The Rev. Don Woolley and the late Willie Tichenor never met. Yet the stories of these two United Methodists have become intertwined, with clear and growing results in Christian mission.
Woolley is a mop-haired chemical engineer-turned pastor in Mobile, Ala., who believes The United Methodist Church must rediscover John Wesley’s practice of taking Christian witness beyond the church walls, including to the poorest neighborhoods.
“We’re here today because he did and we’re failing today because we don’t,” said Woolley, an elder in the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference.
Tichenor died in 2006, at age 19, of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. The Dallas youth lived life to the full, relishing sports, music, drama — and mission trips.
Even in the middle of chemotherapy, he traveled to Juarez, Mexico with others from Dallas’ Highland Park United Methodist Church to help build homes.
“Willie was a little bit of a handful as a younger child,” said his mother, Lisa Tichenor. “He grew up a lot through his participation in mission trips.”
In 2007, Lisa and husband Mac Tichenor used money from the sale of the family radio station business to create the QuadW Foundation in memory of their son. The name stands for `What Would Willie Want?’
The Tichenors recruited to the foundation’s board young friends of Willie’s, as well as Willie’s brother, Taylor.
“We call them the board kids, though they’re all really adults now,” said Lisa Tichenor.
One of the older “kids” was Johnny Peters, who had been a youth leader with Willie at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
Peters would move from Texas to Alabama, where he directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile. There he became close friends with Woolley and told him about Willie Tichenor.
“He was interested in the story from the start,” Peters said. “He had no clue what might come of that. He was just interested in it because Willie was important to me.”
Woolley, influenced by the Australian missional church leader Alan Hirsch, had already created something called Jesus Tribe, an effort to bring a Christian witness to bars, housing projects and arts venues.
“We were taking the church to people, and we were reaching lost people, but ultimately it fizzled,” said Woolley, who had continued to lead a church fulltime. “We didn’t have a financially stable model.”
Woolley shared with Peters a new plan, for a missional leadership training program that would have college-age Christians living and working in some of Mobile’s toughest neighborhoods.
“It just kind of clicked,” Peters said. “I thought, `This is what QuadW was created for.’”
Peters arranged for Woolley to submit a proposal to fellow QuadW board members.
“We trusted Johnny’s instincts,” said Lisa Tichenor.
Changed lives, changed churches
Since 2009, Woolley has, with the help of the Rev. Jean Tippit, another United Methodist pastor, operated a summer internship program, with QuadW providing $2,000 stipends for each participant.
The goal is three-fold: to give the interns a transformational Christian experience; to serve the underserved; and to help United Methodist churches, especially in transitional neighborhoods, connect better with those in their midst.
For eight weeks, interns live either in an old parsonage or adapted Sunday School rooms, with local United Methodist Churches providing their meals. The program includes regular Bible study and readings in books on missional Christianity.
Work assignments range from running day camps and Vacation Bible Schools to assisting in an inner-city medical clinic and repairing roofs for low-income residents. Mobile is home to many recently-arrived refugees from the Middle East, and interns have helped them to find their way in a much different culture.
Wes Anderson, now youth leader at Spanish Fort United Methodist Church near Mobile, recalled being part of the first intern class, helping to run a Vacation Bible School in one of greater Mobile’s poorest areas.
“You see Jesus so clearly working with those kids in the neighborhood,” Anderson said. “We (interns) got back to college and we weren’t the same people.”
One of the churches that has welcomed interns and felt their influence is St. Mark United Methodist in Mobile.
“Through the hard work of the interns, a church that had no Vacation Bible School in 2009 had
over 50 children at Vacation Bible School in 2010,” said the Rev. Brian Miller, St. Mark’s pastor.
He added that some of those children have stayed active in the church, and that the interns had spurred St. Mark to reach out in other ways, such as opening its gym for supervised play in the afternoons.
This summer, Woolley expanded the internship program to Kansas City, Kans. He found local support from an ecumenical group of churches, including the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kans., with a shared commitment to serving the inner city.
Seven interns, as well as a chaperoning married couple, occupied a restored home in a low-income Kansas City neighborhood, and from that base ran a day camp, helped tend a community garden and joined in worship and Bible study at a Hispanic United Methodist church nearby. The QuadW Foundation provided stipends for those interns as well.
And now, through an arrangement with the Alabama-West Florida Conference and Mobile District, QuadW is paying the salary portion of Woolley’s compensation package, so he can devote fulltime to running the internship program and to helping engage Mobile-area United Methodist churches in local mission work.
“I’m very grateful to QuadW, the bishop (Paul Leeland) and the conference,” Woolley said. “It allows me to say `yes’ to the things I feel God is calling me to do, and still be an active part of The United Methodist Church.”
Woolley hopes to expand the internship program to two or three more cities by as early as next summer, and envisions a network of such sites.
QuadW, with assets of about $11 million, funds sarcoma research, college and arts scholarships and “WillieBuild” low-income housing projects, in connection with Habitat for Humanity.
The foundation also has committed $800,000 over the next five years to helping Woolley build the network of missional internships.
“We have a lot of confidence in Don’s abilities,” Lisa Tichenor said. “He’s always more than carried out what he’s said he’s going to do.”
Woolley originally called the program 3.0 Missional Leadership Training Program, but has renamed it the QuadW Missional Internship.
He did so in recognition of the foundation’s support and as a kindred spirit of Willie Tichenor.
“From the stories I’ve heard,” Woolley said, “he was this filled-with-joy person who lived life passionately and loved serving others.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].