Keith Tonkel

Sept. 17, 2003

For going on 35 years, Keith Tonkel has been in the pulpit, serving the congregation and neighborhood of Wells United Methodist Church on Bailey Avenue. His office, on the second-story back corner over the parking lot, is filled with memorabilia and books tightly packed into floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and atop every surface except for the big wooden desk and where the blue iMac sits. An old cloth-covered armchair and black vinyl loveseat, both well-sat-in, provide seating for Tonkel and his many visitors.

"Jesus was a story teller, and almost every single thing in the office is that," Tonkel, 67, told me as he looked around his office. "Each and everything you see, there's nothing you can point to that's not someone's life experience."

It's obvious when you look around the neighborhood that Wells is in Jackson's inner city. Also apparent is the conscious decision on the part of the church to stay put despite the changes. Once more controversial than now, Wells' philosophy is one of welcoming all—people of differing ethnicities and religions, people addicted to drugs and alcohol. "Our intention has been to be a church that was open to all of God's children, it's just that simple," he says. "We don't ever, I never divide that openness into adjectives; we have this group, or that group, or the other group. I say we have us this little slice of God's folks." Someone recently told Tonkel his church was full of sinners, and he replied, "Isn't that wonderful?" We're all sinners, he reminds, adding, "We always see people as gift-givers as well as people with problems."

One of the gifts the church has given to Jackson is WellsFest. Twenty years ago it started on Millsaps' campus as a free event for families. Still free, it takes place Sept. 27 shaded by the pines at Lakeland Park, next door to Smith Wills Stadium.

All monies raised at WellsFest, a private-sector initiative, are donated to accountable and working community causes. This year's recipient, Harbor House, is one of the few places you can go for drug and alcohol treatment if you don't have money. Harbor House has two locations, I-55 near Byram and downtown near the Stewpot.

I took along a copy of one of his columns published in Bill Minor's Capital Reporter in July 1981. Tonkel then related an interesting story about the columns. Invited to the White House during the Jimmy Carter administration for a SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) conference, Tonkel walked with fellow Mississippian Hodding Carter III, who worked for the president, to an East Room reception. Carter told him the president enjoyed his articles. "That really blew me away," Tonkel told me, chuckling at the memory. But, Carter said, the president didn't read them any more, though. Had he offended the president in his column? "No, our subscription ran out," his friend replied.

When he got back to Jackson, Tonkel told Minor, "I've got one subscription you might want to send."


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