On a fall morning in 1978, Leonard Dow left his home in working class Philadelphia and arrived at the expansive, picturesque campus of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pa. He was one of 30 black freshmen and sophomores recruited by Lancaster Mennonite Conference to integrate the 400-member mostly white student body.
Dow, a ninth-grader, traveled no more than 25 miles but found himself in another world. The jolt would sow questions about faith and society that would ferment and eventually give rise to a model of ministry that knits a congregation into its surrounding community. The jolt would also inspire Dow to a lifetime of service within the Mennonite church. In addition to 19 years’ pastoral leadership in Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle Mennonite Church (OCMC) and 10 years as board chair of its nonprofit offshoot, Dow also served as a bishop of the Philadelphia District of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, vice chair of Mennonite Central Committee U.S., and board chair of Kingdom Builders Anabaptist Network of Greater Philadelphia.
At first Dow begged his mother to let him leave Christopher Dock. The racial rift, economic divide, foreign Mennonite culture and unfamiliar Anabaptist theology presented too many hurdles. A top student until then, he struggled with Christopher Dock’s academic rigor. Basketball helped to smooth the path.
He stayed the four years. A public speaking teacher surprised Dow by encouraging his gift in oratory. Bible and theology classes set him to pondering. He didn’t know what to make of Christian nonviolence. “Come teach that at Eighteenth and Glenwood,” he thought, of his home neighborhood in which factory closings and crack cocaine tore families apart. “I dismissed it but respected it,” he said, “and later in becoming a Mennonite pastor it did impact me.”
Dow’s dream of playing Division I basketball vanished with a torn hamstring. Depressed, Dow decided not to attend college. His father arranged for him to work at the clothing factory where he labored. Soon, “I begged him to help me find a college,” Dow related. “My mother said, ‘The Mennonites were good to you in high school, why not give them a shot?’”
Thirty years later, Dow’s record as the university’s top men’s basketball scorer endures, at 2,192 points, as does his rebounding record. His grade-point average also soared after he met Rosalie Rolón ’89, a serious student and his future wife. “Neither of us had cars or money so most of our dates were in the library. My GPA doubled.”
Dow majored in business. “In Mennonite circles the emphasis is on decreased mobility. I affirm that, but when you grow up poor, you ask how does the Kingdom speak to those not in a position to go down but rather need to build capacity?”
After graduation, Dow took a banking position with Univest in Souderton, Pa. He saw how Mennonite investments create sustainable communities within which money recycles, one dollar spent four or five times over. “In economically challenged communities, the money flows out,” Dow observed.
Twelve years later, Dow felt God calling him to integrate his banking background and his embrace of Anabaptist theology into a narrower focus on his Philadelphia church, OCMC. He became its lead pastor in 1999.
The Christ-centered theology Dow learned in high school and college pointed the way for his vision for the congregation, which he felt might die without change. Jesus was concerned with people’s souls, but he also healed the blind and lame, enabling them to set down their beggars’ bowls, Dow said.
“My understanding of salvation is that it comes spilled out lavishly into a community, like the spirit on Pentecost. What would it look like if such a salvation were spilled out into an urban community that knows nothing of Mennonites or Anabaptists, a post-Christian world?”
To find out, Dow began by organizing a community festival so residents of the changing neighborhood—people of color moving in and young whites out—could get acquainted. Church members listened when people told them about their hopes and needs: “You know, summer is hard here because the kids have nothing to do.”
The response, a six-week full-day summer arts and academic program. In the fall, those same children needed a place to go when the closing bell rang. An after-school program was born.
The 3,000-square-foot church building soon burst at the seams. Sunday attendance doubled from 40 to 80. Needing space and because “church isn’t the best place for implementing new ideas quickly,” OCMC set up the nonprofit Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association and a governing board that hired a church sister to direct it. “That’s when things started to take off,” Dow said.
Ten years ago, Dow pushed his vision further. The church purchased a 40,000-square-feet building, using a quarter of the space and leasing out the rest to nonprofit and for-profit community-focused entities. “This marketplace model now provides income to cover building costs and generate income for the association’s ministries. When the remaining debt is paid off in the next 10 to 15 years, the church will have the capacity to generate even more income for Kingdom purposes. God’s grace enabled us to take this risk in church, in a community in which nobody is wealthy,” Dow said.
Today, Oxford Circle is Philadelphia’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood, flourishing with young families. The church and its association maintain a busy hub of community-building activity. Adults attend GED prep and ESL courses and, at a local school, workshops on financial literacy, immigration rights and fair housing. Since last September, the association partners with Kinder Academy to provide quality day care for up to 110 infants and toddlers.
The social entrepreneur recently wrapped up his tenure as lead pastor. “My calling as a pastor was such a blessing yet specific to OCMC,” he said. Since April, Dow’s calling and vision have been expanded to urban churches nationwide as Stewardship and Development Specialist at Everence, a Christian financial services organization.