Maranatha Baptist Church, a predominantly white church in Plains, Georgia, where former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are longtime members, recently hired The Rev. Tony Lowden as the first black American to lead their 42-year-old congregation.
The appointment was first highlighted Sunday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“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.”
The appointment is significant because Maranatha Baptist was started in 1977 by members of Plains Baptist Church who broke away from the congregation after that church voted against allowing blacks to become members.
Carter, whose presidency began in January 1977, continued to attend Sunday school at Plains Baptist after the vote and worshiped at the new church. Once he was out of office, however, he became a member at Maranatha.
In his bio on the church’s website, Lowden is described as “a well-rounded, godly man” who grew up in a single-parent home in North Philadelphia.
“He believes that in order for young people to become productive citizens in their communities, they must have a firm biblical foundation and a good education,” the bio says.
The preacher who studied economics and government at the University of Southern California while on an athletic scholarship and later earned his M.Div. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said he had always been involved in ministry but never started doing it full time until he moved to Georgia and began “trying to save young people,” according to the AJC.
Doug Unger, who was representing Maranatha at the time, reached out to Lowden to be a guest preacher at the approximately 150-member church in late March after the church’s pastor had resigned. Unger, who’s also the state chairman of Kairos Prison Ministry of Georgia had previously listened to Lowden speak on prison reform and re-entry and was impressed.
“I just thought he would bring all kind of different energy,” Unger told AJC. “I really thought Tony would be somebody that we all would like to hear, because he would bring a fresh perspective to Maranatha.”
After Lowden preached at the church on March 24, Unger was later quizzed about his views on issues like gays and women in the church.
“I told them that everyone is welcome in the church,” Lowden said.
The next day he received a voicemail from Carter offering him the job.
“He’s an excellent preacher and leader, and I was delighted to be the one to call him and tell him we wanted him to be our pastor,” Carter told AJC. “He’s a student of Scripture who helps us understand how the teachings of the Bible apply to our lives and society today.”
Lowden who was driving at the time he got the offer called it “the biggest blessing in my life.
“I had to pull over on the side of the road,” he said. “This was a curveball, the biggest blessing in my life.”
Lowden is now tasked with expanding the church’s reach.
He is aware that many people just come to church to hear Sunday School lessons from the 94-year-old Carter but he is urging visitors to focus more on the Bible’s message that the messenger.
“That is not what he is looking for. That is not what he is teaching about. That is not him,” Lowden said of Carter.
He believes attending church is about building a strong community and acknowledging the responsibility we have to each other in love.
“To know the man,” he said, “you gotta know his spirit. You can’t have Jesus in your heart without love.”