After more than 30 years of service at University Baptist Church, Mitchell Simpson stepped into the pulpit earlier this month to preach his final sermon as senior pastor.
The sanctuary was full with sunlight, music, Carolina Blue and hundreds of the people Simpson has led over his lengthy tenure. But Simpson said what lay inside the church was not how he wanted his ministry to be remembered.
“The church should exist for those who are not in it,” Simpson said. “The church should not exist to be worried about buildings, or funding, or how to dress or looking for ways to shut you out.”
During his tenure, Simpson has helped facilitate new programs, including visiting prisoners, welcoming individuals from Chinese and refugee populations into the church’s facilities and most recently, partnering with University United Methodist Church and UNC’s Music department to expand a Musical Empowerment program.
From prison cells to piccolos, Simpson said although the church’s outward focus is biblically-based, its ministry is unique in an increasingly materialistic culture.
“Instead of following Jesus, we said, ‘We really admire him, so let’s create a sort of admiration society, let’s build buildings and let’s sing hymns about how wonderful he is,'” Simpson said. “It’s a pretty total misunderstanding of what Jesus asked us to do.”
Simpson said his understanding of the Bible has shaped his church’s focus on community engagement.
“Jesus said, ‘I want you to take care of the poor, I want you to take care of people who are in prison, I want you to care about people who are powerless,'” Simpson said. “It’s very clear that’s what Jesus had in mind.”
A bulletin board laden with heartfelt, handwritten letters from prisoners at FCI Butner Low, the low-security federal correctional institution in eastern North Carolina that church members regularly visit, is displayed next to the church office’s entrance. Simpson said the prison ministry’s base in love rather than conversion brings unique light to the prisoners.
“We just talk to them about things, you know, life,” Simpson said. “It’s not about some warped sense of evangelism.”
Simpson said in his more than 30-year tenure, UBC’s mission has been to be more welcoming to all members of the community, especially members of marginalized communities like refugees and LGBTQ+ individuals.
“We welcome everyone, and we value you,” Simpson said. “We’re not going to ask you at the door to give us your sexual credentials. We don’t care. We love you just like you were straight from your mother’s womb.”
Simpson said he often uses civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s phrase, “speaking truth to power,” when speaking on outreach and activism.
Craig McCoy, UBC’s minister of music who has worked with Pastor Simpson for about 10 years, said this ideal is the foundation of his ministry both in and out of the pulpit.
“He uses this phrase, ‘speaking truth to power,' and even though it may fall and you don’t want to hear it that day, it’s still truth,” McCoy said. “And to me, that is integrity.”
In each service, Simpson called down the children of his congregation to the front of the church for a miniature "children’s sermon." Simpson said he and his wife Betty, who is an elementary school teacher, have learned through the years the importance of making sure these children know their inherent self-worth.
“I’ll say ‘As you get older, there will be some times when you’ll be sad, or maybe somebody is unkind to you, or maybe somebody is mean to you because of the color of your skin, or maybe they don’t like you because you’re not handsome or beautiful or you’re not the best person on your baseball team,'” Simpson said. “But when people are unkind to you, you just remember: that’s not God.”
Aaron Simpson, one of the couple’s three children, said these values rang true in his own upbringing. Aaron Simpson said his father’s community-focused gaze has influenced his siblings in their professional and personal lives.
McCoy said this consistent, career-defining integrity has set Simpson apart from many of his peers.
“Sometimes you find, even with pastors and senior ministers, is that they’re not always right there on the spot,” McCoy said. “It’s one of those things where sometimes they’ll do great things and say great words, but sometimes it’s a different feel for them.”
Simpson said his motivation and passion as a pastor have always stemmed from his mission for his church to be loving, change-provoking and community-focused.
“We’re just trying to do what Jesus would have done,” Simpson said. “And I think if more churches did that, the whole culture would be impacted.”
McCoy said Simpson’s dedication to his ideals are exemplified not only in his actions as a minister, but in his steadfastness in holding this position for so many years.
“The man is 70 years of age, and so very few churches have pastors who stay for 30 years, well past what some folks would say retirement,” McCoy said. “He could retire at 65. But he still stayed on because he felt like he had a mission.”
Simpson said he hopes to spend the quality time of his retirement with his family and alongside his wife, who is also retiring. As he leaves his post at UBC, he is proud of the values he left behind.
“I’m so impressed with the church that UBC has become,” Simpson said.
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