Leonard Dow is making a name for himself. Around Philadelphia and throughout Mennonite Church USA, the 47-year-old is turning heads and people are listening.
It’s hard not to. Beads of sweat bubble all over Dow’s forehead as he delivers energetic, poignant sermons. The 47-year-old black preacher isn’t your cookie cutter Mennonite. Some in the “City of Brotherly Love” have dubbed him “Mennocostal” for his animated Pentecostal-style preaching at the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
That isn’t the first nickname given to the 1987 Eastern Mennonite University graduate. Dow is the all-time leading scorer in EMU men’s basketball history. His prolific numbers – 2,192 points -earned him the moniker “Dream.”
Despite the local celebrity Dow’s garnered throughout his life, he wants EMU students to know that their names mean little in God’s eyes. Dow’s message was heard on Wednesday by about 150 students, faculty and community members at the start of EMU’s Spiritual Life Week.
“I’ve driven five hours down from the city of Philadelphia to say I don’t care what your name is,” Dow said during a 20-minute sermon at Lehman Auditorium. “I don’t care about your first name or last name. It will limit you.”
A New Clarity
Students stayed glued to Dow on Wednesday as he emphasized that college is the time for them to “wrestle with God.”
“After that there is clarity and purpose,” he said.
Dow’s clarity came after his days at EMU when he was well into his banking career. He became a Mennonite a few years after graduation and quickly increased his involvement at the congregation in Oxford Circle, a low-income Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood.
“I started getting more of a passion for what I wasn’t getting paid to do, which was volunteering in the church, and less of a passion for what I was getting paid very well to do,” Dow said.
Reviving a Mennonite congregation in an urban area was no easy project. Oxford Circle’s congregation attracts a largely minority community through after-school programs and other public outreach. Such programs help dispel the notion that all Mennonites are Old Order and drive buggies.
Dow tied this into his sermon on names explaining that his congregation has to first be strong communicators as Christians for those unfamiliar with the Mennonite name.
“But I think it’s important that people know who we are before they come in,” he said. “We try to be clear about it, but believe me there are folks who I would say are ethnic Mennonite and when they come to our church they’re just as shocked as those who thought they knew Mennonites.”
Campus pastor the Rev. Brian Burkholder knew he wanted to invite Dow for Spiritual Life Week after hearing him previously at EMU.
“Leonard’s profile is expanding among the ministries of Philadelphia, but also among Mennonite Church USA nationwide and that’s because of a strong affirmation of his approach to ministry,” Burkholder said, “but also his ability to speak prophetically.”
Yoder, Leap … Dow?
As students applauded Dow on Wednesday he provided proof that one doesn’t need a traditional Mennonite name to be a strong leader in the church. In fact he wanted some members of the audience with well-known Mennonite surnames to feel uncomfortable and remember they cannot rely on their family names to do right by God.
“There’s a high regard for our names, you know, Yoder, etcetera, etcetera,” Dow said. “I can’t replicate that but the Anabaptist [quality] that I really valued and received when I was in high school and college is the theology.”
He also emphasized that the Mennonite message isn’t only applicable to those in rural areas.
“In an urban environment where violence unfortunately plays itself out on a daily basis and when justice is not just to those who are poor, that theology plays directly in speaking to those,” Dow said.
Christian Parks, a freshman from Philadelphia, was impressed by Dow’s directness when speaking about struggling to find an identity and a calling. Parks said the sermon made him think about his own struggle to understand his place on campus when so many of his peers are engaged and he is single.
“Listening to him explain that you first have to wrestle with yourself, wrestle with God and then purpose will come is encouraging and discouraging at the same time because it takes a lot of patience,” Parks said.
Parks and his fellow students gave their biggest applause when Dow passionately told them to reject the value of worldly identities and focus on what Jesus wants.
“Jesus says ‘Follow me, do not allow your wealth, your denomination, your education, your network, your career or your family inheritance, any of that to get in the way,’ ” Dow said. “Jesus said ‘Follow me, not your family name, not your family identity … Do not allow what others have said about you on Facebook or Twitter to get in the way of following me.
“Jesus says ‘Follow me. Do not allow Democrat or Republican to define you. Do not allow Fox News or NPR to be the sum of who you are.’ ”
Spiritual Life Week wrapped up Saturday at Park View Mennonite Church with a “Called to Ministry” retreat from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.