Distinguished Service Award: Leonard Dow

By Emily Wade Will | May 31st, 2017

Leonard Dow '87

On a fall morning in 1978, Leonard Dow ’87 left his home in working class Philadelphia and arrived at 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 of 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. 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.”

Basketball helped to smooth the path. He stayed the four years and continued sports and studies at EMC. 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.”

After graduation, Dow took a banking position with Univest in Souderton, Pa. He became OCMC’s lead pastor in 1999, growing both the church and the community with the establishment of the Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association. The nonprofit offers a summer camp and afterschool programs, day care, adult English classes, workshops on financial literacy, immigration rights and fair housing, and more. Dow recently wrapped up his tenure as lead pastor. Since April, his calling and vision have been expanded to urban churches nationwide as stewardship and development specialist at Everence, a Christian financial services organization.