Growing up at 18th Street and Glenwood Avenue, Leonard M. Dow saw a community overcome by drugs. At the same time the crack cocaine epidemic gripped the nation, not sparing Dow’s North Philadelphia neighborhood. Manufacturing jobs left, causing rampant unemployment amongst labor workers. The effects were catastrophic.
“I saw [the epidemic’s] impact families and destroying them, breaking them up,” Dow said.
His community oftentimes looked to local churches for support, but many congregations were closing or, in Dow’s opinion, not doing enough outside of Sunday sermons.
“What is the church’s responsibility in a particular community?” he asked. “Is it only to save souls?”
A former banker, Dow is now the outgoing lead pastor of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church (OCMC) and president of its non-profit, Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), both located at 900 Howell Street. He has spent the past 18 years at OCMC, assisting the residents of Oxford Circle, who are now seeing similar events occur in the blue-collar neighborhood, including unemployment, struggling families, immigration and poor education. OCCCDA grew out of the church ten years ago.
Dow has made it his mission to let God’s love of the community be known not just inside the four walls of the sanctuary, and not just on Sunday mornings. Demographic and economic shifts in the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood presented Dow and his staff the perfect opportunity.
“That kind of became our mantra,” Dow said. “To begin saying, ‘How do we show the love of God in some concrete ways to the people in Oxford Circle?’ We don’t spend a lot of time saying, ‘How can we show the love of God to those who don’t come to church and who may never come to church?’”
Dow will step down from his posts as pastor and president on March 31, leading the way for associate pastor Lynn Parks to take the helm. Parks says that even though she and Dow have often worked on the same projects in different areas, he has always brought her steady support.
“One of the things I’m going to miss is…just having that perspective that he brings, having that balance that he brings,” Parks said. “If there’s something that I wasn’t sure about, I had someone to go to and he would come to me and we would talk it about things.”
After becoming OCMC’s pastor in 1999, Dow thought to see where his church stood among the community. He released a 40-question community survey to find that not many in Oxford Circle knew about his congregation. Not sure where to go from there, he kept asking questions about what his community needed.
Asking those questions has resulted in English as a second language (ESL) and general education development (GED) classes for adults, a day care and after-school care for children, the Oxford Circle Community Festival, and the Family Resource Center, located nearby at Laura H. Carnell Elementary School, for families and residents.
“It’s a neighborhood of immigrants now,” said Anita Lyndaker-Studer, executive director of OCCCDA. “It’s a neighborhood where people are working poor. So often times, they’re working several jobs, they don’t have benefits, they don’t have all of the things you need to help support a family.”
Dow’s work also led to physical changes. The church and non-profit now own the building they sit in, which was previously owned by the Police and Fire Medical Association. Before purchasing the 40,000 square foot space, OCMC was located in a 3,000 square foot white church building across the street, on the corner of Howell and Langdon streets. The church began hosting so many activities and attracting so many residents that it outgrew its space.
The new space has allowed for their programs to come to fruition and perform at their highest potential. Dow is proud that in his 18 years of pastoring, OCMC and OCCCDA’s outreach hasn’t just resulted in fuller pews on weekends.
“On a Sunday, we get somewhere between 150 to 175, 175 people. And so the parking lot is somewhat full,” he said. “But what I’m really excited about is, Monday through Saturday, that parking lot is full as well.”
Dow finds comfort in that his congregation represents the diversity of Oxford Circle, a once-almost-entirely Catholic and Jewish community and a neighborhood not without fear of change.
“On a Sunday,” he said, “we’re a mix of African-American, Haitian-American, Latino, Puerto Rican, Asian, Anglo, all coming together to worship God in spirit and truth.”
What the next chapter is for Dow has yet to be seen, but he doesn’t fear it, and promises to stay true to his Philly roots.
“Whatever it will be,” he said, “it will combine my love for the city, my love for God, and would probably tap into my financial literacy background.”
He knows that though people serving OCMC and OCCCDA will come and go, their core mission will never change.
– Text, video and photos by Julianne Johnson and Bryan Fink.