By SHERRY LUCAS
WellsFest Continues—A Bittersweet Legacy
The Rev. Heather Hensarling knows this will be a year of firsts for Wells Memorial United Methodist Church, and in her role as its new pastor. Their first WellsFest without the Rev. Keith Tonkel. The first Christmas Eve without him.
“Our first All Saints Sunday this year, and the name you’re calling is Keith Tonkel? Nobody expected that,” she says.
There’s already been the first time she forgot to have them sing “Happy Birthday” one Sunday —a charming church custom. She was heartened that a member gave her a heads up, rather than overhearing suspicions about “that new pastor” changing up things.
“This is an incredibly gracious congregation,” she says, with its focus on the larger issues of faith in the community, and how to provide for a broken and hurting world.
It’s also a grieving congregation; living with that loss and honoring it is part of the process. Tonkel, beloved pastor there for 48 years, died in March at age 81. “No one in this church has ever had a new pastor,” she says, except for a handful there when Tonkel came.
Hensarling, a Jackson native, is back home, finding her footing amid the traditions, the new ideas and the big shoes he left behind.
She grew up in south Jackson and attended Millsaps College “on the 13-year plan” she jokes, graduating in 1993. She left for seminary in Kansas City, and stayed for a decade. Homesick for Mississippi, she came back in 2002 and, as a United Methodist, had various appointments around the Mississippi Conference, including St. Luke’s.
“I hadn’t anticipated this, coming here, at all. It was not on my radar, so it was a surprise—and, a good one.”
The bishop and cabinet of clergy worked closely with Wells on the appointment. “There was lots of real care and thoughtfulness that went into this process,” says James Mason, chair of Wells’ pastor/parish committee.
“It’s a tough, tough position to come in and follow someone like a Keith Tonkel, who in many circles—in spiritual, secular, political, community—he was just a real legend. He’s defined Wells for half a century.” Hensarling’s broad experience and comfort in her own skin brought confidence.
“She is an amazing woman. She has a tremendous amount of gifts. She has wisdom. She has a sense of humor,” Mason says. “She has just stepped right in and become a real part of who we are very quickly.” Her first Sunday to preach, July 2, rather than her prepared sermon, she shared her faith journey and story. “It really ended up being very powerful.” Honest, transparent, and vulnerable, she touched many and put them at ease. “While she’s obviously not Keith, she is going to be able to continue leading this ragtag group of pilgrims who are on this journey.”
Affirmations came her way, such as an encounter in May, when Hensarling was on a solo pilgrimage in Ireland—“just one of those huge, small-world coincidences,” she says.
Climbing Knocknarea—the large, striking limestone hill with some of the oldest passage tombs in Ireland and said to have the tomb of Queen Maeve—was one of her intentions. A long climb, gentle at the outset, it gets steeper and rockier in the last quarter. It was a struggle. Three-fourths of the way up, she decided, no, she couldn’t do it.
“I’m close enough,” she told herself. “I can see her tomb from here.’” Resting to catch her breath, she saw an older man making his way down from the top. She got up and jokingly said, “If I’ve made it this far, can I make it all the way?” He said yes, take breaks, pace yourself, “But you can do it. You’ve got to do it.”
Mutual American accents led to the “Where from?” exchange. “Mississippi,” she said. He grinned, “Jackson?” About to move back. Where’d he live in Jackson? “Fondren.” That’s where she was moving. What brings her back? “I’m going to be the pastor at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church,” she told David Crosby.
Ahh. He attends Wells from time to time, she says, and his daughter, Sarah Crosby Campbell is an active member at Wells. “We both just kind of stood there, and he looked at me and he said, ‘We’ve been praying for you. Are you ready for this?’”
“No, I’m not ready, but I’m going!” What’re the odds? They got a picture. When they finished, she said, “Well, I think I’ve got to go climb this thing.” He agreed.
“For me, it was serendipitous. We just had a great moment,” she says. People at Wells appreciated that story. “I don’t want to romanticize Wells, although we easily could, and do. But it is symbolic of the breadth and depth that this community of faith really has.”
“I called it an affirmation, that okay. God is giving you a little nod, saying, ‘See there? Wells is everywhere.’”
As a Jackson “cradle Methodist,” Tonkel was “part of the fabric of our growing up,” from preaching revivals to his support of Millsaps students to mentorship when she’d call to pick his brain. “I’m pleased that he knew I was the one coming here.”
She’s settling in. “Right now, I’m a student. Yes, I’m an elder and I’ve come to ‘lead,’ But I am a student, more than anything else, coming to Wells.”
“I would like to think that I bring the same determination and passion to love unconditionally and to welcome everyone and to stand side by side with anybody that crosses the threshold into this church. It’s a very diverse community, and I celebrate that, and I pray that the day will never come that I have to defend that, but if it does, I’ll absolutely defend it. We will be diverse and I hope we become even more diverse.
“So, I bring a passion for inclusiveness and social justice, that I hope that’s borne out in my presence more than it is in my words.” Tonkel didn’t finger wag about right and wrong, “he just lived it,” she says, noting that people from different points of view come together at Wells. “They’re bound together by something greater than their differences. The way I would say that is the body of Christ. But the way folks here might say it simply is, love.”
She prays that she also brings a non-anxious presence in the midst of change and transition at Wells. Building relationships is a top priority.
WellsFest is Sept. 30 at Jamie Fowler Boyll Park. In a WellsFest closing tradition, volunteers gather in a big circle, holding hands, and Tonkel would say, “Look around. This is what Heaven looks like. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.”
“He’s not going to be there to do that this time,” Hensarling says. “So, am I going to do that? Yeah, I’ll do that.”
Tonkel’s job at WellsFest was walking the grounds with his extension grabber and bucket, picking up trash. She’ll do that, too. “Talk about a humble, non-invasive way to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I guarantee you, he had powerful conversations.”
She looks at a picture of Tonkel on her phone and says she’ll need one for her office wall—to look at and say, “Now, how did you do this again?” or to look at and say, “What were you thinking?”
“And he’ll say, ‘You got this, baby. It’s all right, baby, you got this.’” She smiles. “I can hear him saying it.”
Sherry Lucas is a freelance feature writer, copywriter and copy editor with 30-plus years of reporting and writing experience and a passion for sharing Mississippi’s cultural wealth. Email her at email@example.com.