his death.”
The cause of death was unclear, Sandback said.
Schantz, who authored several books, also wrote the Adult Bible Study Guide about mission that will be used by Adventists around the world during the third quarter of 2015.
“He was a man that worked hard and was very skillful in all that he did,” Sandback said. “The Adventist Church has lost a very faithful and experienced man, and he will be missed very much.”
His sentiments were echoed by Ray Holm, who together with his wife, Lynette, hosted Schantz in their home during the week of prayer meetings at Ethiopian Adventist College in 1978.
“He was indeed an inspiration to many of us in Ethiopia during the very uncertain times following the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign,” said Holm, who worked as business manager at the college and is now chief financial officer for Healthcare Resources NW, a corporation owned by Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Oregon.
“There were a number of us working there as expatriates—all young, recently out of college, and having very young families,” he said. “So we welcomed an experienced, more mature worker to give us encouragement and support.”
Holm said that Schantz became like a family member after that first visit.
“Whenever we saw him after that, he was like family, encouraging us in our work and offering counsel with any issues we were facing,” he said. “He made a valuable contribution to the Lord’s work in many parts of the world, and he will be greatly missed.”
Schantz, who was born on Aug. 3, 1931, is survived by his wife, Iris; two sons, Steen and Kim; and two grandchildren.
While Schantz kept busy preaching and teaching in the spring of 2014, Anbesse’s wife, Helen, started taking the family to an Adventist church to worship. She was a faithful Coptic Christian and, knowing her husband’s Adventist background, decided to take a closer look at his neglected faith, Schantz said.
“A few months ago I preached at the Holbaek church and there in the audience I found Hassen and his family,” Schantz said. “What a reunion!”
After receiving a tip from Schantz, the BT reported about the reunion in its widely read Sunday edition, which has a circulation of 269,000. The report, which mentioned the Seventh-day Adventist Church several times, filled seven pages and included 10 photographs.
“I think I have a very good life,” Anbesse told the newspaper. “Maybe there are some who are still a bit taken back when they see me. Although I've got a face, it's still not quite like everyone else’s. But I am very happy with the result. I have a new face, a new country, and a wonderful family.”
Anbesse worked for years in a factory, and his wife as a cleaner. But these days they take odd jobs when they can find them.
In the months after the surprise reunion, Schantz and his wife, Iris, met regularly with the family and gave Bible studies. At the request of Helen and the two older children, Natinael and Meron, Schantz baptized the trio on Oct. 18, less than two months before his death. Hassen’s membership was transferred to Denmark from a church in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“It was a very special experience for me to baptize three people as a result of mission service 36 years ago,” Schantz said in his last communication with the Adventist Review on Nov. 13. “I experienced the joy of Ecclesiastes 11:1: ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.’"