Diminished. That is what so many in our city feel in the passing of Rev. Dr. Harold “H” Spees. Diminished (to use John Donne’s metaphor) in the same way that a continent is when a chunk breaks off into the sea. We lost a part of ourselves, that networked, continent of friends and ministry partners when H fell to the floor. All of us who knew H, feel a gaping hole open up in our lives, a void that aches beyond measure.
What is not diminished is the legacy of love that he left. When you were with H, you felt you were the most important person in the world to him. You had his full attention; He was fully present to what was most important to you. That was true whether you were the mayor or you were living unhoused on the side of the freeway. And his love was not sentimental; It always led to something – a policy change, an action, a solution, a mobilization of resources and of people.
H was an effective leader, whether that meant helping the city find a way to house hundreds of people struggling with homelessness, whether that was leading catalytic local non-profits, planting health clinics in rural Mississippi, moving his family into a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood in Fresno to seek its peace, or providing national training in civic transformation. But H was more than a leader. He was a warm, good-hearted, decent man. With that as his chief characteristic, he lived out a vision of operationalizing peace (his phrase), not only for individuals, but for the systems and sectors of a city, which he saw as a living organism, a place that matters to God, a place where we are commanded to live out a commitment to well-being (Jer. 29:4-7). In that process, that warm decency usually meant listening more than talking, and laughing along with you, because he knew that laughing is a survival skill among those who live or work with people on the margins.
Because H was a very public figure, it made him a target for advocates and activists and sometimes politicians who only see the world through the lens of their issues, and who think the way to get things done is through raw power or shrill public critique. But H absolutely refused to stoop to the cynical practices of many. In fact, though it might have seemed justified, H refused to vilify opponents, either publicly or privately. He was a non-reactive leader, letting the flaming arrows of criticism bounce off, and more often than not, making a friend of the critic. Having been tutored by civil rights leader Rev. Dr. John Perkins, considered by many the father of Christian Community Development in America, H had learned the power of humility, the power of listening to those on the margins, and the belief that the answer to a community’s problems are to be found in the community itself, by those most impacted by the problems, what Catholic social teaching calls “subsidiarity.”
H Spees was a friend of the Center for Community Transformation (CCT), and was its senior advisor for its status as a Leadership Foundation, lending wisdom to many of its initiatives. The work he did in his consulting business was under the auspices of the CCT. Carlos Huerta, CCT Executive Director says, “H was deeply loved by our staff at CCT. H was the wind in our sails and the smile that warmed us from one community to the next. As we lament, we also reflect and rejoice in Psalm 116:15 “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.” Dave Hillis, President Emeritus of Leadership Foundations national, said, “H now belongs to the communion of saints for all eternity where, among other things, we have complete confidence that he will continue to be the champion and cheerleader of what he worked so hard to achieve and his life exemplified while he was here on earth: cities becoming God’s playgrounds.”
John Donne said, “Any man’s death diminishes me.” There is no getting around this; We are indeed diminished. But H would remind us of a more important truth. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; the Lord rescues those whose spirit are crushed.” (Psalm 34:18). And he would prompt us in our grief to temper it with hope (1 Thes 4::13). Because above all, H’s life was about the absolute difference that Jesus makes, to transform an individual’s life, or the life of a city. The bell is tolling for H, as it will for all of us. H and I walked with each other for more than thirty years. It is hard to believe he is gone. But until the bell tolls for me, I want to live like H did, extending the warm and transformational love of God to others. We will miss you, dear Friend.