Alumna Connie Leininger

Some 15 years before I came to study at McCormick, I walked in the door and spoke with someone about the possibility of enrolling.

by Connie Leininger (M.Div. 1984)

The person I spoke with told me to go spend money and enjoy life. After that, if I felt called to ministry, I could come back.  Looking back, that turned out to be exactly right for me.

While I was at McCormick, I was in some personal turmoil. I was in a bad marriage and struggling to define myself. Being at McCormick was a way to center myself in the Christian faith and to see myself as a capable person. Pauline Coffman, the dean of student life and a McCormick alumna, was a warm presence, honest and helpful.

I appreciated Ted Campbell, not only for being a good teacher, but also because he cared about us individually and listened for the deeper question behind the stated one. I remember David Reeves, who taught “the Jesus class.” He jumped up and down in his efforts to have us engage with texts, ask questions and translate philosophical passages into daily language. One day he advised me “Think about yourself as Pavarotti thinks about his voice. He isn’t over identified with it; he cares for it and uses it.”

I came to McCormick because it was Presbyterian and it was in Chicago. I knew it had a good reputation for scholarship and for commitment to the urban context. When I studied at McCormick, I learned the strengths of the Presbyterian tradition. I had grown up in the Philippines, and didn’t have a clear idea of “Presbyterian” as compared with other traditions.

I remember when I read Bonhoeffer being awed to think of Christ embodied in the preached word and the community of believers. That was a new thought to me.

While at McCormick, I worked in an inner city congregation. With Carl Dudley’s help, I analyzed the culture of that congregation. There were actually two distinct cultures, people from “the underclass” and people from the lower working class. These descendants of immigrants could be very critical of the “welfare people.” I analyzed literature on the culture of poverty, and discussed how these two groups managed to be the church together. It was a fascinating project .

I graduated in June of 1984, and served two parishes as an associate pastor. In both cases, the head of staff left suddenly, and I was left to comfort and manage sorrowing and troubled congregations. In both cases, there were McCormick colleagues who gave me advice and support. What a blessing!

One of the themes that characterized the community at McCormick was concern for social justice. I don’t remember being personally concerned about the war in Central America or other social justice themes that filled the Herald. However, I found myself struggling to convey to people in my parish the uniqueness of being a follower of Jesus in our North American culture. It was a struggle.

Later, I lived and worked at a Catholic Worker house, where with others, I provided a temporary home for women and families.

I became concerned for people in jail and prison, and began to write and then visit prisoners. I volunteer with Kairos Outside, which has retreats for women whose loved ones are in jail or prison. Now I work in a county jail. I provide education and counseling to men who are going through a difficult time. I know men who are emotionally wounded, struggle with addiction, and need basic skills for living. I know from specific examples the weakness and corruption of the criminal justice system.

I dream that more and more people of faith will come to know and care about their locked up brothers and sisters. The connection benefits those who are in jail or prison, but it also enriches the faith of those who meet and pray with them. One good way to establish partnerships is to establish Presbyterian congregations in prisons. Prison Congregations of America reports 14 prison congregations in the United States; so far, none of them is Presbyterian. I have a dream that across the United States, Presbyterians will establish 4 prison congregations in the next 10 years.