Don Harwell, longtime genial leader of Genesis, a congregation for Black Latter-day Saints, dies

“When he reached his hand out to shake yours, you knew you were part of that community,” recalls one friend. “No one was a stranger.”

(Stephen Holt | Tribune file photo) Genesis Group President Don Harwell, center, mingles with family and friends after a fireside in Murray in 2007. Harwell died Saturday at age 75.

In the mid-1980s, Darius Gray, a leading Black Latter-day Saint, met Don Harwell in the parking lot of an Allied store in Murray.

Because seeing another Black man in the mostly white suburbs of Salt Lake City was rare at the time, Gray strolled over to introduce himself and chat. They soon discovered both were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a serendipitous meeting that would launch a decades-long friendship and influence generations of the church’s Black members.

And one of Harwell’s grandsons is named for his friend — Darius.

Gray wept at the news that Harwell, an amiable, laid-back, generous soul, had died Saturday of complications from heart surgery. He was 75.

“One of the many beauties of Don was that what you saw, you got. He was a man truly without guile,” Gray said. “He worked hard. He loved deeply and cared deeply. He was a marvelous leader and marvelous friend.”

The two were part of a Black Mormon brotherhood that would get together on a monthly basis, he said. “Don was not flamboyant, not ego driven, but always there.”

Gray was among the founders of the leadership of the Genesis Group, created in 1971 to support the faith’s Black men and women during the time of the priesthood-temple ban on members of African descent. After the prohibition ended in 1978, Genesis went dormant for a while, but was resuscitated in the late 1990s.

It functioned as quasi-branch, or congregation, with a three-man presidency, where Black members could meet monthly with others who looked like them, shared their frustrations, their faith and their animated worship style (complete with shouted “amens,” applause and exuberant praise hymns).

In 1997, co-founder Ruffin Bridgeforth was tapped to return as president (though he died soon after), with Gray and Harwell as his counselors. Gray assumed the presidency as the congregation quadrupled in size and was released in 2003. Harwell took over and served until his release in 2018 — amassing more than 20 years in Genesis leadership, including 15 as president.

(Photo courtesy of Jerri Harwell) The Genesis Group presidency from left, Darius Gray, Ruffin Bridgeforth and Don Harwell. Harwell died Saturday at age 75.

Harwell was “a fixture in my life for over 20 years,” Tekulve Jackson-Vann, a marriage and family therapist, said Sunday. “He was not only a spiritual father to me but a mentor and friend. He was living church history, and his passing ends an era of church service that has blessed so many.”

He made everyone feel welcome from the start, said Cathy Stokes, a retired public health professional.

“When he reached his hand out to shake yours, you knew you were part of that community and immediately at ease,” Stokes said. “No one was a stranger.”

His roots

Donald Lyle Harwell and his twin brother, Ronald, were born Jan. 19, 1946, in Los Angeles and spent most of his youth and formative years in Southern California.

After high school, Harwell played college football at several schools, including Northern Arizona University, the family wrote in his obituary, “but he didn’t like the coach and left.”

Within two weeks of departing college, Harwell and his twin were drafted, the obituary stated, his brother went to Vietnam, and Don went to Germany, where he “taught swimming, played baseball, basketball, football, was a lifeguard, and raced cars (a Lotus).”

After the Army, Harwell had several jobs, including building aquarium stands. Eventually, he settled into selling electronic parts for computers with PowerStream.

Though reared as a Catholic, he joined the LDS Church in 1983 and moved to Utah.

His future wife, Jerri Harwell, first saw him at a Genesis meeting, though they officially met at Brigham Young University, where she was a student.

(Photo courtesy of Jerri Harwell). Jerri and Don Harwell.

They married the morning of July 20, 1987, in the Salt Lake Temple and went trapshooting that afternoon. Both were competitive amateur shooters.

The family would swell to six children, including two from his previous marriages. Five are surviving.

Memorial service set

A memorial service for Don Harwell will be held at noon Friday, May 14, at the Union Fort Stake Center, 540 E. 7155 South, Midvale, preceded by a viewing from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir then will perform Harwell’s favorite choir song. A viewing also is scheduled Thursday, May 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., at Broomhead Funeral Home, 12600 S. 2200 West, Riverton. Masks will be required.

The bighearted leader volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at the state prison. He served nine years on a corrections advisory board and later as a member of the peer group for Adult Probation and Parole.

“It was one of Don’s greatest loves,” Jerri Harwell said. “He felt it was part of his mission or purpose in this life to talk with parolees about honesty and integrity.”

The couple also served together as missionaries at Murray’s Intermountain Medical Center.

The soul of Genesis

(Photo courtesy of Jerri Harwell) Genesis Group leaders at the anniversary gathering, left to right, Darius Gray, Eugene Orr (counselors to Ruffin Bridgeforth in the original Genesis presidency); Donald L. Harwell (then-Genesis president and past first counselor to Gray and past second counselor to Bridgeforth); Orin Howell (then-first counselor to Harwell); and Eddie Gist (then-second counselor to Harwell).

His greatest legacy may have been his easygoing leadership of the monthly Genesis meetings.

Tamu Smith, of “Sistas in Zion” fame and co-author of “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons,” was a regular attendee.

“Don was the uncle who could take a punch and not hit back,” Smith said. “We would argue a lot, but you knew he could absorb it because he loved us. You could tell him the hard truth, and he would not be offended.”

Harwell taught her not to hold grudges and how to “separate business from people,” she said. “We don’t attack the person; we attack the issue.”

And, she said, his quiet kindness was legendary.

One year, the Smith family was facing “a very slim Christmas,” she recalled. “So slim you could put out pictures with the note, ‘This is what I would have gotten you if we had money.’”

When the worried mom got home from a Genesis meeting, her door was ajar and a window open. Deeply suspicious, she walked around the house to see what was missing and then saw piles of presents under the tree.

“Nobody breaks into your house and leaves more than what they took.” Smith jokes. “Don had broken into the house and brought all these gifts. Even though he never admitted it, I knew it was him.”

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Tamu Smith speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019. She regards Don Harwell, the longtime leader of the Genesis Group who recently died, as the "funcle," or fun uncle.

He was also the group’s “‘funcle’ — the fun uncle.”

“I will never forget every party, every get-together,” Smith said. “He had a signature dance move that we called the ‘Uncle Don,’ and I teased him about it.”

But it was, she said, “memorable.”

When the now-renowned Genesis Gospel Choir first got started, Harwell championed the spirited troupe as well as joined it.

“A lot of people still don’t get it,” Harwell told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016, who also was serving in his local ward’s bishopric at the time.

Latter-day Saints are so stiff they “don’t feel comfortable clapping — even though it’s OK. They are so locked in standard Mormon culture, they don’t realize how many different cultures are now in the church. With South America and Africa, there may be more people of color in the church than white people.”

The choir, now called the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, “wanted to bring as many souls as we can to Christ through music,” Harwell said. “We know we are doing something right.”

The singers wanted audiences to know, he said. “that being a [Latter-day Saint] is not a curse,” but “a blessing.”

For her part, Jerri Harwell, watched her husband suffer a lot during his final months, shrinking to almost a skeleton.

The widow is naturally bereft at the loss but comforted by her faith.

“I smile when I think about him no longer being in pain,” she said Sunday. “He’s home.”