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.
As neighborhood demographics changed over the years, 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 that includes lay leadership. 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, is now used for classrooms and a food distribution facility.
In 1984, as a major 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 nearly 1.5 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; the Jesse Gates Edible Forest Community Garden; and the Tuesday Morning Neighborhood Ministries, which includes food distribution, medical assistance, and help with state ID cards that enable persons to pursue employment and access heath care.
Several other neighborhood ministries began at Wells Church and have grown to become a non profit organization that serves the community. These include Georgetown Neighborhood Homes and Operation Shoestring.
An innovative ministry, Georgetown Neighborhood Homes, renovates old houses 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 community 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.”
In 2016, we honored 90 years of history and looked toward the future of "the church that stayed" (see The Clarion-Ledger article here). For more info about the church's history and ministry, see the June 2016 WellSpring.