By: April Canik
Houston’s inner city in the early 1960s was a harsh contrast to her family–friendly farming community of Centralhatchee, Georgia, but Mildred McWhorter saw it as the ideal place to establish the missionary outposts now known as Mission Centers of Houston. She thought her theological training, pastoral care, and social work were preparing her for foreign missions, but God had other plans just a few states away.
Mildred McWhorter started her Houston ministry with very little besides a very deep love for the inner-city residents she met—even when that involved switchblades, aggression, and name-calling. Encountering vandalism, slashed tires, fights, broken windows, and hungry children were just part of her daily reality, but she remained obedient to God’s voice.
With the aid of a football and some cookies, she befriended young male gang members and told them about a carpenter in the Bible that persuaded fishermen to stop what they were doing and follow him. In that moment, the Boys’ Club ministry was born. Soon 45 “regulars” were hearing about the Bible and focusing their intensity on healthy, competitive sports.
During those initial months, Mildred was the hands and blistered feet of Jesus as she walked the neighborhood, seeking to begin life-changing relationships and help where she could. The success of these “house calls’ yielded new Christians that eagerly wanted to join her in sharing the good news.
In no time, she started literacy classes for all ages and learned to multiply herself by involving others to help meet the many needs she encountered. She was known to believe, “Missions takes place wherever there is a need, and people’s greatest need is to know Jesus Christ in a personal way.”
By 1967 she was providing a wider array of ministry opportunities out of the Fletcher Mission Center, including women’s club, teen club, children’s club, and tutoring. Thankfully, her new believers class provided leaders for these ministries. Dozens of the eager converts even served as the willing cast for a Christmas production to share the Christmas story with hundreds who likely heard it for the first time.
During these entrepreneurial formative years, her mentored leaders helped start a nursery/preschool area that provided childcare for women attending Bible studies at Fletcher Mission Center.
This small army of volunteers urged Mildred to consider doing ministry in other parts of the community. In 1965, Mildred surveyed other locations for a Vacation Bible School and found a rat-infested store building on Avenue F in south Houston and covered many of the expenses herself to get it ready for use. Happy faces in this rented building inspired the naming of Joy Mission Center, which was deeded to the Union Baptist Association in 1967.
Mildred’s obedience yielded many blessings, including a gift of 50,000 lbs. of potatoes from an area farmer. She rarely went to the grocery store, as her reputation brought many business people to supply food, clothing, and other needs to the mission centers – which still rings true today.
She once said, “When I accepted God’s challenge to work in the Houston ghetto, I asked Him to make it exciting and I got what I came for!” She challenged local Baptists to help make her “impossible” dreams a reality.
And, she recruited 50+ college missionaries each summer to help her and affectionately called them her “critters.” They affectionately called her Miss Mac, a name that the community adopted as well.
Her ministry goal was simple: remove the barriers that separate people from God. She taught the critters and volunteers to love deeply and witness boldly, and they did so in all three centers to an estimated 5000 people a month in the early days.
People like Carl fueled her high energy. He came to the mission center for free bread for his family and Miss Mac introduced him to the Bread of Life. In no time, he became the pastor of a Spanish-speaking church in south Texas.
Guiding Principles: Then and Now
One important observation that Mildred made in the early days of Mission Center history still holds true today:
People may initially come for the material things the mission centers offer them, but they find love that breaks down barriers and often find Christ in the process.
Another one of Miss Mac’s guiding principles that has stood the test of time:
Working with youth is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, hopelessness, and illiteracy.
Kids clubs then and now provide affirmation, a respite from turmoil, and the gospel message. She recognized the benefit of having youth minister to other youth and set up a system for college students she nicknamed “Critters” to help with summer missions. This program continues today.
Another of Mildred’s mission center philosophies is being practiced to an even greater degree today:
“Community serving community.” As regular attendees of all ages become Christians, they begin to take ownership by taking care of the center itself and their neighbors in the process.
You can read about a few of them that have become employees in the process here.
Mildred seldom looked back on her initial disappointment of not serving as a foreign missionary. By the time she retired in 1992, she (and the many that were impacted by her life) recognized that her stumbling into inner-city home missions work wasn’t an accident after all.