In February this year Donald David McClanen died at age 91. Today, a memorial service was held for him a Dayspring Retreat Center in rural Maryland. His ashes were interred at the Lake of the Saints on the retreat center property where Don and Gloria lived with their family for much of their lives.
Don McClanen was a remarkable man. And one that changed my life.
On Dec. 7, 1995, 55 ministers and church workers were arrested in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building for praying and proclaiming the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor among my people of their rights” (10:1-2). Down the halls, Congress was preparing to pass the most drastic cuts to welfare that the U.S. had seen in decades. Since nearly all of us could name someone that we personally knew who would suffer from such draconian “reform” we could do nothing less but bring the power of prayer to bear in that place of illusive worldly power.
After our arrest, we spend many hours held by the Capitol police in a large processing room with desks. Arrestees were paired off in twos, each handcuffed to the same desk until the officer came to process us.
I first met Don McClanen when we spend 6 hours handcuffed together in that police holding area in Advent 1995. I knew him by reputation–as the founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Washington LIFT, the Ministry of Money, a mover-and-shaker at the DaySpring Retreat Farm of Church of the Saviour in Maryland, as the inspiration behind the Triad Initiative, and much more–but had never spoken to him.
Since we were literally bound together, he turned to me and said: Rose, how is God moving in your heart? As if my whole spirit had been waiting for that question, my normally reticent self poured out a story about Bosnia.
December 1995 was the tail-end of the former Yugoslavia’s hot war. Since war broke out in 1992 I had been fixated on every detail. From my row house in D.C., I wept and prayed over the award-winning Washington Post articles from Srebrenica, Vukovar, and elsewhere.
Don’s response was, “I’ve made three trips into the war zone so far. On my next trip, I’m taking you with me.”
And thus began some of the most transformational moments in my life–traveling with Don McClanen in and out of war zones to meet with communities of faith trying to keep the peace of Christ in brutal and fractious times.
Within 5 months of our “handcuff conversation,” I was on a plane to Zagreb with Don and we were making our way into the interior of war-torn Bosnia.
Three years later, we went to Bosnia again. In a Kosovar refugee camp outside of Sarajevo, a man asked Don to look for information about his brother, who was presumed dead in Kosovo. With names, dates, and last known locations written on a scrap of recycled newspaper with a pen that was running out of ink, Don and I traveled to Kosovo to try to find answers. At the Red Cross in Pristina we were able to determine that the brother was alive and in a Serbian prison that was being monitored by the Red Cross. The Red Cross sent tracking information to each brother.
In the middle of the chaos, desperation, and despair of civil war, making this connection was perhaps the most significant part of the trip. Doing one good thing for one person.
But Don and I also happened then to be in Pristina on the day that the exiled Kosovo president, Ibrahim Rugova, was returning to the presidential palace. The streets were filled with crowds of students cheering his return, but also filled with Serbian tanks and military. The new flag of the Republic of Kosovo was flying from every apartment window. Don and I were soaking it up. Don said that we needed to get to the presidential palace to be there when Rugova arrived. After hours of waiting, dark cars flying the new flag entered the front gates. The man known as the Gandhi of the Balkans had finally returned.
Don was ready to leave but I wanted to try to interview Rugova. Don said he’s wait for me “over by that tank” for however long it took. I pushed my way into the scrum of international press holding out my Sojourners press pass. I just kept yelling “U.S. media! U.S. media!” Eventually, I slid in with a television crew from Norway. The guard asked to see my press credentials. I figured this was the end of my adventure. But apparently he didn’t read English, so he waved me through.
And that’s how I was able to sit with the returning Kosovar president for nearly an hour while he spoke with world press. He was a humble, compassionate man. Though raised in Muslim, he attended Catholic schools and moved fluidly through the ethics of faith. On the wall behind his desk hung photos of his heroes: Pope John XXIII and Martin Luther King. On his desk was a framed photo of Gandhi.
When I exited the presidential palace, I was elated. I found Don leaning against a concrete post in the shade of a massive tank. When I told him that I actually got the interview he just started laughing. When I told him I got in by flashing my Sojourners press pass that prominently identified me as the Poetry Editor, Don’s laughter became almost uncontrollable. Tears were rolling down his face.
I’m sure Don McClanen was thinking that he couldn’t have done it better himself.
That night we made our way back across the border into Macedonia. There were miles-long lines of refugees at the border. Smoke hung low over the hills because partisans were burning the homes of gypsies, driving them out. The fields on either side of the highway were full of crops that no one could harvest because of the land mines.
Instead of going directly to the hotel, Don took me to a small community of Catholic sisters who lived in Skopje, Macedonia. “We’ll just go have tea,” he said.
We arrived by taxi to the house of the Missionaries of Charity in Skopje, the order founded by Mother Theresa, who Don knew personally. From these sisters I learned the story of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, a Kosovar Albanian girl whose father, a local politician, was assassinated by poison by a political rival. She learned to eschew politics and looked for another way to lead a life of service. At 18 she left for Ireland, and eventually for India. She became Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized a saint on Sept. 4, 2016.
Don had a animated conversation with the sisters while I listened, completely astounded at where I’d ended up by holding tightly to the shirttails of Don McClanen.
Don and I saw less of each other after those intense experiences of the 1990s. But he often called me at Sojourners when he needed a writer or an introduction to someone.
About 10 years later, Don called again. He said he was beginning to have some memory problems. He needed to get his life story written. He had an excellent biographer, Joe Murchison, working with him but he wanted a little extra help. Would I help? Of course.
In September 2008, Don and Joe were able to publish Caution to the Wind: Faith Lessons from the Life of Don McClanen, Founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Ministry of Money (Cross Training Publishing; also see Joe Murchison’s article in Sojourners, August 2009, “A League of God’s Own”). I’m so grateful that some of Don’s miraculous endeavors, struggles, despair, jokes, sacred hustles, and mischievous adventures are recounted here for a larger community.
Today we said goodbye to Don. We read from 1 Timothy 6:6-12, 17-19, Psalm 23, and Matthew 6: 19-21, 24-34. We sang, prayed, laughed, cried, danced. “Seems like all I can see was the struggle, haunted by ghosts that live in my past,” sang Big Daddy Weave, “bound up in shackles of all my failures, wondering how long this is going to last … but I am redeemed. You set me free. … Now I’m not who I used to be. I am redeemed.”
We took Don’s ashes to the Lake of the Saints on the Dayspring property and scattered them to the four winds.
On one of our long bus rides in the middle of the night, Don and I talked about our deepest struggles (his much deeper and more complex than mine–at least at the time). He told me that one thing he’d learned in life was that our pain and suffering was just a “splinter of the True Cross” carried beneath our skin. Even through the pain, we should bear it proudly.
Thank you, Brother Don. Well-done, good and faithful servant.
Rose Marie Berger, a senior associate editor at Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.
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