The Wells Story
Established in 1926 as Glendale Methodist Church, Wells Memorial United Methodist Church is located at the corner of Bailey Avenue and Glendale Street. In 1948, the name of the church was changed to honor the memory of longtime pastor J. A. Wells, who was killed in an automobile accident.
Over the years, as neighborhood demographics changed, the membership declined sharply until Rev. Keith Tonkel was appointed pastor in 1969. Growth followed as new "members and friends" came, hoping to build a diverse fellowship and seeking opportunities to promote racial harmony in the heart of Mississippi.
What was once a neighborhood church began reaching out to attract members and friends from the larger community in the Jackson metropolitan area. Two Sunday morning services generally draw a combined attendance of 350 persons from a 45-mile radius of the church. The morning services at Wells have a structured informality with lay leadership and period of "Free Worship." Attire for all services ranges from faded denim to "Sunday Best."
While many persons attending Wells are lifelong Methodists, the church appeals to persons from other—or no—faith traditions. It also often serves as a "point of re-entry" into a more spiritual life for persons who have felt disaffected with organized religion and those whose walks with God have been interrupted by a period of alienation.
The membership takes seriously the words on the sign in front of the church: “Everyone Very Welcome.” Newcomers are greeted warmly, but an effort is made to respect the privacy of visitors. There is no “hard-sell” pitch to boost church membership, and newcomers are encouraged to approach active involvement at their own speed.
The original church building, which was expanded over the years, was completely renovated in 1985, and a parking area on adjacent lots was paved. The former parsonage, directly behind the church building, now serves as a classroom and activity facility.
In 1984, as the renovation program began, a friend of the church offered to organize a festival to help raise money for the project. Church members agreed that a festival would make an interesting project, but decided that the proceeds should go to some other worthy service organization. WellsFest has since become a major community event on the last Saturday in September. Over the years, it has generated more than a million dollars for a wide range of nonprofit service organizations and activities.
Wells Church is also actively involved in its low-income neighborhood, with commitments to the children, faculty and staff of Galloway Elementary School across the street, to building homes in the Habitat for Humanity program, and to the support of the Bailey Avenue Health Education Foundation.
An innovative ministry, Georgetown Neighborhood Homes, renovates old house in the area and makes them available, at cost, to new homeowners. In cooperation with the Mississippi Urban Forest Council and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, we have established the Jesse Gates Edible Forest on the site of a once-abandoned house at the corner of Bailey Avenue and Idlewild Street. Residents of the community enjoy fresh vegetables from the garden and, as the trees grow, will be able to pick fresh fruit from the trees of the urban forest.
Although the area has changed radically since the church was established in 1926, the congregation has made a firm decision to remain at the Bailey-Glendale site, believing that we have a “ministry of presence.”
For a more detailed history of Wells Church, download the 16-page 90th anniversary edition of the WellSpring monthly newsletter published June 1, 2016.
Click here to access the Wells Church Oral History Project.