Michelle Shrader

Keith Tonkel, what a name…

Keith Tonkel, his was a name I had never heard before, though so many around the world had.  I got a call from him after I graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2007, sharing that his Superintendent hoped he might meet with me once I moved to Mississippi.  After graduating I received a one year fellowship to look at Religion & Race through the Center for Reconciliation and after receiving 11 offers all around the country and the world, I had given up hope.  None of the positions seemed right.  I shared this with Keith and told him the position in Mississippi I was considering, didn’t feel quite right.  He asked me to tell him what my hope was.  I told him that I struggled with the divides that existed within the Church and hoped to serve with a community that had worked to form across lines of division of race, class, and any “ism”  to form community for all.  He asked me if I would mind sharing the story with him one more time, so I did.  He then said, “I wonder if you would let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a place to serve.”

I was about three weeks away from graduation and so there was not much to lose.  I got on a plane, landed in Mississippi, and met him at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  The church was described to me by someone who knew Keith as the most integrated church in Mississippi.  I walked in the church and had this sense in my bones, like none I had felt before.  Keith asked me to share my story with the congregation and then after the services, they called for an emergency Board and Council meeting to extend an invitation for me to serve with them.  It was a unanimous vote.  In between the meetings, the Associate Minister Todd Watson, took me for coffee and he said, “What do you think of our Keith?”  I shared, “Well, it takes some getting used to having him call you, ‘sweet pea’ and ‘baby’.”  Todd said, “You seem okay with it though.”  “Yes,” I said, “because I heard him call you ‘sweet pea’ and ‘baby’ too.”  Keith had his way.  He was the only man I have worked with that I would let call me “Sweet Pea”  and Sweet Pea I remain.

I served at Wells Memorial United Methodist for three years.  They were the most formative years of my ministry.  People would ask me time and again, how does Keith do what he does and I would share, “Keith is like no one else I have ever met.  It is not about what he says, it is not about what he does, it is about who he is.”  Keith was the real deal.  He didn’t speak prophesy, he lived it.  He was a walking billboard for love and that is not something that you can learn as much as it is something that grows in you.  Yet, Keith had a special anointing.  He consistently made choices that would grow love in others.  I remember him apologizing in front of the congregation for something that really was not his fault.  When I questioned him about it, he said, “I know baby, but really they were hurt and I want people to see the importance of loving others over being right.”

Keith was one of 28 ministers that signed the Born of Conviction Statement in Mississippi stating that they would commit their lives to ending segregation in the churches.  That decision cost him, but he leaned into ministry at every turn living out his motto of, “Loving, Caring, Sharing.”  I visited him when I was home last year and there was a cooler on his stoop that had drinks in it for the garbage truck drivers and the Mailman.  When I asked him about it, he said, “Baby, that is not for you, but we have some of that coffee you like inside.”  I shared my story about life in South Africa with him and he said, “I want you to promise me something.”  “Okay” I shared, “What?”  He slid me a check and said, “I want you to promise me that you will use this money just for you and trust God will cover the rest.”  He was that way…generous and caring in every way.

There are things I learned about ministry through Keith, but it is as I said before, it was more about who he was.  The day of my ordination, I wondered whether I might have to invite another clergy to stand with me, for Keith’s wife Pat died the day before.  Just before I was to be ordained, there was a rustle in the conference hall where we were meeting.  Everyone stood and began to sing, “It is Well with my Soul” and Keith came walking up to the platform to stand with me.  We were not supposed to address family after the moment of our ordination to keep the ceremony moving forward, but I stood and gave him the biggest hug and both of us had streams of tears pouring from our eyes.  I will forever be grateful for his love and commitment to me.

Keith had an understanding of what he called “chosen family.”  His table was rarely empty for choosing to surround himself with those that needed family.  He was advocating for the rights of a child one day and the judge told him he should take the child and so he did.  Keith changed the lives of many children over the years giving them space in his life, his home, and his heart.  All the members of Wells Memorial would know they were a part of Keith’s chosen family and I am thankful to have known he extended that space to me as well.  Keith Tonkel, it was a name I had never heard of before he called me that first day, but his is a name and a life I will never forget.

My prayers surround Keith’s family, the Wells Church Family, my Colleagues in the Mississippi Annual Conference, and all those who loved Keith.  May we remember him in our continuing on of “Loving, Caring, and Sharing” in our own lives.

With you on the journey,