By Graydon Megan, Special to the Chicago Tribune

April 17, 2013

The Rev. Michael McConnell was a leader in many fights for social justice, from the sanctuary movement of the 1980s to a hunger strike in Springfield protesting proposed cuts in essential services.

In all those efforts, Rev. McConnell, Midwest regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, was a creative and strategic thinker with a sense of history.

Margaret Jackson, interim director of the committee's Midwest region, pointed to Rev. McConnell's idea to display soldiers' boots as a way to raise awareness of the Iraq War.

The exhibit, "Eyes Wide Open," first displayed in Chicago's Federal Plaza in early 2004, featured hundreds of pairs of boots along with information on Iraqi civilian deaths. It was meant to dramatize the human cost of war and toured the U.S. for several years. As the exhibit grew larger — to thousands of pairs of boots — it was eventually broken up into smaller, state-based exhibits.

"We were trying to talk about the war in a way that people could really understand the impact," Jackson said. "Michael came up with the idea of boots."

Jackson said the exhibit and talks by Iraq War veterans had an impact. "The conversation from media started to change," she said. "We saw a shift to more questioning of the war."

Rev. McConnell, 66, died of prostate cancer Sunday, April 7, in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, according to his wife, Maricela Garcia. He was a longtime resident of the Edgewater neighborhood.

He grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and attended Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. He came to Chicago for divinity studies at McCormick Theological Seminary and was an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

In the 1970s, after finishing his divinity studies, he helped found and taught at a since-closed alternative Chicago high school. He then worked as coordinator for the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, where he became involved in the sanctuary movement.

The movement, which had roots in the medieval tradition of churches providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, was aimed at providing a safe haven for Central Americans running away from political repression and violence in their home countries.

"We were asked for help by a church in Tucson," said Renny Golden, a member of the task force who worked with Rev. McConnell. "We became organizers."

The two co-wrote a 1985 book on the movement, "Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad."

Their efforts included helping to recruit hundreds of churches and synagogues to provide shelter and volunteers to risk arrest and fines to transport refugees, many of whom entered the U.S. through Arizona and California, around the country.

"Michael believed that ordinary people, if they knew the situation, would act for peace and against war," Golden said.

In 1990, Rev. McConnell became regional director of the Midwest region of the American Friends Service Committee, based in Chicago. The Quaker organization promotes lasting peace and justice.

Rev. McConnell recognized a different kind of war several years ago, as cash-strapped Illinois planned sharp cuts in state funding for education and health care.

"Michael had the idea for a hunger strike in Springfield," said Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Collaborative, representing a dozen organizations working on economic and social justice issues in Illinois.

The strategy moved negotiations forward on the need to look for additional revenue, instead of cutting what she called "core services of health care and education," according to Patel.

"Michael was an eternal optimist, always seeing the good in people and the good in things," Jackson said. "I think he saw the fruit of his work and saw more young people getting involved — he was a firm believer that we have to get youth involved."

His wife agreed. "He had a tremendous commitment to create a new generation of peacemakers."

Rev. McConnell is also survived by two daughters Sarah and Daniella ; a son, Camilo John ; his father, John; brothers Thomas, Anthony and Timothy; and a granddaughter.