A Lifetime of Faith in Action
A conversation with Dr. Earl and Bernice MitchellOklahoma history is alive in a serene single-story home in Stillwater. It has all the hallmarks of a well-loved home, including paintings by a favorite artist, framed photos of children and grandchildren, and a wall of shelves filled to the brim with books. Among the paintings, family portraits and bookshelves, however, are plaques of esteem, certificates of appreciation, and lifetime achievement awards commemorating two faith-filled lives spent in community, civic and religious service.
Dr. Earl and Bernice Mitchell are pillars of the Stillwater community. In both their personal and professional lives, Earl and Bernice have explored ways to address the needs of those around them. Earl earned tenure as a biochemistry teacher at Oklahoma State University in 1972, the first African-American faculty member at OSU to do so, and he went on to hold key academic positions such as Assistant Dean of the Graduate College (1978-1982) and Associate Vice President for Multicultural Affairs (1994-2004). Outside the university, Earl was a founder and charter member of University & Community Federal Credit Union, a project he credits to the OSU Wesley Foundation campus ministries. Bernice sought to improve the lives of the marginalized, including incarcerated women, the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and the disenfranchised. She was the first African-American woman to be elected Payne County’s District 2 Commissioner (1986-1996) and helped organize both Wings of Hope Family Crisis Services and Mission of Hope in Stillwater.
Say So magazine interviewed the Mitchells in person and by phone to discuss how their United Methodist convictions shaped how they lived out their faith with action. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are both known for being active regarding civil rights and social justice throughout your lives together. How much of that involvement came out of an effort to live out your Christian faith?
Earl: For me, it’s a major part of my Christian faith. Part of that comes from the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason, and using all these things to do good and follow John Wesley in terms of doing all the good you can for as many people you can for as long as you can. That’s basically where it comes from.
Also from growing up in New Orleans. There’s always been people who do things to help others. I remember my Grandmother took in several elderly people. She was old, but she took in several elderly people who were homeless, and these people lived in our house, they lived with us, and I lived with my grandmother. So, that’s part of my background.
Bernice: Mine wasn’t quite like that. Matter of fact, I probably would’ve been one of the individuals his grandma took in. We were very, very poor, and we kinda lived off the shirts on our back. But we were in structures, and we were a family.
As far as me being involved, it wasn’t until we moved here and I got my kids to a certain age in life that I felt that I could do something. My first act of kindness was probably being on the board against domestic violence. We’re now called Wings of Hope. To get to say I helped organize it is pretty good, I think. But it all starts from my faith, from believing in exactly what Earl said. You do good for all those you can.
Both of you have done wonderful things for Stillwater and for Oklahoma, and neither of you are clergy. How important is it for the laity of a church to be involved with or even leading the ministries of the church? How can laity be the hands and feet of Jesus outside the church?
Earl: That’s a very good question, because it’s one that I never struggled with and always had a lot of answers for everybody, even before anyone was interested in what laity thought. In Methodism, John Wesley, who was clergy, understood very clearly that lay people were important in terms of partnership in the church. They were more than just the source of income; that’s where a lot of his preachers came from in the American church.
It was lay speakers, lay preachers, lay people who carried the church. Even throughout the growth in this country, the church grew because of the laity being involved. Some became clergy, but there were a lot of preachers who were just lay speakers or lay preachers. It’s important because the church needs to have laity intimately involved with the church. The mission that we all do in terms of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world involves total immersion by laity and ministers.
There are many things that for years we’ve depended on preachers to do, even as much as sometimes being the janitor of the church. Those are things that laity need to do. It goes back to the origins of the Methodist church and how we were organized. It’s more important today for growth and evangelism, so it shouldn’t be left to just a few people.
Bernice: When I first started observing how laity played a part in the church was when I got involved in United Methodist Women, and I realized that really, it was the women there that were doing a lot. I don’t mean this as a discouragement on the men, but UMW did an awful lot. The UMW was like a guidance class that you take. You learn all the intricacies of the church, and then you know what needs to be done, and so you go about doing it.
See, I look at it also another way: I look at it as outside of the church. I don’t believe in having walls of the church. If that puts me in a certain category, that’s fine. When we build a wall, are we building it to keep people out, or to keep us in? And so I don’t believe in walls. And I think, so far anyway, most of the laity looks at it that way, or we wouldn’t be out there trying to help so many people.
Bernice, a lot of the work you are known for can be described as giving a voice to the voiceless or empowering the disenfranchised. Why is it important for us to notice when people around us need a voice or a vote or a way to move forward? Why is it important to take that initiative on behalf of someone else?
Bernice: Well, maybe that’s why. I know it’s not easy for a lot of people to stick their necks out to get things done, but if you see something and you know it’s not right, then you try. If you help that one individual, you’re obviously helping a lot of others.
It’s almost like a calling; you help one, and before you know it, you’ve got 10, and so on. I just feel that my Methodist calling stated to me that I help those that are marginalized to my ability to do that.
One example that I can use, and I do all the time, is that when I worked for a district judge. I went to him with a suggestion that maybe there is something we can do for those that have been incarcerated and have now been exonerated. (I suggested) that we set up a committee where the individual becomes the sole property–to borrow a term–of this committee, and the people would take individuals (under their wing), but they would work collectively.
In other words, we would meet once a month and everyone could talk about what we have been doing for X or for Y. We had a lot of good come out of that committee. We met with the individual, we looked at their financial situation, we also helped them with not only maintaining a checkbook, but helped to find them housing and helped to find them employment. At the end of the day, you look at that, and you think, wow, we had 10 people on the committee, and each person helped one person; that’s 10 people that have been helped. You go on from there.
It multiplies, of course, but that’s the one example that I like to use because it was such as successful program. I think it’s gradually coming back now, but it’s gonna to be in the form of reform justice, and it’s easy to just watch that and see what happens. If the greedy don’t take over, then we might be able to help the needy.
Bernice, you have a lot of experience examining local concerns and finding ways to address them at local, state and even national levels. What would you say to someone who wants to address needs in their community but doesn’t know where to start?
Bernice: First of all, I would say the church because I think that’s the first place you look. And if the church won’t do it, then I’d have to wonder about the church, because it preaches all of this, yet if it can’t show an example by doing or by being available, then you’ve got to wonder what’s going on. So, I would say the first place to look is the church.
If that is not a possibility, then they could look to the community and see which groups they have going on that they could be a part of. I know for here, we have quite a few, and a lot of people are now saying, “Oh, I’d love to be on that board,” and you have to sit back. And sometimes you laugh, but you’re crying through your tears because you think about how it started and people just absolutely thought it was the wrong idea. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.
So, I would simply say, if you’re really and truly committed to doing something, then define what “doing something” really means and which group, in other words, does that put you in. Then narrow it down. Maybe you have several interests. Narrow it down to where it’s doable. Don’t go out and say, “Oh, I do this, this, this and this,” and then you find yourself overloaded, because then what happens? We blow up. If you’re committed to doing service, you can find it, or maybe it might find you. Somebody might come up to you and say, “I’d like to do such and such a thing, but I don’t know where to start,’ and you can say, “Oh, have I got news for you.” Let’s start here and work our way up. That’s my spiel on that.
Dr. Mitchell, one of the first projects you were a part of was the creation of a local credit union. A project like being done today might be considered an “out of the box” ministry project. In what ways can “out of the box” ministry be considered finding tangible ways to meet the needs of the local community?
Earl: In this day and age, we have things that are still pretty much the same. We still have poverty, we still have the disenfranchised, and those are two major issues that churches deal with today.
I think being “out of the box” means we find ways of providing services for those or find the kind of help they need, and sometimes getting that help means getting other people involved or other entities involved. Some entities can be private; it could also be governmental. But you should not be afraid to call others outside your circle to provide services to help because we form a partnership with many entities. Sometimes it means bringing in a coalition of people you don’t know or might not even like, but you have to find a common ground.
Forming a credit union was an interesting mission because it was something done by the campus ministries for a group of people that were not even part of the campus ministries. So that’s going outside the box, way outside the box. So now we’re looking at what can we do as a unit to help in terms of people. At that time, you had a lot of middle- and low-income workers that did not have banking because banks only catered to those who had (money). The credit union was very unusual and very different, and here’s a group forming it that has no interest whatsoever in the outcome of it. Here’s a campus ministry forming a credit union for the employees of Oklahoma State University that are not even associated with the United Methodist Church. But it’s a good thing.
So that’s what it means to operate outside the box. You have to do things and bring in groups to help transform the world and make disciples. One way of helping: you go outside the box.
Dr. Mitchell, you were a biochemistry teacher, but you also have a strong interest in history. Tell me where that interest comes from and how it relates to your interest in people and in life.
Earl: It probably started in high school, when I think about it. I had a history teacher in high school–this was in the days when schools were segregated–who included black history in his course for U.S. History, so I became very interested in this whole aspect of history. As a chemist, I was good in science and math. In college, I also had an interest in history, so I took history courses. That was a strange combination—major in chemistry, minor in history.
Over the years, I maintained that relationship in terms of my relationship to history by, and mostly in, the African American history I’ve been privy to. I kept that interest, and in the local community here I discovered some things about Oklahoma. Oklahoma had a large number of black communities, and I discovered that people from Stillwater came from one of those communities. So historically, I wonder, well, what about those communities? What were they, how did they exist? Because they were there.
My interest there has been on one little small area called Progress, which is a community that never incorporated. It’s a farming community that’s about 20 miles southwest of Stillwater in Payne County that had a strong black population. They had a church and a school there, a public school called a Rosenwald school. In history, Julius Rosenwald was the largest owner of the Sears Roebuck Company. He was a philanthropist who gave multi-million dollars away to form schools in the south for African American kids. During the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the major benefactors for many schools all over the South for a variety of schools. There was one called Fraser School down in Payne County that was a Rosenwald school, the only school that people had. I know people who went to that school; they’re deceased now.
That interest has always been there because history helps us understand where we were and how we got where we are so we learn the mistakes of the past and we don’t repeat them. That’s the whole purpose of history to me. When I can’t do bio chemistry, I can still do history.
The United Methodist Church is known for the phrase “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” In what ways do you see a need for open hearts, minds, and doors today?
Bernice: To me, that means when you say open doors and open hearts, that means everybody. You don’t pull people out and say, “Well, it’s okay for you, but not for you.” I’ve said that very much in different places, you know. What’s happened to that? Why are we so set on not having X, Y and Z and not bringing them into the community simply because we don’t like them or we don’t like what they represent? So, I think it means just what it says it means: Open hearts, open minds, and open doors.
Earl: I can repeat the same thing. I’ve been intimately involved by being a General Conference delegate in 1980. I opposed the language of exclusion at that Conference; I voted against it. In 1980, I thought it was going to be a dividing issue for us for a long time, and I was right. One of the things I think is very important is that we need to spend as much effort on the things we agree on as the things we disagree on because there’s a lot more that we agree on. We actually have a small thing that keeps us so separated. I’ve been thinking that we could always be together, but I’m not convinced that’s going to work at all anymore. Those of us who want to move on need to move on with the busines of the church.
There are dozens of plaques, certificates and awards in your home as recognition of the work that you’ve both done. Is there a particular recognition or memory that’s very meaningful or personal to you?
Earl: I don’t think any of these things were for anything that I’ve done that’s really unusual. I appreciate the fact that we’ve been acknowledged for certain kinds of things. Many of the things that I’ve been proud to receive awards for are things that I don’t feel that it was anything that was extra beyond what I should be doing. So, it’s hard for me to single any one thing out. All of them are people who acknowledged the small things we do.
To me, they’re all small things that we’ve been able to do as individuals and as people who are committed. I’m more embarrassed about it than anything else because I don’t think it’s something I deserve an award for, but I appreciate the fact that people acknowledge the things that we’ve tried to do, because it’s all in a good-faith effort to do good and do good things. But somehow, I don’t feel that I’ve done anything more than anybody else would’ve done, to be honest with you. So, it’s really hard for me to pick any one thing; I really can’t.
Bernice: If I had to choose, it would be the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, when they gave me the recognition of a Lifetime Achievement Award. I told them, I didn’t know they were looking. They hit everything, hit the nail on the head. And that was just so rewarding. I was surprised! It just hit me, and kind of out of the blue. Of course, they had to tell me that something was going on, because if they had not I probably would not have been there. But it was a surprise, a wonderful surprise, and it probably sticks out more so than any of the others. Number two would be being chosen as one of the 100 women in the state of Oklahoma* who have really, as they said, “done something.” Those are the two that I pick.
Earl: I’m not surprised she chose those two, mainly because the one award that she got in terms of lifetime achievement is kind of like my answer: there’s no one thing that stands out. And that one is the one that stands out because it covers everything that she’s done.
Bernice: And it shouldn’t surprise you that we both kind of landed on that same expression just because we’re involved in so many things together. Some of it is a big surprise for both of us, but on the other hand, it really shows the involvement of the two of us and the fact that we can talk about each other in that manner.
*Bernice Mitchell was named one of 100 Trailblazers by the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma in November 2018.