Michael McConnell, 63, McCormick Seminary’s 2010 Distinguished Alumnus has passionately advocated for peace since his college years as a student at the University of Wisconsin.
While an undergraduate, McConnell underwent the first of three major life conversion experiences that shaped him into the man he is today.
Though he entered college in 1964 as a supporter of the Vietnam War, an information sheet containing unpublicized statistics on the human cost of the conflict there radically changed his perspective.
After becoming a passionately outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, McConnell knew he needed to pursue further study at an institution which would enable him to serve in a creative manner – he chose McCormick because it offered alternatives to traditional parish ministries and an atmosphere that engaged real issues of urban living.
Through his time at McCormick, McConnell underwent the second major conversion experience of his life – a shift facilitated by his field work, community meetings and discussion groups.
“[Seminary] was not just Hebrew and Church History Studies. It opened my eyes to the reality of how most people in the world actually live,” McConnell said.
Through his internship with the Northwest Community Organization, McConnell was assigned to a neighborhood comprised of Polish and Puerto Rican people.
Though there was a general atmosphere of racism, McConnell gathered people from both backgrounds to address issues of common concern such as safety in streets and parks.
Working together helped residents to see past their stereotypical differences.
“When individuals got to know one another, they’d say, ‘He’s my neighbor – I like him,’” McConnell said.
Through this community organizing experience, McConnell learned that working adults – not only fiery, activist students – were willing to protest for an important cause.
McConnell also learned a fair amount about Chicago politicians – much to his disappointment, as he witnessed corruption and neglect of the needs of the poor and marginalized. McConnell, an Ohio native, calls this time his introduction to “real-life.” He said it felt like living inside Division Street, Studs Terkel’s profile of urban life in Chicago.
Though he claims gentrification has been a central issue in Chicago since the 1950s, McConnell met so-called “Urban Renewal” face-to-face in the 1970s.
“The city wanted to get rid of homes and bring in a school to bring more upper class people into a desirable area close to downtown, but the community itself didn’t want the school,” McConnell said. “It would have destroyed the neighborhood as it was.”
The effort to build Roberto Clemente High School was spearheaded by Alderman Thomas Keane, an official serving Mayor Daley who was later indicted for corruption.
“We knew Keane was corrupt at the time, but we couldn’t prove he was making money from the developers who would stand to profit from building a school in that neighborhood,” McConnell said.
McConnell said Keane only attended one community meeting regarding the school. He arrived in a limo.
Though the school currently has a mostly Puerto Rican student body, McConnell claims that the school was originally intended to push out the Puerto Rican community.
“If they had really wanted to help the community, then they would have built the school in Humboldt Park,” McConnell said. “It would have made the park less dangerous and also saved the homes.”
McConnell believes the school was intended to be an institutional anchor to upgrade the neighborhood, similar to the United Center in upper-west-side Chicago. Since his eyes were opened though his field experience, McConnell more fully understood the devastating effects of gentrification. He sees it happening today all across the city, especially in places such as the Loop, Carl Sandberg Village at North Avenue and Clark Street and Cabrini Green.
“It made me commit to staying in the city, because I would see the problems and issues that people dealt with,” McConnell said. He kept his commitment to the city even when it meant being what is now called “bi-vocational,” because there were not full-time ministry positions available in thriving churches at the time McConnell graduated in 1971.
“It felt like a lifetime because it was so transformative, but I was only there one and a half years,” McConnell said.
His third major conversion experience occurred in 1983 when McConnell traveled to the border to Honduras and Nicaragua. While there, he met the families of those killed by fighters funded by the United States government.
One of McConnell’s most significant memories from that time is staying with a family who had recently lost a son about the same age as he was. McConnell was astounded that they would extend such warm hospitality to someone who was from the same country that funded the killing of their loved one.
“I witnessed the Gospel, Liberation Theology and forgiveness taken seriously – I returned a changed man,” McConnell said.
This change within McConnell was evident in his newfound desire to change policy, communities and individuals by exposing the hidden pain of refugees. He made it his mission to raise awareness of the kidnapping and torture which was tearing apart families daily in Latin America.
Though it has been nearly three decades since the days of that war, McConnell still speaks enthusiastically about the renewal of courage and faith he witnessed in the churches he partnered with.
“Providing sanctuary to refugees was an act of civil disobedience punishable by prison or fines,” McConnell said. “It was not something to enter into lightly.”
One of his best-known books, Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad, was co-written with Renny Golden as a response to the growing interest in this new ecumenical group practicing the ancient law of sanctuary and protecting the displaced from authorities.
In addition to providing theological foundations and historical background regarding the movement, the book weaves personal tales of refugees into each chapter.
Another of McConnell’s works, Lost Voices: A Multicultural History of the United States was published on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America. McConnell’s mission in this work was to tell stories of resistance that are often left out of traditional history books.
With its short vignettes and graphics, even the book’s format is a departure from more mainstream texts. McConnell said he felt drawn to this work because many important efforts to enact social change have remained under the radar.
“People shouldn’t only study history,” McConnell said. “They should feel empowered to make it.”
Through the multi-sensory exhibit Eyes Wide Open: the Human Cost of War in Iraq, McConnell hopes to create a public forum to enable the families of those who lost their lives in Iraq to speak out.
“It’s common ground – an open space where all can mourn the death of those who were lost,” McConnell said. “Some see it as worth it and others do not.”
Through displaying thousands of combat boots representing those who died, McConnell hopes to remember the lives of those lost in Iraq, as well as enable everyday people to see more tangibly the impact of war and United States policies on the rest of the world.
The boots in the large displays are replicas of what troops actually wore, but some families have donated footwear their loved ones actually wore in combat and these are kept as a separate, guarded part of the exhibit.
After its debut at Chicago’s Federal Plaza in January 2004, the exhibit now exists as a series of smaller exhibits shown in several states to commemorate the more than 4400 soldiers killed in Iraq.
“Moms say this helps their kids to understand war,” McConnell said. “It’s a visual depiction of the human cost of war that numbers cannot convey.”
For McConnell, the issues facing refugees are not problems in the abstract, but are very personal. His wife, Maricella, a refugee from Guatemala, deepened his understanding of those who survive trauma and displacement.
During the first years of their marriage, McConnell said Maricella would keep a bag packed and close by just in case she had to return home on short notice. He watched her struggle deeply with the pain of wanting to return home, but knowing that it was not a safe possibility.
McConnell said these experiences have made Maricella a strong partner as well as a respected local, national and international leader of the fight for immigration rights. She was able to help him develop a kind of empathy not otherwise possible with his background of white privilege.
“It is one thing to work on an issue that you feel is unjust and another to feel what it does to you viscerally,” he said. “There is a whole level of injury that you don’t always hear about.”
After several years of working with families for the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, McConnell claims that returned troops and refugees share common post-traumatic stress experiences. He said both struggle with the inability to believe they are really safe and with difficulty feeling at home.
Since 1990, McConnell has served as Regional Director of the Great Lakes Region of the American Friends Service Committee. Though he might not be leading the lifestyle of an activist as he did in college, McConnell sees his current position as a continuation of a lifelong commitment to peace and social justice.
Jennifer Bing Canar, AFSC’s regional coordinator of programs said McConnell leads in a supportive and inspiring manner. “He has a vision for social change that is just infectious,” she said. “You come up with ideas and he makes you feel like you can really do it.”