I received news last week that Don McClanen, Harvest Time’s founder, died on February 16 at the age of 91. Learning of his passing made me pause to appreciate the profound impact he had on my life and on the lives of many of my friends. In this piece, I want to share a few memories from my journey with Don, knowing full well that many people in Harvest Time’s network have similarly inspiring, amusing and heart-breaking stories to tell about this amazing man.
I met Don in the early 90’s at a Ministry of Money retreat that I signed up for because I had more money than I needed. I did not know how to work with that as a Christian who cared about social justice. I was grateful for the ministry Don created that offered retreats where people could talk openly about money and faith. Don was a gracious host at that retreat. I remember too his passion for justice. He was not afraid to look beyond the charitable focus of most money conversations in order to name the systemic dimensions of economic injustice. He struck me as a modern prophet whose commitment to the Gospel attracted and terrified me.
I also encountered Don at Christ House’s Table Fellowship. For a few years, I attended a communion service at the hospital for homeless men. Praying, breaking bread, and singing with that community was a profound teaching for me. Don was always there, serving the meal. I see him now moving around the crowded dining room with a cafeteria tray in hand busily bringing plates to the tables, pausing to greet friends, and introducing people to each other.
At one of those meals, I expressed interest in going to Haiti and before I knew it Don had signed me up. That was a good thing because the idea of that trip frightened me and I might not have followed through had Don not reached out and pulled me in. In Haiti, he led our group into neighborhoods of extreme poverty, walking quickly ahead and yet always with time to greet people. Sometimes, he paused to offer a teaching on systemic injustice to the group. In the home for people who were dying, he tenderly offered someone a massage.
His great sense of adventure pervaded that trip. One day, we drove from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel and came to a small river where the bridge had been washed out. “Here’s where we turn back,” I thought, incorrectly. Instead, Don hired a guide who walked ahead of the van as we drove through the water. I was terrified and scanned the van for an escape route should I need it. Thankfully, I did not. When we got to the other side, Don turned around and giggled. It was crazy and reckless. But at the time, I was captivated by Don’s determination and creativity in the face of obstacles that would turn most people back.
In 1996, I joined him on a pilgrimage of reverse mission to Bosnia. Seeing and listening to the trauma of war was very difficult for me. After dinner one night at a Franciscan monastery in Sarajevo, one of the monks picked up a guitar and started singing. Judy, a friend on the trip, and Don started dancing. Don’s laughter and silly moves were irresistible. In spite of my sadness, I joined the dance.
I said yes to Don again when he called to invite me to be a part of his new ministry for wealthy Christians called Harvest Time. At the time, I was living in a small apartment in Silicon Valley and initially could not figure out why Don was calling me for this new ministry. Though I had some money in savings, I did not consider myself wealthy compared to most of the people around me. Don calmly pointed out that I came from a culture of wealth, that I had the education of a wealthy person, and that as my life unfolded I would likely have access to more money than I did at the time. His clarity eradicated my denial and soon afterwards I participated in my first Harvest Time circle.
Three years later, Don invited me to join the staff to help him put Harvest Time’s vision into words. One time when Don, Bryan Sirchio and I were in Boston for a retreat, Don managed to get tickets to a Red Sox game. When we got there, he talked his way past Fenway Park’s security in order to take Bryan and me out into left field. (Don knew the groundskeeper from his days of providing turf for the stadium in Washington DC.) He also insisted on getting me a pink Red Sox cap – because he knew I was a Yankees fan.
There was also Don’s amazing honesty at our retreats. If something was troubling him at the start of a retreat, he did not pretend everything was fine, but started with where he was. I had never met a spiritual leader so willing to be open about his struggles. It was a powerful model of authenticity.
As is often the case, there is a time in the unfolding of an organization when it diverges from the path of the founder. This was the case with Don and Harvest Time as well. Early in my work with Harvest Time, it became clear that my vision for Harvest Time and Don’s were not aligned. Finding myself at odds with the man who had taught me what I knew about money and Christian faith was confusing and painful for me. I tried to find common ground with Don, but ultimately, Harvest Time’s Board of Directors stepped in and set the organization on its current course and freed Don to write a book about his life. In the midst of that chapter, my closeness with Don came to an end.
Even though that part of my relationship with Don was difficult, I remain profoundly grateful for him. He was cut from the cloth of wild spirit and I loved that about him. He was visionary; probably most Christians in the country who are talking honestly about money, social justice and faith can in some way trace it back to Don. Without him, I would not have discovered that difficult money questions can be the doorway to a powerful spiritual journey. He was determined and deeply committed to the people he cared about, and sometimes he was so determined that he did not know when it was time to let something go. He was a man of faith who often woke in the night shaking his fist at God.
When I first met Don I was in my early twenties and trying to find an authentic spiritual journey. Don modeled for me a path of spirit that was alive, vibrant, messy, paradoxical and full of adventure. I was drawn to him, learned from him, followed him and had to break from him to find my own way.
A few years after that split, I was in Maryland and decided to drive to Don’s home to say hello. I was not sure how he would receive me. Opening the door, he greeted me with exuberance and giggles. We visited for a while and when I left, I gave him a big hug.
My prayer is that he is off with God on some new adventure with lips pursed, a giggle breaking through.
Rest in peace, dear friend.