Congregational Life Ministries gives Intercultural Award, welcomes new members of Open Roof Fellowship

Church of the Brethren Newsline
July 8, 2017

Congregational Life Ministries gave awards and citations during the Mission and Ministry Board’s pre-Annual Conference meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Revelation 7:9 Award from the Intercultural Ministry was given to Don and Belita Mitchell. Citations to congregations joining the Open Roof Fellowship were given to two congregations in Illinois: Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren and York Center Church of the Brethren, represented by their respective pastors Katie Shaw Thompson and Christy Waltersdorff.

Revelation 7:9 Award

Don and Belita Mitchell (at center and at right) with the Revelation 7:9 Award received from the Church of the Brethren’s Intercultural Ministries. Giving the award on behalf of Congregational Life Ministries was Josh Brockway (at left), who was present for Intercultural Ministries director Gimbiya Kettering who could not be at Annual Conference this year. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.

Don and Belita Mitchell of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa., were honored with the Revelation 7:9 Award from the Intercultural Ministry. The award recognizes their years of service to the Church of the Brethren, and the time, energy, and enthusiasm that they have given to intercultural ministries over the years.

Don V. Mitchell has been serving as director of Church Development and Evangelism for Atlantic Northeast District, and currently serves on the New Church Development Advisory Committee of the Church of the Brethren denomination. He chairs the Brethren Community Ministries. In past positions with the district, he has served on the Witness Commission. In Pacific Southwest District, he chaired the New Church Planting Mission Commission. An accomplished musician, he has traveled across the denomination on many Urban Peace Tours sponsored by the former Church of the Brethren Office of Witness. He is a native of Chicago, Ill., and a graduate of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where the couple met. The Mitchells relocated to southern California, where they resided for over 31 years before moving to Pennsylvania. They are the parents of four adult children (one deceased) and four grandchildren. The Mitchells came to Pennsylvania at the end of 2003, when Belita accepted the call to serve as senior pastor of Harrisburg First Church.

Belita D. Mitchell, a former moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, is currently lead pastor of Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren. She previously served in pastoral roles at Imperial Heights Church of the Brethren in Los Angeles, Calif. She served in the highest elected position in the denomination, making history as the first Black American female to be Annual Conference moderator. She presided over the 2007 Annual Conference held in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a second-career minister, having retired from a Fortune 100 company with 30 years experience. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in English from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and fulfilled her ministry training requirements through the Training in Ministry program, which included study at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. She is a certified trainer in the Prevention of Clergy Sexual Misconduct, and is passionate for the cause of Christ in an urban, multi-ethnic setting.

Open Roof Fellowship citations

The Open Roof Fellowship is made up of congregations that have made a commitment to follow the gospel in reaching out to and ministering with persons of all abilities. By joining the fellowship, congregations name and claim their intention to create community that honors the gifts of all people.

In 2004, the Association of Brethren Caregivers established the “Open Roof Award” to lift up as examples those who were engaged in this intentional ministry. The story in Mark 2: 3-4 gave the inspiration for this award, in which “some people came, bringing to Jesus a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him.” This legacy of the Association of Brethren Caregivers lives on in the Disabilities Ministry, now housed in the Church of the Brethren’s Congregational Life Ministries. Debbie Eisenbise serves as staff person for the ministry, and Rebekah Flores is the denominational disabilities advocate and served as a disabilities ombudsman at this Annual Conference.

Pastors of the two congregations that joined the Open Roof Fellowship this year pose for a picture with Congregational Life Ministries and Disabilities Ministry staff: (from left) Katie Shaw Thompson, pastor of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill.; Christy Waltersdorff, pastor of York Center Church of the Brethren in Lombard, Ill.; Debbie Eisenbise, director Intergenerational Ministries, who is the Congregational Life Ministries staff for the Disability Ministry; and Rebekah Flores, denominational disabilities advocate who served as a disabilities ombudsman at this Annual Conference. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.

The Highland Avenue Church has made building accessibility a priority so that not only the worship spaces, but also classrooms and the fellowship hall are welcoming to people of all physical abilities. The congregation is continually re-evaluating members’ needs and working to educate the congregation to pay attention to what can make congregational life accessible, such as how microphones are used during worship. Attention is now being given to making sure that Sunday school classrooms provide for the needs of everyone to learn and grow, including engaging a variety of learning styles and addressing behavioral needs. Leadership is trained to be sensitive to various needs and abilities, and developing and utilizing various gifts in the service of the congregation. Recently, a member with an intellectual disability wanted to preach and leadership provided a way for him to do this through a dialogue sermon. He also shared his love of playing the drums during that worship service, to the delight of the congregation, who got to know him better that day. This ministry emphasis has had a positive effect on new members, who have shared with the pastor their joy in seeing the wide variety of people in the congregation and how respectful and caring members are toward one another.

York Center is a congregation that has not only worked to make sure all members are accommodated and welcome, regardless of varying abilities and conditions, but is an evangelist for this ministry as well. Last year, the congregation voted unanimously to host the Parables Community in their building. The Parables Community, a ministry for families with children with special needs, was welcomed into the Open Roof Fellowship last year. For many years, York Center has worked to maintain and expand accessibility in the building and congregation. A wheelchair is always accessible by the outside door of the church. In the sanctuary, instead of removing pews to make room for wheelchairs and walkers, the seat of a pew has been removed allowing those sitting there in arm chairs or wheel chairs to join in worship and feel totally included in the congregation. Most families in the congregation have a connection with someone with a disability. Twenty-one years ago, a child with Down Syndrome was born to members of the congregation. He has grown up loved and encouraged by the congregation, welcomed and integrated into all aspects of church life. He participated fully in the membership class and was baptized as a teenager.

Applications to join the Open Roof Fellowship are ongoing. All congregations with active disabilities ministries are invited to join, go to . “We’ve already received our first application for 2018 from the Center Church of the Brethren in Louisville, Ohio!” said Eisenbise.

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