As a teen, Willie Tichenor did mission work with Dallas’ Highland Park United Methodist Church. The experience changed him.
“It was a place where he grew up,” said his mother, Lisa Tichenor. “He began to understand the needs of others.”
Willie Tichenor died in 2006, at age 19, from osteosarcoma.
Since then, his family and friends have found ways to honor his memory, including funding a United Methodist pastor’s effort to provide many young people with life-changing mission experiences.
Recently the QuadW Foundation – the name’s drawn from “What Willie would want” – committed $2.6 million more toward the Rev. Don Woolley’s work.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us to continue what we’ve created but also to expand,” Woolley said.
Woolley’s passion for youth ministry led him to create something called Jesus Tribe in Mobile, Ala. That effort to have young Christians do ministry in the city’s toughest areas failed for lack of funding.
While considering how he might try again, Woolley learned from the Rev. Johnny Peters, director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of South Alabama, about the Tichenors.
Peters had worked with Willie at Highland Park United Methodist, and knew the Tichenors were looking to invest in youth missions in Willie’s memory. With Peters’ help, Woolley got to make his pitch to the QuadW Foundation.
The foundation (which also funds osteosarcoma research and higher education scholarships, and includes on its board a number of Willie’s friends) began in 2009 to fund Woolley’s work in Mobile.
“It never would have happened without their backing,” he said.
Woolley, a chemical engineer before entering ministry, believes the church lost its way when it turned inward and more institution-focused. Better to follow Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, who went to the people, including the poor, with preaching and other ministry.
“Wesley got it right,” Woolley said. “If we could just recapture that vision, we’d be in great shape.”
Woolley also believes the church must work harder and more creatively to engage young people.
So, drawing on the ideas of Australian missional strategist Alan Hirsch, he conceived a summer internship program. It has college-age young adults living together, in affiliation with a United Methodist church, and working with kids and others, usually in a low-income neighborhood.
Running a vacation Bible school or day camp are common options. But the work can vary.
“He doesn’t come in with a preconceived notion about what he wants to do,” Lisa Tichenor said of Woolley. “He listens, and then proceeds to structure the program according to the needs of the area.”
The interns also study the Bible and pray together, read a book on missional Christianity, and have accountability groups.
“It’s basically getting them beyond their comfort zone where they have to begin questioning their suppositions about faith, about race, about poverty. We supplement that with those spiritual disciplines,” Woolley said.
The QuadW Missional Internship, as it’s now known, has grown to 10 sites nationally, in such cities as Portland, Oregon, Elkhart, Indiana, Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Redding, Pennsylvania. There’s a longer residency program, in Kansas City, Kansas.
Interns get a stipend and living expenses. Nearly 300 young people have participated, about a third of them African Americans.
Jakaela Davis, a first-year Duke Divinity School student, was a QuadW intern in Mobile, her hometown, in 2013. She later became a resident assistant and site leader, working in Portland and Dallas.
Davis credits the program with helping her to recognize the social needs in Mobile and the other cities, and with putting her on the path to seminary.
“QuadW has a way of transforming lives the moment you walk through the doors,” she said.
The Rev. Rhett Butler, recently appointed chaplain at his alma mater Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, ended up going to Duke Seminary and into United Methodist ministry after working in Woolley’s program in Mobile.
“I’d been wrestling with it, and had a few pastors poke me about it here or there,” he said. “But it wasn’t until that summer, doing hands-on ministry, especially in that economic context, that I was able to articulate that call.”
While support for the internship program comes primarily from the QuadW Foundation, The United Methodist Church’s Young Clergy Initiative has provided funds, as has the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
The new grant from the QuadW Foundation will allow for an expansion of sites, and one is planned for next summer on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation. During a vacation in that area, Woolley saw intense poverty. In follow-up reading, he learned that some Arapaho tribe survivors of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, led by Methodist-minister-turned U.S. soldier, resettled there.
The connection “was a bit of serendipity,” he said, but also motivated him to set up an internship site in connection with a United Methodist church in Riverton, Wyoming.
Woolley’s plans also call for two missional residency “skunk works” — a term Lockheed used for the freewheeling conditions under which its engineers came up with innovative aircraft designs.
“We would like to get some really creative young adults and resource them, equip them and turn them loose to experiment in some of these communities where we (The United Methodist Church) don’t have a very good track record of disciple-making,” Woolley said.
Other plans include a national conference for campus ministers and college students.
Woolley is now serving fulltime as national director of the QuadW Missional Internship, which has become a recognized affiliate of the denomination, with its own board.
Busy as he is, Woolley reflects often on Willie Tichenor’s legacy and how it’s seen in mission work and answered calls to ministry.
“It’s really a story only God could have written,” he said.
Sam Hodges, a writer for United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org