By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 21, 2018
DECATUR—Deacon Alfred Mitchell gets up daily at 5:30 a.m., whether he has somewhere to go or not.
As deacon for 31 years, he starts before sunrise reciting morning prayer from the church’s Liturgy of the Hours.
“I can get up and say, ‘Good morning, God,’ instead of ‘Good God, it’s morning,’” said the deacon. “That’s part of my regular routine. I say Morning Prayer and read the day’s reading.”
Deacon Mitchell, who is in his mid-80s, credits his long service as a permanent deacon for showing him situations and people he never would have met. He called it a highlight of his ministry how a son of the small town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, traveled to Rome to meet Pope Francis as part of an international conference on airport chaplains. He is part of a team of deacons serving at the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International.
The only child of a plasterer father and domestic worker mother, Deacon Mitchell was raised in a Southern Baptist family. His career with the federal Department of Labor brought him to Atlanta with his wife, Josie, and two children. The couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary next year. He wears plastic-framed glasses, and white hair encircles his head as he speaks in a conference room at Sts. Peter & Paul Church, Decatur. Away from church work, he spends time completing crossword puzzles.
Deacon Mitchell became a Catholic after he attended classes with his then-girlfriend and future wife, who planned to enter the church. First, he admitted he was just was there to spend time with the woman he fancied. But he found his questions were answered “patiently and reasonably,” he said, so he made the decision to join her.
“They didn’t push me to become a Catholic, but I didn’t have any great moorings to any faith,” he said.
On Friday, Oct. 9, 1959, he received the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. The following day, a Saturday, he received the sacraments of Eucharist and matrimony.
His faith life took a turn when a few years later he participated in a Cursillo retreat, which stresses personal spiritual development and leadership. As a result, he became active in his Michigan parish and served on his children’s Catholic school board.
By the mid-1970s, the family moved to the Atlanta area. The family made Sts. Peter & Paul Church their spiritual home. He again got involved with the Cursillo program. But he also met deacons at the parish, who impressed him with their faith and focus on service. After three years of formation, in 1987 he was ordained.
In 1990, he was asked to lead the diaconate program in the archdiocese. He served for 15 years in as the director. He was the bridge between the then 75 deacons, the priests and the archbishop. There are more than 250 deacons serving today.
There was some uncertainty in those days, he said. “They weren’t exactly sure what kind of animal we were,” he said with a smile. Priests and the faithful have embraced the vocation with more deacons serving and the passage of time, he said.
One of his ministries at his Decatur parish when he began was to strengthen the religious education program for adults. He took up the task first with the parish men’s club to introduce spirituality. He started in 1993 with a day of reflection. It expanded to a weekend of faith directed toward men. He is proud the program has met yearly ever since.
As part of his ministry, he introduced a form of storytelling into his work and preaching. He is a member of the National Association of Black Storytellers and has attended the School of Sacred Storytellers. He presented workshops for a national conference of deacons this summer too.
“People remember stories. You can get a point across with a good story that grabs sometimes than if you stuck simply to an academic way,” he said.
Asked about his legacy, after so many years of preaching, leading retreats, and ministering, Deacon Mitchell said he hoped people would say he served as a “good deacon.”
“He was with us, not above,” he said.
This feature is part of “In Depth,” a look at the 50th anniversary of the renewal of the permanent diaconate in the United States in the Nov. 22 print issue.