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Reigning Religion: Pastor Mitch Summerfield

It’s a rainy day in Atlanta and I showed up at the W Hotel in Midtown. As I walk into the lobby, I’m looking for a man that I wouldn’t recognize. In fact, I walked by him twice. I checked my phone for his photo and realized that standing 15 feet beside me, there was a large statured man doing the same thing I was. I turn to him, “Pastor Mitch?” He responds “Rashod!” We embrace the way that Black men do. (you know what I mean…dap and bring it in). Pastor Mitch Summerfield is dressed in a pair of blue jeans, a crisp white button-up shirt, a blue blazer, brown monk strap shoes, and a colorful silk pocket square. 

He lets me know that he found a small space that should be relatively quiet for us to conduct the interview. We go down the hallway and duck through a low passageway into what feels like a Morrocan styled library/den. The colors, lighting, and music in this room are laid back and chill. There are books all over, different sizes, colors, figurines, statues, small plush stools, and chairs.  He sits on a couch against a maroon wallpapered wall (ironically right under a recessed light giving him this dramatic presence) and I sit in a leather chair off to his left. I say out loud what I thought in my head, “this would have been a great video set up.” And we both start laughing in agreement. I turn on the recorder on my phone and place it close to him, “So, Pastor Mitch…” he cuts me off. “Today, I am just Mitch.”

Mitch didn’t have aspirations of the cloth. He graduated college with a degree in Mass Communications and a vision that included production, writing, and directing movies. He went on to open his own mental health agency as a way to help others deal with the harsh realities of life. While having a very lucrative and fulfilling job for 15 years, Mitch found himself in the family business. He joined his father, Bishop Frank Summerfield and his mother, Pastor JoeNell Summerfield at Word of God Fellowship Church and Academy where Mitch became an associate pastor. He was the Chief Operations Officer of the church and placed number 3 in charge. Things lined up in a way that he didn’t expect.

“Preaching and pastoring is dealing with the psychology at its highest form,” Mitch says as he sits forward. “You’re constantly having to talk to people, talk to their mind, and their soul of course. But primarily if they cannot think about what you’re saying and how to rationalize what we’re saying, they’re not going to listen. They’re going to get up and leave. They’re struggling with poverty, struggling with grief, struggling with loss, and struggling not having hope. They have to go back to all of that when they leave a church. You just sat, preached, encouraged them, and told them to have faith, but then they gotta leave and go back to a house where their husband is beating them, where a child is on drugs, you know? And, and how do they hold on to faith through all of that? I’ve got to deal with that psychology, open reality and, and paint the picture that even in your reality, God still wants us to have hope. Bridging those together, it takes the understanding of psychology. Knowing how to tell a story, how to pull them to the sermon, and effectively communicate how their reality and the stories of the Bible go hand in hand and you’ve got to make that story come alive. So that’s something that my background in mass communications and writing has helped me understand.”

While learning the curve of ministry, Mitch would have his faith and hope tested by the God he is encouraging others to follow. His world was turned upside down when he found out both parents were battling a different type of cancer at the same time. His father passed away in July 2017 and his mother took her final breath 2 months later, September 2nd. 

“I thought they would live forever for some odd reason,” Mitch says with a bewildered tone. “My parents were my rock. We ran everything together, we did everything together. I would definitely say it was challenging. Living 38 years of my life with them and then losing them to the battle of cancer. I’m trying to do what I’m called to do and grieving the loss of the two most important people is definitely challenging. That’s when I realized I was being groomed for the leadership role and not just to help keep it going.”

While living in a moment of sorrow and grief, some pastors will tell you that the job of being a shepherd doesn’t stop. The expectation of a congregation is for their pastor to always be around and available. You can have grief on one side of your being, but preach, teach, uplift, and get them through every problem as well. Yes. That is the expectation of people. However, Mitch’s staff and congregation are “really, really good” to him. They’re sensitive to him being emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually sound. To be there for them is probably more so about his not wanting to take the time off, even though they would encourage it. As we talk, Mitch has a moment of explaining how men need to think of themselves the same way. 

“It’s almost like it’s understood,” Mitch explains. “You deal with it (life stresses), be strong, pray about it. Do you know what I mean? It’s always that masculine mentality, you know? But I try to encourage all the Black men, not only mental health but make sure you are physically, all right. I watched my father, who was physically fit, played basketball all through high school, college, one of the top athletes in his, scouted to go to the NBA and all of that and to die of pancreatic cancer at 67 years old. That is really, really young. His father outlived him and died at 98. So, we have to take care of us.”

This is where I threw in the pun intended, “Isn’t that you preaching to the choir?” Being a pastor is tough enough as it is. You’re wearing everybody else’s problems. And not to mention being taken for granted all day, every day. People pulling on you, you’re up all times of the night praying and thinking about people and trying to figure out how to cover this, how to take care of that… it is enough to wear your body down. It sounds a lot like the everyday man with work, family, friends, and life. But we, as men, have to be smart and know what’s going on with ourselves. We’re no good to anyone if we don’t know what’s going on with us. Especially with the stigma of depression.

“When you think of depression, I think if you don’t have somebody in your circle that can help you snap out of it, you will stay there and it’ll eat away at you internally and emotionally,” Mitch says as he sips on a bottle of water. “And before you know it, it’s too late. There’s suicide, you’ve died from illness or anything like that. I think we need all the friends in our lives that can recognize something and check you. We should all also check our circles. I think we should really focus on getting the negativity out of the circle. There’s too much going on in the world today to have people so close to us being negative. As challenging as life is, on a daily basis, I do not have time for negativity. I don’t even have time for you to allow me to be negative. The minute you hear me speak negatively, I need you to fill me with faith, hope, encourage me, and if that’s not part of my circle, I don’t want you around me. I’ve got to spend my days pouring into people who need it. That means I’ve just given out everything that I have. I need somebody to pour back into me. I’ve got to keep negative energy away.”

Often times, it is a challenge to not only recognize the negativity in your circle but why it’s there. Many of us will find that the negative person that is present is the one that we have the hardest time letting go of. This may be the person that has been around the longest, the person whom we know all about, and knows all about us. Or, it could be the person that has just arrived but has moments of exhilarating fun that we enjoy. They allow us to be that person that we aren’t able to be within other crowds. You know that person whose advice you take because you know it is going to be of the mindset that you want it to be. Nonetheless, this is the person that brings the most turmoil, the person who takes advantage of the relationship, and adds pain to your space. So why is it so difficult to let that person go? 

“So by nature, we’re good people,” Mitch says with a smile. “And we’re attracted to pain, think about it. Every time you’ve got a cut, every time you got a bruise, every time something that happens to your body, your first reaction is to what? GRAB IT. (you probably said that in your head before you read it) Because you don’t want it to hurt. So because you don’t want it to hurt, you think grabbing it harder is going to stop it from hurting, which makes it hurt more. It’s like the natural reaction should be to let go of it and then heal. Most relationships, when there’s a pain in a person, we feel like we have to save them from their pain. We hold on to them hoping that they’ll change. We don’t want to feel pain, so we think that we got to look it up. I have to Google, I have to fix this, I have to put a bandaid on or whatever. I have come across that myself. Just always feeling like I have to fix every person and everything. At the end of the day, I don’t know if it’s because I don’t feel like I did anything. I don’t feel like I accomplished what I was trying to do. And at that time I think it’s that I feel useless or inadequate. So, therefore, you keep trying to meet the mark. But you’re not responsible for fixing people’s problems. You’re not responsible for healing people’s pain. We’re responsible for our own healing. That’s it.”

In today’s society, we see most of that pain in the social media generation. One of the main factors is found by what Mitch and I agree to be lust of the eyes. We lose ourselves in our journey by chasing the successes of another person. You may say (or may hear someone else say “I don’t have that house. I don’t have that car. I don’t have that type of money. I don’t have that type of job.”  When we evaluate our lives by looking at what others have, it puts stress on each and every one of us because we are so impressionable. 

“Every person has to have their own prayer,” Mitch says. “What’s for me, is for me and what’s for you is for you. Ultimately, I need to be okay with it. I realized that having the church I have, the ministry I have, that blessing came with a certain level of burden that the average person probably couldn’t handle. That’s why it’s for me. Now, you’ll have your moment when you have your burden and your blessing, but they’re going to go hand in hand. The Bible says that every man was dealt their measure of faith. I don’t care whether you’re saved, not saved, or Buddhist, you have a certain level of faith. It doesn’t mean that every person that has faith is a Christian.”

“Now, if you believe, that takes you to a certain category. The faith that I have, knowing that what’s for me is for me, I know that I don’t have to be worried about anything. I have to be able to put the rest of my concern at the time that it takes to get there, not what’s going to stress me out. It may take me a year it may take me a month. It may take me 10 days and they take me 10 months. Then at the end of the day, I’m going to rest in the fact that it is coming. That promotion, house, car, business, whatever…that someone may have gotten or you may have gotten, whatever the case may be, rest easy knowing that yours is coming. If it’s in the vicinity, it’s somewhere on the way.” 

Mitch and his congregation decided to continue embarking upon solidifying the legacy that his parents started. That’s what he feels is “for him”. Word of God Christian Academy is one of the last three black-owned Christian academies in the state that have the same level of education. With 46.4% of adults 18 and older experiencing a mental illness in their lifetime, and it’s still rising. So at the rate, we’ll probably be at 51% by the time 2021. Mitch wanted to find a way to impact the kids before they become an adult. Along with the academy, the church has purchased the 115 acres surrounding its 12-acre campus in 2005. Mitch’s father felt that if he didn’t acquire the land, he would be boxed in by whoever made the purchase. In 2007, the church teamed up with a local real estate developer and built 200 homes, leaving them with about 75 acres. 

“We want to try and help cut down on gang activity,” Mitch explains. “We’re in a very urban community and our kids are getting in the wrong type of atmosphere because they don’t have any place to go. So we want to provide it. It’s always been in our vision to expand for the community. We want to provide a senior living facility, a medical care facility, and a sports complex for the community. So we have been partnering with the state, the mayor, and the governor determining what the city is asking for in order for people that are in that area to benefit from.”

The city of Raleigh isn’t the only place that has taken notice of all of the works that Mitch and his staff have been doing. As we sat in the hotel, Mitch was on the eve of his celebratory weekend back home. He was in town to do some promotional work as well as have a face to face meeting with Dr. Jamal Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church here in Atlanta, Georgia. They teamed up to bring awareness to and raise funds for the academy. Washington Wizards player and graduate of the academy, John Wall, would also be in attendance to have his jersey retired in the gym.  As we begin to wrap up and speak of all of the things that Mitch is doing and plans to do, I ask a question that seems typical, “In your wildest dreams, did you ever see this as your life?” his answer was the perfect way to close out our interview. 

“I would’ve never thought that I would be here today,” Mitch says looking off into a corner. “In fact, so many moments of giving up, quitting, or stopping. I would close this out by telling anybody who is struggling with feeling like giving up, go for it. All I can tell you is to go for no matter what it looks like, you have to get up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking, GO FOR IT. I’m here, I’m a product of my decisions to go for it. That is the most opportune time to do it. When you feel empty, that is the biggest time to go for it. It’ll give you a new sense of awareness, sense of strength, you know? I think about it even now, everything that started for me in 2001, when I started this group home with my friends, to 20 years later, right? It’s like they had to be lining up for a purpose, for a reason. Sitting in those boring classes in college every day (laughing). It was working out for me and I didn’t know how, and there’s a saying that I tell people all the time, he’s preparing you for your future responsibilities, period. It’s those moments that I have to sit back and say, God, had to do this. For people to come week after week and want to hear anything I have to say, God did that.”

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