Picture the south in the 1960s. Many people would tend to imagine a vision that may be encountered on an episode of the Andy Griffth Show. Unfortunately, there was a system in place that kept blacks and whites separate and considered African Americans to be inferior. Schools were segregated. Water fountains were segregated.
Even churches were segregated.
The Methodist Church (this was before the “United” was added to that name in 1968) was a prime example of the segregated church. Just within Mississippi, there were separate annual conferences for whites and blacks, with separate bishops and separate clergy. These congregations all worshipped the same God, but could not mingle or have any official tie other than the word “Methodist” on the sign. It was a dark time in the history of the church, to say the least.
A group of young clergy decided that enough was enough. With increasing racial tensions of the early 1960s approaching a fever pitch, these men sensed that the time had come to take a stand that was not popular within the white Mississippi Annual Conference. Several of them gathered in a cabin in the middle of nowhere to craft what would become known as the Born of Conviction statement.
One of the signers of this document was Rev. Keith Tonkel. Keith went on to the Church Triumphant this morning after a prolonged health battle. Many of the signers of the document were forced to leave Mississippi but Keith refused to leave. He spent much of his pastoral career at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Keith was also famous for appearing weekly on the United Methodist Hour where he would teach a brief Sunday school lesson. People always seemed to look forward to learning from Keith, with the style and delivery that one could say would remind them of their grandfather.
His loss is tremendous but his legacy will live on for generations. It is thanks to his witness that we often saw a glimpse of how eternity hopefully will be – full of people who love all just as Christ loves them. May we continue to learn from and follow his example and to allow his legacy of love and acceptance for all of God’s people to live on.
Well done, good and faithful servant.