DeKALB – The Mitchells, pillars of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, ultimately learned that you can run, but you cannot hide, from God’s call.
They’re not just preachers at the church, but active in the city, where more than one-eighth of residents are black, according to the most recent Census data.
Joe Mitchell, 43, pastor at the church at 1201 Twombly Road, said he could only run so long.
In his early 30s, he was married with three children and seemingly happy working for UPS.
Then, he couldn’t sleep, and what little he got wasn’t quality sleep.
“My wife told me I would run in my sleep, to the point where she would start putting me out of bed and telling me to go sleep on the couch,” Mitchell said. “I finally realized the running was me physically running from this calling God had all my life.”
It took some time for his father, Leroy, to surrender to his calling, as well.
Now 71, Leroy Mitchell was recruited to Northern Illinois University in 1981 to direct its Chance program, which helps students who don’t have the means attend college.
While he and his wife, Veatrice, were being shown houses in DeKalb, he asked about black churches in the city.
“I remember hitting the brake and moving to the curb when she told me, ‘There are no black churches in DeKalb,’ “Leroy Mitchell said. “That’s when I knew that’s why we were here.”
Mitchell served as a deacon at Bethel Baptist Church in the early 1980s before he was licensed, ordained and in 1987 launched his own church, New Hope – the first predominantly black church in DeKalb.
New Hope began in the Mitchell family living room – “I preached in front of the TV,” Leroy Mitchell – as well as the University Village rec center, Judson Campus Ministry – now the Baptist Campus Ministry, 449 Normal Road, DeKalb – and the Holiday Inn – now the Red Roof Inn, 1212 W. Lincoln Highway.
The next 11 years, services were held at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, 301 E. Taylor St., DeKalb.
Along that nomadic path, Leroy Mitchell grinded, juggling a full-time job as an administrator, a family and a congregation.
In 1998, he somewhat reluctantly helped the church buy 10 acres of land at 1201 Twombly Road.
“I did not want to build, but everyone kept saying we had to,” Leroy Mitchell said. “They had to get me on board – slowly.”
On the first Sunday in July 2000, the first church service was held at New Hope. Before that, however, a parade was held from Seventh Day, and Leroy Mitchell said he brought up the rear, so he could pick up all the magnets that were falling off the cars.
It gave him an excellent vantage as he stood atop the hill near Chick Evans Fieldhouse at NIU, and the the procession approached his new church.
“There was a whole line all the way up Twombly that I could see,” Leroy Mitchell said . “We knew there was going to be crowd. It was a great day.”
Like father, like son
Joe Mitchell watched his father stretch himself razor-thin.
“I wanted nothing to do with ministry at all,” he said. “I saw what my father went through – the struggles and sacrifices that went along with that – and I wanted absolutely nothing to do with ministry whatsoever.”
God caught him, and his attention. He was 32 when he committed to joining the clergy in October 2006, and he slept. Boy, did he sleep.
“When I finally announced it, it was probably the best sleep I’d had in two years,” Joe Mitchell said.
He said about 200 people attend church at New Hope each Sunday, which he said is a smaller congregation than when the building was built in 1998 and opened in 2000.
It’s time to look outside those walls for how the church can further help the community, Joe Mitchell said.
A vision to expand
The Mitchells are exploring a $1 million expansion of the church, which would add a gymnasium, four classrooms, a larger food pantry, and a larger kitchen.
“A real kitchen,” Leroy Mitchell said.
Right now, the church has a rendering – and a vision.
“We see this as bigger than just for our congregation,” Joe Mitchell said. “There are a lot of conversations going on about North Annie Glidden, which we’re considered part of. One of the things that’s missing on this side of town is these sort of resources.”
He said Kishwaukee College officials have expressed interest in partnering to use the classroom space for GED courses. He also said he’d like to see the space used for science, technology, engineering and math education.
“The possibilities are endless, in terms of being a resource for the community,” Joe Mitchell said.
The vision could become clearer once the mortgage is paid off in August for the existing church, which cost $1.6 million to build in 1998.
After saying that number out loud, Leroy Mitchell exhales deeply. It’s a far cry from the reality.
“We’ve paid more in interest than it cost to build the church,” he said.
Work to be done
Joe’s wife, Andria Mitchell, is in her ninth year as principal at Tyler Elementary School, and their three children are in the school system, so it shouldn’t come as a shock to see Joe at DeKalb School District 428 board meetings.
His overarching goal goes beyond his family’s best interests, however.
“It’s a district that doesn’t have the ethnic diversity students have, in its administration,” Joe Mitchell said. “It’s important to get to those meetings to understand what they’re doing, what they’re not doing, and bring that information back to the community.”
Amonaquenette Parker is in her first year as principal of Huntley Middle School.
He and his father agree it’s great that Parker was promoted last summer to principal of Huntley Middle School. But she was already an administrator at DeKalb High School.
There’s a lot of work to be done, to align the diversity of the student body with that of the administration, Leroy Mitchell said.
“There’s no growth,” he said. “We’ve probably lost more than we’ve gained over at least the past two or three years – not just administrators of color, but teachers of color, as well.”
Joe Mitchell said the district is at the mercy of factors beyond its control. The pay might be better in Chicago. And teachers and administrators in Illinois have to take a test to work in education here, whereas that isn’t the case for Illinois residents looking to work in other Midwestern states – “and my understanding is it’s not the easiest test to take,” he said.
“We’ve got a mid-major university right in our backyard, and they’re turning out only a handful of people of color getting degrees in education,” Joe Mitchell said. “We’d like to see that change.”