Keith Tonkel served as senior pastor of Wells United Methodist Church from 1969 until his death, March 8, 2017. Reverend Tonkel was born in New Orleans on January 15, 1936. He grew up in the Crescent City and in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He received a preaching license in the Methodist church in 1954. After he graduated from Millsaps College (BA Philosophy) and from Emory University School of Theology, the church ordained him as an elder in 1962. During his time at Emory, he served a psychiatric residency at Georgia Baptist Hospital as well as on the staff of Northside Methodist Church in Atlanta. During his career, Keith Tonkel served in a few different churches before his long tenure at Wells.
During Keith’s time at Wells, he led a church that maintains an active witness to its inner-city neighborhood. He led revivals, seminars and camp meetings across the continental United States and in other countries. These events averaged 18 each year, primarily in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Under his leadership, the people who are Wells Church reached out in service with varied ministries. They included 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. Teams led by Keith made more than 1O annual trips. He performed weddings and funerals, turning aside 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 over 30 years.
Writing and Other Communications
Tonkel is the author of 4 books. Finally The Dawn is an account of an evangelical trip to England during his student years. See his other titles in the right sidebar.
For a time, Keith wrote a secular newspaper column, “Probing.” He emceed two public affairs radio shows of the same name. Keith was Ministerial Advisor of The United Methodist Hour: Time That Makes A Difference. The program runs on television stations throughout Mississippi and the southeast.
During his years at Guinn Memorial in Gulfport, Keith served as a single foster parent. In 1968, he married Patsy Joyce Myrick. Pat Tonkel shared ministry with Keith until her death on June 9, 2011. Their children include Shelley Tonkel Herndon, Tracy Tonkel Furniss, and Anthony Tonkel Puckett. Five precious grandchildren brought joy to his life. Several foster children remain active in family life.
Honors and Service
Over the years, Keith received numerous state and national awards for community service. He served on the boards of several service agencies. Some specific awards include:
- Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Award, 2009
- Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, 2008 (Foundation for Evangelism)
- Emma K. Elzy Award, 2007 (Mississippi Conference Commission on Religion and Race)
- Distinguished Religious Leadership Award (2005)
- Alvis Hunt Humanitarian Award (2002)
- Humanitarian of the Year, Epilepsy Foundation (2001)
- Harry E. Denman Evangelism Award, MS Conference, UMC (1999)
- Friendship Award, Jackson 2000 (1999)
In his spare time, Keith enjoyed helping people find good deals on cars. He traveled in the United States and overseas. Keith’s ministry impact went far beyond Wells Church. He was deeply loved and will be missed. His vision continues in ministry at Wells.