Remembering Belita Mitchell

Belita D. Mitchell, the first Black woman to be ordained in the Church of the Brethren and the first Black woman to serve as moderator of the Annual Conference, passed away Feb. 10 at her home in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Her childhood was spent in rural Illinois, near Carbondale, and in the Detroit area. She came to Christ in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She attended Southern Illinois University where she studied English, French, and business. It was there that she met her husband, Don Mitchell, who survives her. After they were married, they moved to his hometown of Chicago and began to raise a family including a son who died in 2002, and a stepchild from her husband’s previous marriage. Eventually the family included several grandchildren.

For a time in Chicago, she did public aid casework and considered pursuing social work. However, in 1972 they moved to southern California, where she found a 30-year career as a sales executive. In California, the family attended Imperial Heights Church of the Brethren in Los Angeles, where the couple slowly began to take on responsibilities on a volunteer basis. She eventually became part of the Church of the Brethren’s Black Advisory Committee, and while attending a meeting of the former General Board she spoke on behalf of the committee—and began to receive affirmations of her call to ministry.

Belita Mitchell preaching for the Intercultural Retreat hosted by Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren in 2015. Photo by Regina Holmes

She went through the licensing process in Pacific Southwest District, graduated from the Training in Ministry program, took classes at Fuller Theological Seminary among others, and began serving as associate pastor at Imperial Heights in the 1990s. After she was called as pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa., she was ordained to ministry on Oct. 5, 2003.

“Mitchell had portrayed Mattie Dolby, a Black Brethren woman who preached in the early 1900s, in vignettes at the 1995 Annual Conference,” noted an interview by Walt Wiltschek, published in Messenger in June 2007. “Dolby became a minister but was never ordained, so Mitchell considered her landmark ordination a tribute to Dolby’s legacy.”

In 2007, she served as the moderator of Annual Conference with being “prayed up” as a theme of her leadership, and the call for diversity a cornerstone of her year as moderator. In 2017, she and her husband, who is currently director of Church Development for Atlantic Northeast District, received the “Revelation 7:9 Award” from the denomination’s Intercultural Ministries in recognition of significant leadership in efforts to make the Church of the Brethren an intercultural church. In 2022, she was the preacher for the final worship service at the Annual Conference in Omaha, Neb.

Her influence, however, was felt far beyond her official roles in the denomination, as she helped call people from all levels of the church—from denominational staff to youth, from young women to elders of decades’ standing—into a Holy Spirit-led commitment to Jesus Christ and his people. She made a habit of speaking truth to power, and was unafraid to raise challenging concerns for racial and social justice and peacemaking. In one example, as pastor of First Church in the Allison Hill neighborhood of Harrisburg, she began working against gun violence, with involvement in Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, and became a vocal advocate for gun violence prevention efforts locally and at Annual Conference. She was one of those behind an initiative to start a community garden at First Harrisburg, intended to cultivate “relationships, peace, and love” as well as vegetables. Her reminders of the needs in minority communities in the United States were cited by denominational staff as helpful in balancing the Church of the Brethren’s focus on international mission. She wrote for Messenger magazine, most recently an article about her Sankofa Journey titled “The Shadow of the Lynching Tree,” published in January/February 2018. In 2011, she was the speaker for the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend observances at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind.—just one of many of her speaking engagements over the decades.

As she said when preaching for the Annual Conference in 2022, “One thing Jesus did well was cross social and cultural boundaries…. In the church, we need to stop looking at all the differences…and look at the needs…. If we trust the power of the Spirit in us, there’s no end to what we can do to share the love.”

Service arrangements are pending and will be shared when they become available.


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