Leonard Dow, born in North Philadelphia, served as program coordinator and urban service program administrator for MCC East Coast in Philadelphia from 1999 to 2003. Dow, now stewardship and development specialist for Everence Financial, has also served as a longtime board member, a Mennonite pastor and MCC supporter. Listening to this interview from March 2020, we were moved by his words about MCC and about his own life and faith journey and hope you will be too. (Top photo: Leonard Dow prays with other participants at the Urban Anabaptist Ministry Symposium co-sponsored by MCC East Coast and Mennonite Church USA in 2014. MCC Photo/Rachel Sommer).
Photo courtesy of Mennonite Church USA
When we were on the phone setting up this interview, you talked about MCC and the Good Samaritan? Why?
The Good Samaritan comes alongside the man on the side of the road who was a victim to robbers. In our world today, there are Jericho roads. In that text there are the Levite and the Pharisee, religious folks like many of us who made a conscious decision to either ignore or walk by. The Samaritan there made a conscious decision to see, I would say with Christ-like eyes, the man on the Jericho road.
What I’ve appreciated about MCC is the willingness to see those Jericho roads and then to see those who are most harmed in the context of Jericho roads. That’s been the case in Ukraine in the 1920s, to Central America in the 1980s, to isolated locations like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), to the streets right here in Philadelphia. Those are all Jericho roads.
Being born and raised on the Jericho road of North Philly, that’s always been part of my framework, my DNA. How can we come alongside those who are adversely affected on the Jericho roads? MCC tries to embody that.
Growing up in North Philly
The Jericho road of North Philly? Tell me about the neighborhood where you grew up.
I think the backdrop is that my community wasn’t always violent. My community transitioned into daily violence during the time of the cocaine epidemic beginning in the 1970s.
I was born in July 1964. So, my early memories are quite quiet. It was row houses, so we had no grass or anything. My father worked in the garment industry, which had been strong in the city of Philadelphia. It was a safe community. I walked to school. I walked to the supermarket. I walked to church. Everything was right around me.
Beginning in the early 70s, however, we began hearing and noticing the drug activity, specifically cocaine moving into the cities. You know, we didn’t grow cocaine in North Philly. It came from the outside in. At the same time the manufacturing jobs, the factory jobs moved because cheaper labor was now available in other parts of the world.
So, you have unemployment rising and then you have access, unbelievable access, to drugs that you can sell – those two combinations devastated communities like mine in North Philly. Our houses went from home ownership to rentals. Our families began to be splintered. Kids began to go with grandmom because the house had to be sold. Families just began to struggle. Gangs began to pop up.
It wasn’t like overnight, but within a 10-year period, we went from leaving our doors open to not being able to play on the streets where we had always played baseball and football.
That put me on this pathway of just seeing the connection between lack of economic access and resources and how that impacts a whole community. It just throws a monkey wrench in the whole community, where safety is no longer there, where families are no longer as stable as they once were, when men are no longer seen as contributing to society, but they’re now seen as a problem to society because their employment choices are now limited.
What about your family?
So, our family was one of the few families on our particular block that was able to move out. And part of me, I got angry at my parents sometimes because we moved out when I was about 12 or 13. But part of me also, being a parent, recognizes you do what’s best for your children.
I got angry because I was losing all that formed me as a 12 year old. I was losing my friends and playing stick ball on the corner, losing the neighbors who invited me over for crabs, who watched over us kids as we played, who deeply respected my hardworking parents and lovingly called me “Little Leonard.” And even though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, I was also angry at an oppressive system that would traumatize my community and eventually incarcerate far too many of my childhood friends. However, truth be told, this anger I speak of is more guilt – a survivor's guilt. Because in moving out, I was positioned for and later presented with opportunities to thrive in this life, unlike so many of my African American brothers and sisters from North Philly who were not.
At that time, those who could leave left parts of North Philly and those who remained stayed in incredibly violent and under-resourced, historically red-lined communities. That economic piece and seeing how that deteriorates a community, and how quickly a community can change has been kind of my baseline. Social services has to have an entrepreneurial, economic side to it in order, from my perspective, for a community to be sustainable and thriving on its own down the road.
A journey of faith
You describe yourself as Mennocostal (mix of Mennonite and pentecostal). What was your first church community?
I grew up walking to Thankful Baptist Church. It was a community church, still there, one of the churches that remained in the community.
That’s where I learned the Old Testament and the stories of Exodus and overcoming, the minor prophets speaking ‘truth to power,’ seeing the preacher have the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the next. We’d always talk about what was happening in the world and/or in our community today.
My brother and I loved church. We loved the passion that was shown. We loved the choir marching in, in their robes. And we loved the long sermons, not all the long sermons. But we loved the slow beginning, building up, building up to this crescendo of the mountaintop, and us leaving there with more hope than when we came. That was where the pentecostal (as an expression) of my Mennocostal was birthed and nurtured.
The church for the Black community, at that point and I would even say today, was one of the few places where we led, where we shaped what was happening in the context of that worship experience. So, it was one of the few safe places to be fully Black. We didn’t have to worry about being misunderstood or changing our language or dressing a certain way. We could be who we were as a people.
And it was one of the few places where you could express anger for the world in which we were in. In other words, in most cases, you worked for a white organization or business, you lived in a city where you didn’t really run the city. You had to “toe the line.” You had to be quiet. You just had to shut up and deal with being called less than.
But church was a place where you could let it go! And so, for the African American congregants, when you hear the preacher tell the story of the three Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace, you’re one of those Hebrew boys. You’re one of those Hebrew boys who’s caught in the fire, who is caught in a bad educational or judicial system, who is caught in a gentrified community being squeezed out. You’re in the heat of the situation, but yet, by God’s grace, Jesus is going to show up! Jesus is going to show up, people, because he showed up in the past for us. He’s going to show up in the future. That, I mean, I can shout right now!
So that’s Black preaching. Classic Black preaching ends with hope. Even if it’s a funeral. Jesus is going to show up in some form or fashion. And I get excited. I mean, you can’t preach that and not be excited about it. My time there really nurtured me in the Old Testament, the stories, the prophets…
And when you moved out of North Philly?
We transitioned to a Presbyterian church. My mother was working at a Christian school, and one of the men there was a pastor who started a house church. So we went from a lively, story-driven, getting-to-hope-at-some-point worship to a house church of four or five families and exegeting passages of the New Testament verse by verse. Then, during my high school years, we went to Tenth Presbyterian, which is downtown. At Tenth I learned to value the New Testament and the Pauline letters and the importance of taking the time to study and understand the original meaning of the text and remembering that context and culture matters.
And at the same time, I started high school at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, and they re-introduced me to the Gospels in a new way. That’s where I began discerning the great question of what if Jesus really meant what he said. How does the kingdom of God begin to emerge a little bit in the here and now? At least that’s what I got out of it. From a theological framework, it’s not waiting to the “by and by.” We’re not saying that doesn’t exist. But how can we begin ushering in the kingdom of God here and now? How can we begin to walk the Jericho road now, not later?
Into the Mennonite world
Going to Christopher Dock Mennonite High School was your immersion into the Mennonite world. Why did you want to go?
My mother. She made me. She thought it was a better school. They offered some resources to go. That was 1978, ninth grade.
Christopher Dock, which is in Lansdale, was open to receiving urban kids. A Mennonite volunteer service unit began, in part around transporting us to and from Christopher Dock. There were about 30 of us.
It wasn’t easy. Most of us who came in were African American. We were the diversity. Then you have the educational disparity. I had been an "A" student. But when I went to Dock, they were doing things in math and science I hadn’t even touched. Then you add the economic disparity piece. And there’s a sense that the city is a terrible place. Nobody goes to the city; Leonard, why do you even live there?
In fact, I had asked my mom to leave in October. I was like, I hate this place. But then, this crazy thing happened called basketball. And I went overnight from being a city kid that sat at the table together with other city kids and nobody else at the school talked to, to being a big man on campus and popular.
That became my lifeline. I really believe this. If it wasn’t for sports, I don’t think I would have stayed at Christopher Dock. I definitely wouldn’t have gone to Eastern Mennonite University.
How did those high school years shape you as far as how you looked at Mennonites?
That’s where I started learning Mennonite history, and I was fascinated. I remember one history teacher showing the picture and telling the story of Dirk Willems, the Anabaptist martyr who was escaping but turned back to rescue his pursuer who had broken through the ice. Then he (the teacher) goes on. He’s flipping the page. Everyone else is flipping the page.
And I’m like, “Excuse me, wait a minute, why did he go back?” And everyone is like, “Because that’s what he did.” And I’m like, “But that doesn’t make sense.”
Those kids had grown up in the story. They knew the story. And I’m like, “The moral of the story is you don’t go back cause if you go back you get killed?” They’re like, “No, it’s living like Christ.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but what’s the reward in that?”
So, we’re having this back and forth. I didn’t realize it was a theological conversation, but I was fascinated by that. And I was confused by it at the same time because in my mind, he (Dirk Willems) was killed or was martyred so he lost, and they treated him as a saint. So, I kept asking why, and they kept pointing to Jesus. I was like, ok, yeah, but that’s not the Jesus I understand him to be.
I began asking questions about my own faith. I had come to Christ, but no one told me that’s part of what I signed up for. And if this is what I signed up for, how come I’m just now finding that out? Then we talked about Jesus and living like Christ. And that was kind of for me the first time I’d heard the living like Christ. He’s the son of God. How does one live like Christ? And I began asking those kinds of questions, which was a great journey.
That journey of learning and of seeing how Mennonites were interpreting their faith and living it out continued during your college years at Eastern Mennonite?
That’s when I started running into people who went to Central America, who went to these different places, and MCC provided the opportunity through service to do that. And I was like, “Wait a minute, you did what for three years?”
Some were MCC alumni who were teachers. Some would go for six months or their parents were there. And I would just be amazed by that.
In my station of life at that point, it just blew my mind – the privilege of being able to go where you would want in the world and do that and then have a viable way of landing back and having a network large enough that you can just get a job. But what they did informed me there was a world out there I had never really thought deeply about.
There were parts of the world they were talking about that I was too embarrassed to say I couldn’t even find on a map. And these are white folks, and they’re speaking Creole or they’re speaking some East European language. And I’m like, man.
And they had this passionate worldview of justice that took me a little bit to grasp. Why would you care about somewhere so far away and know so much, but at the same time, not know that on the other side of the Harrisonburg track there’s a Black community that’s going through A, B and C? How could you know that much about the world but not this?
And we would struggle together with that. We would talk about that or dialogue. I really enjoyed those times, especially to have a healthy argument with someone you disagree with. It was part of the DNA at EMU. It wasn’t just in the peace and justice classes but even in the business classes.
You studied business?
I became a business major because I didn’t want to be financially poor anymore. And business seemed to be the way to make money. And I remember disagreeing with my peace and justice people who seemed to be adamant against that, this notion of a profit.
But I’m like, “Well, you have money.” I said, “How did you get to this college?”
“My parents paid for it.”
"Well, they’ve got money, so it’s easy to say how terrible profit is because you already have money, but if you don’t have it, getting access to it becomes an important life journey."
From banking to preaching
What did you do after college?
I started working at Univest, a bank headquartered in Souderton. I had worked two summers before as a floating teller there.
The summers after my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college, I had been working with my father at the clothing factory as a bundle boy. What a bundle boy does is take the pants from one station to the next station, to put the loops on, to put the zippers on, to finally take it to my father, who was one of about six men who pressed the pants and the suit jackets. So, I did that for two summers. It’s hard work. But my father did that his whole life.
My father, unbeknownst to me, reached out to the father of one of my best friends from high school, who worked at Univest to get me an interview for a job.
I worked as a teller over the summers; then I worked there after college. I was at Univest 11 years working my way up, steady but progressing.
I graduated in 1987 and got married in 1990. The joke in our home is I got to choose where we were going to live in Philadelphia; my wife Rosalie Rolon-Dow got to choose where we were going to worship.
She had grown up Mennonite in Puerto Rico and wanted us to try out the Mennonite churches in the city. We started attending Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, which had about 30 people and pastor Jim Leaman, who I still consider my pastor. Of course, I was the church treasurer because I’m a banker!
But I began to wonder, I’m working in the suburbs but I’m living in the city still. How does my work correlate to my community around me? Does it make sense for me to ‘make it’ and be comfortable, but yet parts of the city in which I live are in this continuous cycle of experiencing economic challenges? I began asking, how could I bring my talents, treasures and gifts closer to where I lived?
In 1998 when Pastor Jim announced he was going to retire, I was asked to be on the transition team. About halfway through that year, my heart started to really resonate with the work I was doing with the church.
I had just left Univest and gone to a different bank here in the city, an African American-owned bank called United Bank. I’m thinking I’m finally at a place where I’m working in a financial institution that’s in my city. I’m working in a majority context of African Americans. I’ve arrived.
But my heart was at this little church, and I was getting excited about opportunities to preach and do small group stuff and community engagement. Long story short, by the end of 1999 after discerning with my wife, I began to sense that I was being called into ministry.
That’s when MCC came into the picture. I talked to Freeman Miller. He was the bishop of the Lancaster Conference, which Oxford Circle was in. I said, to be honest, Oxford Circle is only a half-time job. Rosalie is full time in grad school and pregnant with our second child. I need another half-time job. He called the next week saying there was a program coordinator position open at MCC.
Serving with MCC
Lynn Roth came in to interview me for the MCC position. A conversation that was supposed to go an hour went for like three hours. We just had a great conversation about possibilities. And he was just asking me, “How would you facilitate a program here in Philadelphia?”
And I said, “First of all, I wouldn’t do it alone. I would get the churches together, and we would talk about hopes, dreams, visions, possibilities, do some discerning together and then respond accordingly.”
I was in management. In management, that’s what you do, that’s how you break it down. And that’s kind of the direction that we went. Lynn was a great boss and gave me a lot of autonomy.
MCC photo/Tony Siemens
There was one thing he didn’t tell me.
When I went to orientation, I come from the corporate world and so I’m wearing a suit. I remember sitting there at MCC orientation with a tie and a jacket. I’m like, this is what you’d wear to orientation for a bank.
Some people were in shorts, flip-flops, Birkenstocks. At lunch, I left, and I went to Kmart and got like a short-sleeve shirt to go with my dress pants. That’s when I kind of knew, OK, I’m in a different culture. I’m in a different world, a different place.
That began my career with MCC. And I felt at home, outside of the clothing. And I think I was the only Black person there, but that was normative for me in my Mennonite experience – Christopher Dock, EMU, Univest, Oxford Circle Mennonite Church. It was not uncommon for me to be, if not the only one, one of a handful.
So we started. MCC really gave me autonomy in building some coalitions here in the city of Philadelphia, working with the pastors and really giving me budget that would give space for us to get together, holding me accountable in having goals.
A lot of my work was connecting pastors who would not have had relationships before. Working with Fred Kauffman (a Philadelphian who also worked with MCC East Coast), we formed a network of pastors that came to be called Kingdom Builders Anabaptist Network, and over the years many ministries have formed out of that.
Those include Kingdom Builders Construction, which gives people who were incarcerated and other at-risk individuals a chance to build construction skills; a prison ministry; a Martin Luther King Day event that includes packing kits for prisoners and those coming out of incarceration; and a Pentecost service.
That was just an incredible time for us. There were churches starting and some of the older churches were renewing themselves.
What I began to observe with MCC was that people would come to our gatherings, the Kingdom Builders gatherings, whereas they wouldn’t go to other gatherings led by a particular church or denomination where there might be theological differences. In other words, in a relatively short period of time Kingdom Builders had become a “safe place” to dwell for the diverse and growing Anabaptist churches in Philadelphia.
And we found we could do some things together. We could dwell in the Word together. We could pray together. We could weep and lament together. We could advocate for things such as fair funding for schools, immigrant rights, police reform and reasonable gun legislation.
MCC photo/Andrew Bodden
We have a lot of immigrant churches. So, we were able to get a better understanding of the reality of that and then advocate for that. And returning citizens (Black and Brown people coming out of incarceration), that became important to immigrants’ churches because that’s our struggle.
We kept praying: How can we help returning citizens coming out of incarceration find jobs? In some cases, they have skills, but they can’t get jobs. Our prayer led to forming Kingdom Builders Construction, which provides jobs to people coming out of incarceration.
That led us to continuing to look at the issue of incarceration. And that then became a rallying cry for MCC in Philadelphia and MCC East Coast. For a Martin Luther King Day event, for the last several years, we’ve been making kits for prisoners and returning citizens. That was a local initiative of Kingdom Builders that MCC came alongside. Now this initiative has been shared with other regions of the U.S. within the MCC system.
MCC photo/Jill Steinmetz
We (Kingdom Builders) started an annual joint Pentecost service. In Philadelphia at that time, the housing crisis was about ready to explode. Murders and gun violence were high.
One day, we pastors were studying Pentecost and dwelling in the Word, how the Spirit came down and the tongues and fire and all that. And I think we just started talking about how this was the beginning of the church.
In the biblical story, they’re all gathered hiding in a room, anticipating that they may go out the same way that Jesus did, which is not a pleasant thought. And the Holy Spirit shows up. What we loved about that story was not only did the Holy Spirit show up to those that were in the room together. It then spilled out into the street.
MCC photo/Fred Kauffman
We fashioned a Pentecost gathering not only for us pastors but inviting our people to come together in a single service. It was a public proclamation of us coming together as a church that became an annual event. Depending on the weather, there’s a meal that we usually eat outside the church, as a reminiscing of how the Holy Spirit poured out into the streets.
You left the MCC program coordinator position to spend more time on your pastoral role at Oxford Circle?
At the same time Kingdom Builders was growing, our congregation was growing and our vision for what was happening in our immediate community was growing.
I got the point where I felt like I wasn’t doing either role – pastor of Oxford Circle or the position for MCC – well.
I chose to stay with the church. Too often leaders in urban situations are called to national church-related organizations, and that eventually takes them out of their communities, and we miss them. I wanted to stay and use my gifts and talents in the city and in my community.
My father told me early on, both my parents, every time I left the door for an extended period of time, “Don’t forget where you come from. You know you’re representing the Dows but you’re also representing this community.” And that stuck with me. And so, when opportunities have come for me to move from my community, I hear my parents’ echo.
You’re now working with stewardship development for Everence. Through the years, you’ve served on the board of MCC East Coast and are now prayer coordinator for MCC’s centennial campaign, New Hope in the Name of Christ. What does that prayer coordinator position mean?
The idea of the prayer coordinator is that we are encouraging people and churches throughout 2020 to be praying for MCC and joining that great cloud of witnesses the Hebrew writer talks about. If time, talent and treasure are equally of importance to MCC, which I believe they are, then prayer needs to be part of giving.
We’re inviting prayers for the future of MCC. We’re giving thanks for those who have come before us, some of whom have sacrificed their lives. But then also praying for the resources that will enable us to have the ability to position MCC well into the future. Also, wisdom. Leading an organization like this, our leaders need to be prayed for and to be bathed in prayer.
And the thing that prayer does that Scripture talks about: Where our treasure is, our heart will there also be. We say that passage so often we just run right through it. But what it’s getting at is, we have the ability to change our hearts by where our treasure is.
If your heart changes in such a way that MCC becomes of importance, you become more informed about places around the world like I did. And then, hopefully prayer will move to action, be it at the local level or be it in other ways.
I was inspired, I still am inspired, by hearing about the beginnings of MCC, Edna Ruth Byler starting Ten Thousand Villages. That’s inspiring. Not because they’re superhuman but, actually, because they’re ordinary.
I’m sure Edna Ruth Byler would probably say, “If God can use me, then surely God can use you.” I mean Clayton Kratz was a 20-something. And so many of the early organizers of the organizations we now have were young people that were given an opportunity.
I go back to MCC’s origins. If you look at the historical records, and you think about the challenges that were in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine) at that particular time, they would have been as overwhelming as some of the modern-day challenges where we say, “What can our dollars do? What can our prayers do?”
Well, whatever I can do is more than not doing anything. If I can participate at the level that I can, I’m part of this movement.
Want to know more? Hear his keynote address as part of MCC’s Oct. 17 centennial celebration, or see Dow's invitation to supporters to share New Hope in the Name of Christ. Read more about his commitment to supporting MCC. This interview was compiled and edited for length by Marla Pierson Lester, MCC U.S. publications coordinator.