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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Longtime pastor of Bethel AME, Lonnie Mitchell steps aside to focus on community work

After nearly three decades bringing people together as the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Lonnie Mitchell Sr. will give his last sermon Sunday morning.

Mitchell is retiring to allow fresh leadership at the church and to free up time to focus on community service and family.

“I’m sort of stepping aside and allowing a young administration to come in and to take the church on to its next level,” Mitchell said. “The plan is to continue to be in the community to help Spokane to be a better place to live.”

Mitchell has been a force in Spokane for decades, bringing politicians, city officials, and community members together to collaborate on solutions to societal problems and create a sense of unity.

“The biggest thing I would say about Pastor Mitchell and his role is what a collaborator he has been,” said Betsy Wilkerson, Spokane City Council member. “In the church and outside of the church.”

Many community and city leaders have benefited from Mitchell’s mentoring and counsel, Wilkerson said.

About 20 years ago, Mitchell served as a mentor for Roberta Greene, Spokane’s first Black city council member, Wilkerson said.

“And here I am 20 years later coming out of Bethel,” she said.

Many Black leaders in Spokane have attended Bethel A.M.E. under Mitchell’s leadership.

He came to a struggling church and “really building a congregation that has held many leadership roles,” Wilkerson said.

Mitchell has been a pastor since 1989 when he was ordained an Itinerant Deacon. Mitchell was assigned to the now 130-year-old Bethel A.M.E. church by Bishop Vinton R. Anderson in 1991.

“You know when I first came in to Spokane to be the pastor, my mission was to love the people,” Mitchell said. “And I believe that mission never changed.”

When Mitchell and his wife, gospel singer Elisha J. Mitchell, arrived in Spokane, Bethel A.M.E. had only 13 members. Now, the church has grown to over 200 congregants.

“I think that people were eager to work out their salvation with fear and trembling and I believe that was my ministry to help people to seek Christ,” Mitchell said of the growth.

He coined the church’s guiding motto, “the cathedral of love where everybody is somebody and Jesus is the center of attraction.”

In 1995, Mitchell shared that motto with the city by creating Unity in the Community. The event connects people to educational resources and opportunities while expanding diversity and cultural awareness, the nonprofit’s website says.

“The Unity Community celebration, the whole idea was to bring people from all walks of life together,” Mitchell said. “It’s just the idea of bringing people together and coming under one banner and that banner is unity.”

The event celebrated its 25th year in 2019. And while the pandemic prevented the celebration this year, Mitchell said he plans to be involved in the 2021 celebration.

In 1999, Mitchell was a founder of AHANA Business and Professional Organization, a nonprofit that provided services and support for minority- and women-owned businesses in the Spokane area.

Then in the early 2000s Mitchell began fundraising for what would become the Emmanuel Family Life Center, a community center in the Perry District near Bethel AME.

“It has kind of grown up around him because when he came, the Perry District was not the Perry District,” Wilkerson said of the neighborhood that is home to both the community center and church.

It took years of chipping away at fundraising and many grant applications before the center opened in 2010. It has since helped many people become more self-sufficient and improve their quality of life, Mitchell said.

“It’s the only center that was built from the ground up by people of color in Spokane,” Wilkerson said.

Over the last three decades, Mitchell has maintained close relationships with politicians and elected officials, all from the perspective of collaboration, said his wife Elisha.

“I’ve seen him create alliances with his desire to collaborate like between church and state,” Elisha said. “I know there is the chain of thought between separation of church and state but he has always been of the mind that you can’t separate your beliefs from you.”

City leaders turned to Mitchell after protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death turned violent in Spokane. Mitchell was among leaders in the Black community who stood with Mayor Nadine Woodward and Police Chief Craig Meidl to address the protest and violence.

He encouraged the community to come together peacefully to work on solutions to systemic racism, like he as done for years.

“He’s a peacemaker,” said Charina Carothers, a member of Bethel Church leadership. “He’s all about peace and so even being able to watch him as he’s handling some of those hard conversations and situations he still maintains peace.”

Carothers grew up attending Bethel. She remembers Mitchell “always making jokes and trying to sing” when she was a child.

As she grew older, Carothers said, she saw a consistency in Mitchell she admires.

“He’s consistent, you don’t have to worry about him changing, he shows you who he is and that’s it,” Carothers said.

Mitchell has been talking about retiring as pastor for a few years and Carothers said she had learned not to take him too seriously but over the last few months she noticed Mitchell “really started letting go of some of that responsibility.”

While the church is heading for a transition, Carothers said it also feels like good timing with COVID-19 creating its own transitions. A new pastor will be appointed by Bethel’s bishop.

“My hope for Pastor Mitchell is that he is able to enjoy this next chapter and all that is to come with that,” Carothers said. “And slow down and enjoy it.”

Mitchell said he hopes to carve out more time to travel to visit his 11 grandchildren and four children.

The Mitchells have a son, Lonnie Jerell, who is in the military in Texas, and a daughter, Shea Nicole, whose husband is stationed at an Air Force base in Colorado, carrying on the Mitchell family tradition of serving in the military. Mitchell served in the Army prior to becoming a pastor.

The couple’s youngest daughter, Camille, lives in Las Vegas with her three sons while their oldest, Shantell, and her four boys are in Seattle.

Mitchell said he also is looking forward to having more time to support his wife in her ministry. Elisha is set to release a gospel album titled “You Turn” at the end of August.

“She in her own right has her own ministry so I will definitely be supporting her ministry now,” Mitchell said.

Elisha hopes to share what she has learned not only through life but through decades in ministry with people through her music.

“As a pastor’s wife I know about topsy turvy and crazy crazy,” she said. “I know about all of that and I’ve come safely through so I’d like to help others.”

While leaving preaching is a big transition for Mitchell, Elisha said she feels they have prepared the congregation in many ways to not only learn from a new pastor but to continue giving to the community.

“He would give the what and my gift was to give the how,” Elisha said of her husband’s sermons. “They should be empowered to give if they were listening closely.”

While Mitchell may officially be leaving his role as pastor, he’s not leaving Bethel all together and said he plans to be involved in helping transition to the new leadership team.

With a community that feels like church, Mitchell will never be far away.

“Community to Lonnie really means church,” Wilkerson said.

For his last sermon on Sunday, Mitchell said he plans to talk about change.

“I’m going to be preaching on preparing for change,” Mitchell said. “The whole idea is to prepare the congregation for the next administration to come in.”

As Mitchell himself prepares for a change, he keeps reminding himself that while he may be saying goodbye to preaching he’s not saying goodbye to what he loves most, his community.

“It’s not goodbye to the community,” Mitchell said. “It’s stepping aside from the church to be even more visible in the community.”

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