By Marilyn Tinnin
Keith Tonkel arrived at Wells United Methodist Church in 1969 in the thick of the racial conflict sweeping across the South. Located on Bailey Avenue in a community that had once been a stable blue-collar neighborhood, at least 400 members had left the fellowship in the two or three years prior to Keith’s appointment. The discord between the socially conservative and socially liberal factions of the Methodist Church was dividing congregations across the state. “White flight” was adding to the woes of congregations like Wells as demographics were changing in cities everywhere.
It was an unsettling time in the city of Jackson and the historic church, with the graceful white columns that had stood as a beacon in the neighborhood since 1926, was gasping for survival as well as revival.
The young Keith Tonkel was pleased to be assigned. He was (and is) a unique mix of Jesus-like love for others and the courage of Daniel in the Lion’s Den! In 1963, he had been one of the 28 young Methodist ministers in the Mississippi Conference who had signed a statement called “Born of Conviction.” To read it today, it is difficult to imagine the firestorm it caused at the time, but it certainly did. The document expressed support for the end of discrimination based on race, color, or creed.
Several of the ministers who signed it were pressured to resign their positions or were voted out by their administrative boards. They made no friends among the Conference hierarchy of the time, and so it is part of the reason Keith ended up at a church that was breathing its last. Could it have been part punishment and part just getting him somewhere he couldn’t cause trouble? Keith could not have been happier.
He knew the meaning of the word, “challenge,” and he knew the power of God. The congregation at Wells could not offer him a salary since they were all but flat broke—really. They always paid him what they could, which might be $20 or $25 a week. In the meantime, he was faithful to do what he was sure God had called him to do, and he watched God provide in ways only God could have done. For example, a local radio station, managed by a staunch atheist, invited Keith to do a weekly community affairs segment and paid him well—but not before warning him not to try to convert him.
Keith, who has probably never met a person in his life that he can’t charm, laughed and said, “Oh, I wouldn’t.” The station manager, Richard Voorhees, was a little miffed and asked, “Really? Why not?” Keith’s quick reply was, “Well, you are not smart enough!” Mr. Voorhees roared, and the two became great friends. By the way, Mr. Voorhees eventually became as staunch a Believer as he had been an atheist, and he joined the Wells congregation.
From the beginning, Keith wanted to pastor a church for those he calls, “God’s ‘who-so-evers.” The sign out front says, “All are welcome,” and they are. As the Wells congregation has reached out to meet specific needs in the community surrounding their church, the numbers have grown, but it is a long way from being just a neighborhood church. Members drive from every part of the metro area to be a part of this diverse and vibrant body.
One thing Wells does with extraordinary success is to live out James 2, that chapter that connects the dots between faith and works. There is a food bank, a clinic, involvement in the elementary school located across the street, active support for renovating homes in the area, and a community garden. But there is so much more. Everything Wells does is about a mission to empower the recipients of their ministries to break the cycle of poverty in their families and to experience the transforming power of the love of Christ.
In 1984, the church held their first WellsFest. Malcolm White, of Hal and Mal’s fame, tells the funny story of trying to pay Keith for performing his wedding ceremony and Keith refusing to take the money. Malcolm insisted he repay him in some way. Finally he announced to an obstinate Keith that the thing he did best in the world was to plan events. Planning that first event and bringing in great bands that play for free launched a tradition that is now recognized by the Southern Tourism Society as one of the Top 20 events of the year!
And it is no small accomplishment that this little Bailey Avenue Church that was struggling to stay alive has now given over $1 million dollars to a variety of organizations whose mission it is to help those who most need a leg up in the world.
Admission is free, but there are lots of opportunities to spend a dime here and there. All proceeds benefit a specific charity or deserving non-profit in the area. This year the proceeds will go to Harbor House, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment agency with an amazing track record for treating both men and women (www.hhjackson.org).
Keith has loved his congregation well, but they have loved him well, too. There have been many ups and downs over the decades since he arrived at Wells. He and his precious wife Pat shared a love for orphans. Over their 46-year marriage they raised their own three children and eight foster children, whom they never considered to be any different than their own. When people asked Pat “Now which ones are your biological children and which are your adopted children?” her answer was always the same. “I can’t remember,” she would say.
Pat passed away in 2011, but her legacy is strong among the Wells folks. And it is not hard to understand why. She possessed the same “Jesus-like” love and energy that her husband clings to today. A legacy like that means you may be out of sight, but NEVER out of mind!
Keith has had his own struggles with health having battled the “C” word three times and won thus far. The last bout with thyroid cancer was the worst, and a whole new protocol had to be written for him because he is somewhat an anomaly. He has endured 35 more chemotherapy treatments than anyone his doctors have ever read about has ever managed to do.
Today at “almost 80,” he feels better than he has in years and just mentioned that he mowed his lawn in this heat the past week. He may have an “old soul,” which is a very good thing, but he has a “young spirit,” and I don’t think that will ever change.