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A Peculiar, Faithful Presence in the Durham Public Schools

How Being Present in the Public Schools Informs Greg Mitchell's View of the Kingdom

On Thursday, March 21st, Greg Mitchell was named Durham Public Schools Assistant Principal of the Year for 2019. This story was written before the announcement was made, but the announcement and award itself reflect the work the Lord is doing through Greg at Club Boulevard Elementary School. To God be the glory.

Gregory Mitchell

Based on his background and resume, Greg Mitchell is one of the last people one would expect to occupy his role as Assistant Principal at the Durham Public School, Club Boulevard Elementary. And yet, through a seemingly unconnected series of events and decisions (but obviously God-ordained and designed) Greg landed at the school four years ago.

Built in 1950 in response to the baby boom years after World War II, the school sits near on the edge of downtown Durham and in the Northgate Park neighborhood—just close enough to the now thriving Main Street that the illusion of prosperity is within reach but perhaps still unreachable for many of the school’s students—55-60 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. The school’s history is a microcosm of Durham’s gritty and painfully segregated history and today bears the scars of some of the city’s most difficult times.

Greg, meanwhile, grew up and spent his early career in about as foreign environment as can be imagined. Born and raised in Los Altos, California, Greg grew up in what he described as a “sleepy agrarian town.” That ‘sleepy agrarian town’ now sits squarely within Silicon Valley—and Greg and his family had front row seats to the transformation the area went through as the region began to boom when the Apple’s, IBM’s and began their upward trajectory. He then attended Duke University, where he was a pre-med/biology major and didn’t take a single teaching or school administration course, then went on to work in a fellowship at one of the most prestigious and historic boarding schools in New England. He then returned to school then taught high school biology for several years before returning to school again and became a high school principal. It was only after years of serving at various high schools in the Triangle that he shifted his focal point and joined the staff at the elementary school.

Despite Greg’s seemingly ill-fit, his theology of work and community uniquely prepared and equipped him to be a peculiar yet ‘faithful presence’ (as James Davison Hunter calls it) both in his school and in the Durham Public School System.

Greg’s theology of work hangs on three major tenets of the faith:

  1. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are co-laborers with Christ in building His Kingdom.

  2. Christians are in exile until Christ returns, and we’re called to “seek the welfare of our cities,” (Jeremiah 29) until the Lord renews and restores our world.

  3. Each person and child here on earth has the Lord’s “divine stamp,” is an image-bearer of our King, and thus worthy of our love and kinship.

Living this theology out in the Public School System is challenging but has been instrumental in providing intention and meaning behind each of Greg’s tasks and duties as an Assistant Principal. It’s also provided a virtuous learning and sanctifying feedback loop for Greg. The more he relies on the Lord’s grace and lives out his theology, the more he is blessed and learns about the true nature of the Lord’s Kingdom through his colleagues and students.


And his theology-driven, Spirit-led work is having an impact. Will Lamb, a third-grade teacher (and fellow believer) at Club Boulevard says he can see that, “The Lord is at work mightily at Club Boulevard. The physical, emotional, and psychological needs of families are being addressed and students and staff feel loved and cared for and valued as human beings, not as a test score or label.

From Apricot Orchard to Bull City

Greg describes his childhood as stable and storied. His parents still reside in the house he grew up in, and he remains close with his high school best friends (so close they flew across the country to celebrate his 40th birthday last year). He grew up attending a Presbyterian church with his family. He recalls praying with his mother around the age of six submitting to the Lord and inviting Jesus into his heart. And since then, he says it’s, “Been a journey of figuring out what that means and the implications of it.”

Throughout his life, spiritual disciplines, community, and mentors who discipled Greg have been essential in helping Greg “figure out the implications” of his faith. His parents instilled a discipline of church attendance in his family, one he says he now really “enjoys, respects, and finds a joy in that is deeply tied to the rhythm of attending church.” In addition, he regularly practices other spiritual disciplines like spending five minutes in silence in the presence of the Lord each morning when he wakes up to ground himself in the Lord at the start of each day.

Greg’s community—his family, his wife Kate, his children, and the relationships he formed in organizations like the Young Life chapter at his High School, the Intervarsity group at Duke University, and the Chapel Hill Bible Church laid a foundation for what he now believes about God. The mentorship and discipleship he received in these and other groups were also essential in forming and informing his faith.

He began school as a pre-med major then shifted to biology after what he calls a “pivotal summer” where he shadowed a gastroenterologist at the Veterans Affairs Hospital and separately worked with local high school kids, tutoring and mentoring them through a local program. Through the process, he realized he enjoyed his interactions with kids more than interactions with the doctor and the doctor’s patients. After another experience working with children validated his gut reaction, he began looking for teaching opportunities post-college where his lack of educational or teaching training wouldn’t impair him. He ended up at Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts for two years. While the abundance of wealth present among the students there was a completely different world than he had ever experienced—he calls the experience the “softest and most wonderful way to enter into teaching.”

Upon returning to North Carolina where he and Kate married (she was in med-school and residency), he attended UNC’s Master’s in Teaching program. He spent the next phase of his career as a high school biology teacher at Durham School of the Arts. He transitioned to school administration after he connected how strong school administrations can cultivate a school culture that enables students and teachers to thrive. After more schooling and an internship at Durham high school Riverside, he worked for five years in Orange and Chapel-Hill/Carrboro Public high schools. With two young children, a host of factors—the late hours, strain of being the disciplinarian, and culture of the schools— “conspired to create” a desire for a change of pace. When the Assistant Principal at his children’s elementary school—Club Boulevard—retired, he jumped at the opportunity. He just celebrated his four-year anniversary there and has found the change to be refreshing and has been a positive change for their family.

Defining and Living Out Theology

Like most believers, Greg’s study and understanding of God has evolved over time. His core beliefs and the doctrines he lives by have remained constant and strengthened, but the way he applies the gospel to different areas of his life—especially his vocation, has developed as he’s wrestled with scripture and the Lord’s call. The three major themes Greg’s theology of work is rooted in—kingdom, exile, and imagio dei—are both woven throughout the biblical story, and are doctrines held in esteem by the universal church.

Kingdom

Greg describes his ‘Kingdom’ theology in this way:

I believe that when Jesus came—and this is abundantly clear in the book of Mark—when he came, he inaugurated a new Kingdom. He said, ‘the kingdom of God is at hand.” If he really meant that, and this kingdom has begun, but is not fully consummated, as Christians, our work is this project of new creation, of new kingdom, is bringing that reality to this world through the power of the Holy Spirit until it is fully consummated.

Greg exercises this ‘Kingdom’ theology in his day-to-day work intentionally. One example of this is his view that as a person on mission to build God’s kingdom, he must engage in the hard work of reconciliation. In his context, that reconciliation often takes form in race-based conversations and issues. Schools and race are inextricably linked, therefore he sees his role as a minister of reconciliation to be to allow the disenfranchisement and discrimination of students of color to break his heart, to be aware of the different issues students of color face, and to recognize that each student and the school as a whole need’s reconciliation to the Lord. He says, “I am only able to be signpost and a worker. A signpost that God is doing the reconciling, and worker to be part of it in any way I can.

Exile

In the book of Jeremiah, the Israelites have been captured and sent into exile in Babylon. Even so, God commands them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” (Jer. 29:7). It’s this passage that has inspired and encouraged Greg and Kate as they both live this out through their vocations and in their home. Greg says his role is to, “bring Kingdom to a place where we don’t fully feel we are at home.” Sometimes that means being present in difficult situations—like disciplining children who he has watched grow up and has formed relationships with—or in difficult cultural conversations—like the conversations around gender and sexuality bubbling up around the country. He says, “even if our voices don’t win the day on issues related to morality, sexual orientation, or racial reconciliation, if we’re not there, then we can’t even present an alternative narrative, or another rational that relates to the issues of our day.

Greg believes that he and all Christians can ‘seek the welfare’ of our cities amidst exile because our future hope in the coming Kingdom and knowledge that all will once and for all be reconciled. This hope enables him to operate from a different posture than his colleagues who are often disenchanted but indignant when their faith in progressivism or educational reforms, don’t bear fruit. He says, “if your hope is in Club Boulevard, then it’s going to let you down. But, if I can rest in the hope in that God is going to put the world to rights and the down payment on that is that Christ died and was raised from the dead for us, if that can happen then the world can be put to rights.

Imago Dei

In his set of devotionals, “To Be Near Unto God,” Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper describes the Imago Dei in this way, “Because God has made your soul, there is something in it of God Himself, a Divine stamp has been impressed upon you; there is something of God’s power, thought, and creative genius in you, as in no other.

Greg believes his role as a leader at Club Boulevard and in his other communities is to always recognize this ‘divine stamp’ in others. Living that out in his work means believing the education of each student who enters the doors of the school matters and working toward that end. Tasks like hiring the best teachers, implementing consistent and high-quality curricula, and creating a culture where each student can thrive become essential parts of his ministry to each student.

This theology also inspires him to communicate to each student that they are important and that they matter. And even if he can’t explicitly express that his biblical beliefs inform his encouraging actions and words to the students, Will Lamb says Greg’s love for the students is still a signpost to the kingdom. Will says, “the students know that he is safe and values them. They go to Greg for advice, to talk through issues, because they know he values, loves, cares for them, and shows them grace and forgiveness.”

As Greg’s story exemplifies, defining and living out a theology of work takes commitment to the word, community, discipline and time. However, the outcomes that can occur when theology is married with a faithful presence in one’s vocation can vastly outweigh the inputs. And as Paul reminds us, our work is not in vain. Greg says, “At end of it all, this earth is being redeemed and will be fully redeemed one day, and we work toward that, that is our role here.

Amy Huffman is the Research and Policy Specialist for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, seeking to close the digital divide in North Carolina. In addition, Amy is a freelance writer and consultant, featured in WRAL-TechWire and ExitEvent. Native North Carolinians, Amy and her son, Grayson (age 8), have worshipped at the Bible Church since 2012.

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