Backpacks and Blue bell and haircuts, oh my!
By Ronnie Crocker
The Rev. Joel McKinnon remembers calling the staff at Angleton First United Methodist Church together one morning four Julys ago and telling them to get ready for a big new back-to-school festival that would include giveaways of backpacks, haircuts and dental care for kids in the fast-growing community.
With the academic year looming, they’d have to get ready quickly. And McKinnon, who’d arrived just a year earlier, with the church $750,000 in debt, was still trying to get its finances in order. The group had done a backpack giveaway the year before, but nothing of the scale he was now talking about.
No surprise, McKinnon says, that he got “deer in the headlights” looks and questions about how in the world they could pull off something like he was now talking about.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But God does.”
Things moved quickly from there, McKinnon said in a recent interview. UTMB Health Services pledged to help, as did Kroger. On event day, six local hair stylists barbered kids for three hours, and the county judge and Angleton ISD principals made appearances. There were firetrucks and police cars for kids to crawl around in and, of course, free Blue Bell ice cream for all.
“It was a blur,” McKinnon said. “It was like getting a drink from a fire hydrant.”
Talking about it with him now can feel the same way. He rattled off a string of facts and stats about all the ways the event has grown since – how they’ve added eye examinations, for example, and how Paul Mitchell donated the services of 26 stylists this year to handle the long lines. Despite the rain, Angleton First United Methodist drew more people than expected and gave away more than 500 backpacks.
“It’s absolutely mind-blowing,” McKinnon said, with characteristic understatement.
“I get really excited when I talk about what God is doing and I talk really fast,” he added, by way of explanation.
McKinnon said the back-to-school festival was divinely inspired. He woke up in the middle of the night, he said, feeling restless. He rose and went to the “prayer rail” in his bedroom. For maybe four hours, he prayed and pondered what he felt God was telling him to do. He took the idea to his wife and then to his staff the next day.
The back-to-school festival has proved such an annual success that he expects in about three years he’ll need to find a bigger venue, possibly the Brazoria County Fairgrounds.
The preacher is quick to give credit to others.
“I’m very proud of this church. They have hearts of gold,” McKinnon said, noting that, in addition to the hours they’ve volunteered, they’ve managed to increase membership and pull the congregation into the black financially. Attendance fell as COVID upended lives, but it is rebounding. The amount of giving even increased during the pandemic.
“We are committed to faithful obedience,” McKinnon said.
McKinnon, 56, has been volunteering and serving in other capacities with churches for more than half his life. He left his job in the corporate world in 2010, he said, to focus full-time on ministry.
He hopes to remain in Angleton, which, he’s quick to let you know, has 19,000 residents but 7,100 new houses under construction. The population could double in size over the next seven years.
“I am blessed to be here,” he said.
Education is a major focus for the preacher, who hails from a family of public school teachers in Oklahoma and knows first-hand how hard they work. He said his mom never sat down for dinner without having to get up to answer a call from a parent.
No surprise, then, that the first phone call McKinnon made upon taking the helm in Angleton was to the superintendent of the school system. He told him to expect to hear from him often.
Since then, church members have started a shoe giveaway at Central Elementary, donating 250 pair annually. They set up a garden and a Wonder Lab for students interested in engineering. A former church member endowed a mentoring group with a $100,000 gift.
When COVID restrictions revealed that nearly 1 in 5 students had no internet at home, McKinnon set up public Wi-Fi access for a one-block radius around the church, then encouraged other churches to do the same. All had the same easy-to-remember password, “GoWildcats,” for the high school mascot.
McKinnon said the church has also mobilized for other community needs and is eager to do so going forward.
“If we can’t do it, we can certainly pray for it,” he said.
One beneficiary is Vanessa Anderson, who just a few months ago brought her ailing father and his 10-year-old daughter to live with her and her kids in their mobile home. Dad suffers from diabetes and is recovering from a stroke. With his mobility limited, getting him up and down the stairs safely presented a challenge for the entire family. For example, when Vanessa’s mom came over to help once, she fell trying to get him out of the house and broke two of her own vertebrae.
Anderson investigated getting a ramp but couldn’t afford it. She emailed local charitable groups, including Angleton First United Methodist.
“Pastor Joel reached out to me the next day,” Anderson said. “Things just took off.”
While waiting for clearance from their insurance company, McKinnon and other church members began lining up materials. As soon as they got approval, they showed up one steamy day and built the ramp and a deck that is much nicer than Anderson expected. She said she was more than impressed with the volunteers and their work. They brought lunch, they “treated us like royalty,” Anderson said. She plans to repay the $1,800 tab.
“I am absolutely honored to tell you how they blessed us,” she said. “All of them are so amazing. They really do serve God through service.”
Although she had not been part of a Methodist community before, Anderson said she now feels a strong connection. Once her dad gets out of the hospital, she said, she may start attending McKinnon’s church. She took her daughter to the back-to-school festival along with her half-sister, who got an eye exam. The girls both got backpacks and played in the bouncy house.
“It was a huge blessing,” Anderson said.
“They have lifted such a heavy burden from us,” she said. “They’re truly serving God in what they’re doing. I know our heavenly father would be proud.”