Submitted By Wells Memorial United Methodist Church
Keith Tonkel, who preached and lived a message of reconciliation, died Wednesday of complications from throat cancer. He was 81.
For 63 years, 48 of them at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church on Bailey Avenue in Jackson, Miss., Keith Tonkel talked and lived an active ministry of reconciliation — with God and among humans.
His message and dedicated service led countless alienated persons back to a belief in God and reaffirmed the faith of the faithful. He touched lives across the world.
He worked tirelessly advancing the belief that God's grace would overcome the differences — social, cultural and racial — that divided people and separated them from their loving Creator.
In a year of racial turmoil, 1963, he was part of a small group of Methodist ministers who took a bold, public stand against segregation and racism. He preached and taught reconciliation then, just as he would preach reconciliation of other differences through the decades that followed.
"Loving, Caring, Sharing" were words he frequently used, and they became the motto of the little church on Jackson's Bailey Avenue that would serve as his home-base for 48 years. People are still drawn to his church in inner-city Jackson because the church strives daily to live up to that motto.
Born in New Orleans on Jan. 15, 1936, he was reared in the Crescent City and in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
It was in Bay St. Louis, at a little Methodist Church, that he found a spiritual connection that would carry him for the rest of his days. His was a contagious connection, one that he freely shared for 63 years of ministry.
He was graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, and underwent cancer surgery the next day. He was told by doctors that he had maybe six months to live. He credited the prayers of thousands with his successful recovery from that cancer.
He was graduated from Emory University School of Theology and ordained as an elder in the Methodist Church in 1962, assigned to Guinn Memorial Methodist Church in Gulfport, where he served for seven years.
During his years at Guinn, Keith served as a single foster parent for children under the jurisdiction of the Harrison County Youth Court, and in 1968, he acquired a partner in that effort and in his larger ministry by marrying Patsy Joyce Myrick, who died on June 9, 2011.
In 1969, he was assigned to the pastorate at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church on Bailey Avenue in Jackson.
He and Pat moved into the parsonage on Glendale Street behind Wells, and they began the effort to save what was considered a dying church.
The little congregation accepted the young preacher, and Wells began to grow as it reached out to the neighborhood around it and to the larger Jackson community.
To supplement his token salary at Wells, he signed on to do a radio show on WSLI in Jackson, a move that broadened the reach of his ministry.
The family moved from the parsonage into a house in Clinton, and from there, he helped establish and served as founding pastor of St. John's UMC in his home.
As his congregations grew, he was able to accept invitations to conduct revivals, seminars and camp meetings across and beyond the state of Mississippi. At one point in his ministry he was leading as many as 30 revivals a year — always sharing the message of reconciliation through God's grace.
Under his leadership, the people who are Wells Church reached out in service with ministries to residents of the Methodist Children's Home, the old Community Nursing Home, prisons and the State Veterans Home.
The church became active in mission work outside the country, focusing on the village of Tlalamac, Mexico, where teams led by Keith made more than 10 annual trips.
He performed weddings and funerals, turning aside offers of honoraria, saying it was his "gift of love." One of the recipients of that wedding gift was so moved he offered to organize a fundraising event for the church. That event is WellsFest, a day-long family music and fun festival, which has raised more than $1 million for local non-profit service organizations in its 33-year history.
His voice became weakened when cancer appeared again, so his ministry expanded to the Internet. He began a daily blog that appears on the Wells website, wellschurch.org, in two places on Facebook and more recently at keithtonkel.com.
He wrote four books, Finally the Dawn, an account of an evangelical trip to England during his Millsaps years; HeartStuff, a volume of "stoetry" — story and poetry; GodStuff, a sequel; and Red Door, Green Door, a children's book.
He served as Sunday School Teacher and Ministerial Advisor to "The United Methodist Hour: Time That Makes a Difference," and for a time wrote a secular newspaper column, "Probing."
The list of awards he received is too long for a newspaper obituary and not something that he discussed.
He leaves: his daughters, Shelley Tonkel Herndon (Chris) of Gulfport, Tracy Tonkel Furniss (Jeff) of Baton Rouge; son, Anthony Tonkel Puckett of Jackson; brother, Edward Burgess (Marietta) of Atlanta: five precious grandchildren; Ricky Davis and several other foster children; a cousin, Brad Kamp (Linda) of Orlando, Fla.; and innumerable persons who owe their spirituality to his loving, caring, sharing ministry.
There will be a time for visitation with the family at Wells Church, 2019 Bailey Avenue from 1-4 p.m. Friday, March 10. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 11, at Wells. There will be a service of committal of at Floral Hills Cemetery in Gulfport at 4 p.m. Saturday, followed by a time of fellowship at First UMC Gulfport.
The family requests that memorials in lieu of flowers be sent to Wells United Methodist Church, 2019 Bailey Avenue, Jackson, MS 39213.