Looking out over his congregation last Sunday, Tony Lowden could see the past and future of Maranatha Baptist Church.
On the front row, punctuating lines of Lowden’s sermon with praises of “Amen,” sat 94-year-old Jimmy Carter, Maranatha’s most famous member and a stalwart in the church for more than 40 years.
In the choir stand was Brandon B. Thomas, a 23-year-old music major at Georgia Southwestern State University, one of perhaps half a dozen African Americans who are members of the church.
“I am here to do two things,” Lowden would say later, as he explained his relocation to the tiny community of Plains. “I want to a build the ministry and protect President Carter’s legacy as a servant leader.”
Building that ministry means not just growing the congregation, but reaching out and diversifying. And that’s exactly what Carter had in mind when he talked to Lowden about taking a job far removed from his city and cultural roots.
Lowden ministers to a man who is a former president, but also is one of the country’s most prominent evangelical Christians and humanitarians, a man who’s long pushed the importance of inclusiveness and equality as he’s tried to live out his ideals.
Not lost is the fact that Lowden is Maranatha’s first black pastor.
“God sent him at the right time to our church,” said longtime church member Mashuq Askerzada, a native of Afghanistan. “This pastor is trying to conquer those racial barriers. He is already proving to do a lot of good things. We have been praying for a leader like him.”
From Philadelphia to Plains
Tony Lowden, 52, knew that 2019 was going to be hectic.
His wife, Pilar, had just given birth, and they were deeply rooted in the Macon-Bibb County area, where they had started an enrichment program for at-risk children while he worked as a youth director at Fellowship Bible Baptist Church in Warner Robins.
Before, the Philadelphia native pastored Strong Tower Fellowship, growing the membership from 18 to 300 in six months, and served as youth pastor at Lundy Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Macon.
“I have always been in the ministry, but I never did it full time until I moved to Georgia. I was trying to save young people,” said Lowden, who is also on the State Charter School Commission and served as the director of the faith and justice initiative for the Governor’s Office of Transition Support and Reentry. “I never went seeking a congregation.”
But a congregation sought him.
Located about 160 miles south of Atlanta, the town of Plains boasts on its official website that it is “Home of the 39th President & Peanut Festival.”
It’s the kind of community where longtime mayor L.E. “Boze” Godwin III rides around looking for lawns to cut.
There are no gas stations or hotels or public schools, and just a few restaurants.
The town is a far cry from the Philadelphia neighborhood where Lowden grew up, surrounded by gangs, open-air drug markets and violence. He vividly remembers the day in 1985 when city police, attempting to execute arrest warrants, got into an armed standoff with members of the black liberation group MOVE and ended up dropping a bomb on the rowhouse they occupied. Eleven people, including five children, were killed, and more than 60 houses were destroyed in the resulting fire.
As Lowden was maneuvering the mean streets of Philly, Carter was maneuvering life after the White House. He was overseeing the opening of the Carter Center in Atlanta and working on proposals to get his home, railroad station campaign headquarters, old high school and other Plains sites into the national park system.
With only around 775 residents in Plains, Carter is obviously a big deal. His name and image are all over town. Everyone knows him, and he knows everybody.
His church, Maranatha Baptist, rose in 1977, after several members split from Plains Baptist Church.
The year before, Plains Baptist had voted against allowing blacks to join. The handful of families that left to form the Maranatha congregation had expressed an interest in welcoming members of all shades and tourists, who, with Carter’s ascension to the White House, were suddenly flocking to the rural community.
During his presidency, Carter would attend Sunday school at Plains Baptist and worship at the new church. In 1981, when he was out of office, he switched his membership to Maranatha.
Today, Maranatha has between 130-150 members, mostly white, on its rolls. About 30 to 40 people attend church on a typical Sunday.
In late March, Lowden got a call from Doug Unger, who was representing Maranatha. The church’s pastor had resigned, and Unger wanted to know if Lowden could preach as a guest on March 24.
“I just thought he would bring all kind of different energy,” said Unger, who’s also the state chairman of Kairos Prison Ministry of Georgia and had heard Lowden speak on prison reform and re-entry. “I really thought Tony would be somebody that we all would like to hear, because he would bring a fresh perspective to Maranatha.”
The minister’s wife, Pilar, had commitments at their home church and couldn’t come. But Lowden agreed and gave his sermon while Carter sat in his seat in the front row.
Later that day, Lowden got a call from church officials.
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SOURCE: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ernie Suggs