Mildred McWhorter, Houston’s ‘Mother Teresa,’ founder of city missions dies at 87
She was born in Georgia, retired to Georgia and never lost her Deep South drawl.
But Mildred McWhorter, who died this week at at 87, made an enduring impact in Houston. For more than three decades she fed, clothed and ministered to thousands of Houstonians through the Christian mission she built from the ground up.
McWhorter, known as “Miss Mac” to the families she served, established what would become Mission Centers of Houston.
She arrived in Houston in the early 1960s, green and not certain she’d even like the city. But by the time she retired in 1992, Chronicle religion writer Richard Vara called McWhorter “Houston’s answer to Mother Teresa.”
By then, McWhorter’s mission centers were providing food and clothing to 900 families every week — plus English classes, Bible studies, recreation programs, citizenship training and more.
“I never dreamed God would send me as a missionary anywhere, much less to the Spanish-speaking people in Houston, Texas, for 35 years,” she told a Georgia church congregation in 2007.
In fact, McWhorter started out in Georgia as a home economics teacher. Her work with a religious club nurtured an interest in mission work, however, and soon she left for Kentucky to enroll in the Carver School of Social Work. McWhorter applied to be a foreign missionary, but she was rejected and went back to teaching until a friend with the Home Missions Board urged her to do mission work in the United States.
McWhorter came to Texas in 1958, starting her mission work in Port Arthur. Five years later, the Home Missions Board — now the North American Mission Board — asked her to lead an inner-city social ministry in Houston.
McWhorter said she wasn’t interested in coming to Houston. She didn’t like big cities. But she changed her mind and came to Houston in 1963.
McWhorter started working with the largely Hispanic population on Houston’s north and east sides, helping keep people clothed and fed.
Over the years and under her leadership, those small help centers became the Mission Centers of Houston, a multiple-location social ministry that serves kids, youth and adults.
“She knew in order to get people to know about Christ, she had to meet their physical needs first,” said Terry Lane, McWhorter’s adopted son. He grew up going to the mission, then helping out there as he got older.
With the help of countless volunteers, McWhorter would find a way to use every donation she could get, Lane said. An 18-wheeler full of potatoes? Yes, please. A truckload of silk flowers? Sure. A gaggle of live turkeys? Absolutely — even though volunteers had to slaughter them.
“She’d try and save everything so it wouldn’t go to waste,” her son said.
“Miss Mac” had a backbone and knew how to give instructions, Lane said.
“She had a really bossy attitude —her whole demeanor was ‘chop chop’ and ‘get it done,’” he said. “But there was nothing she would ask you to do that she wouldn’t do herself.”
McWhorter ministered to drug dealers, gang members and prostitutes. It was hard work in rough neighborhoods. At her retirement in 1992, she estimated she’d had her tires slashed around 200 times.
“There were people really rough to her — abusive, pushing her,” Lane said, but McWhorter was “fearless.” Some neighborhoods made other volunteers feel uneasy, he said, but “Miss Mac” would drive right in and get her work done.
“She wasn’t afraid of a soul,” said Ginger Harris, who was Mission Centers of Houston director from 2002 to 2015.
Harris first met McWhorter in 1989, when she was 17 and spent a summer in Houston as one of 60 summer missionaries, young volunteers who came from all over the country. After she’d been accepted to the program, Harris’s parents decided it was too dangerous to send their daughter to inner-city Houston.
That, Harris said, is when McWhorter drove to Louisiana to pay them a visit.
“She leaned over the table and got eye-to-eye with my dad,” Harris recalled. “I was like — oh, my gosh, this woman is awesome. She said, ‘Mr. Smith, do you believe that God watches over your daughter?’ He said yes. She said, ‘Do you believe that God will protect your daughter?’ He said yes. And then she said, ’OK, then. Well, that same God you’re talking about lives in Houston, Texas.”
Harris laughs when she thinks about it now. “My dad didn’t have a thing to say.”
Harris got to spend the summer in Houston. And as one of McWhorter’s “Critters” — a nickname the woman gave her summer missionaries — she saw the respect “Miss Mac” had in the neighborhoods she served.
“You couldn’t con her; she was smart as a whip,” Harris said. “She knew everybody in the neighborhood they all knew her.”
A lasting legacy
More than 25 years after McWhorter retired, visitors still drop by to reminisce, said Jeff Chadwick, the Mission Centers of Houston’s current executive director.
“They stop by and they’re looking around, and I say, ‘Can I help you?’” Chadwick said. “They’ll say, ‘I’m just coming here because this place is special.’ And they start talking about ‘Miss Mac.’”
McWhorter never married. “I have chosen to be single,” she said at her retirement, “because I don’t think I could have done what I have done and been responsible for a husband and children.”
She did, however, help raise three boys after the death of their mother 40 years ago — including Lane.
Lane had been going to McWhorter’s original mission on Fletcher Street since he was a toddler. The day his mother died — Lane was 11 — McWhorter was with him at Ben Taub Hospital.
“She walked me downstairs and said, ‘Son I’m not going to try to replace your mom, but I’m going to be the best mom I can to you,’” Lane recalled Thursday. “She has never failed.”
Lane didn’t want to fail her either, he said. Fourteen years ago, he left Houston and moved to Centralhatchee, Ga., to help care for McWhorter. He met his wife there, and when they had a son in February, they named him Fletcher after the Fletcher mission.
She treated people as her equals and tried to love everyone unconditionally, Lane said. “It was always about getting them fed, getting them clothing and letting them know the love of Christ is why she’s doing it.”
Services are scheduled Friday in Georgia. Donations in McWhorter’s honor may be sent to the Mission Centers of Houston at missioncenters.org/donate.