In 1826, Thomas Gardner, a carpenter and a part-time preacher, organized a small Methodist Society with just over a dozen members in Macon.
In doing so, he — and they — created what has become Mulberry Street United Methodist Church.
According to church records, an exceptional Christmas gift was given to the group late that same year. On Dec. 26, 1826, then-Gov. G.M. Troup and the state legislature instructed county commissioners to set aside a parcel of land suitable for a church building for the Methodists.
Commissioners complied by designating two undeveloped lots on the corner of First and Mulberry streets. At the time, the property lay just outside the city limits of what just three years before had officially come to be known as Macon.
We want people to connect to God. In such an uncertain world, we all long for something solid and stable. I think year after year, decade after decade, the congregations at Mulberry have shown it represents something that’s going to be here no matter what. God and the faithfulness of his people show that.
Methodist circuit riders occasionally preached at the Methodist Episcopal Church, as did Gardner. In addition to building up the church from God’s word, by the end of 1828 Gardner and friends had built a church building with wood and nails. It was a 40-by-60-foot meeting hall with a belfry, and was the first of four sanctuaries to be used by the congregation during its 190 years.
Records and a church history maintained by Carolyn Kennedy Dominy show the current sanctuary was completed in 1928 but that the structure has undergone numerous upgrades, including a complete renovation after a 1965 fire and then again in 2004 when a $7.2 million modernization project was finished.
Church leaders said the various generations of Methodists each dedicated themselves to helping neighbors and bringing the Gospel to their community — a community that grew from the Ocmulgee River’s banks, past its bustling downtown and out to straining city limits now shared with Bibb County.
And that — according to the congregation’s current pastor Jimmy Towson and his wife, Debbie — is as true today as ever.
“I believe God placed the church, Macon’s first, on this corner for a purpose,” Jimmy Towson said. “Originally it was to reach people in a small, then a growing downtown, then people moved out of downtown. We reached out to people where they were but for a long time that wasn’t downtown anymore, it was largely abandoned. But now, with new development and a new population moving back to downtown, we’re here to continue connecting people with God. One reason we started our NewRoom service just across the street in the Library Ballroom is we wanted to continue that commission and wanted people who may be hesitant to go to a more traditional church building to feel at ease.”
Jimmy Towson said he enjoys the fact the name and terminology of the NewRoom service nods to past and present. Of course, downtown development efforts are termed New Town, but Methodism’s first official chapel located in Bristol, England, was called New Rooms.
The Towsons’ commitment to Mulberry Street UMC and downtown is made more evident by their choice to be part of that new downtown population.
“We live in a loft downtown,” Debbie Towson said. “As we wait for the elevator in our building, walk our dogs, walk and run downtown, as we visit restaurants and other spots where we get to meet and connect with a lot of people — a lot of different types of people. We love it. It’s safe and we’ve learned all you have to do when you’re out and about is to be friendly, just speak, and a whole new world opens. Everybody wants to feel valued. Someone told me the other day that they thought it was a blessing just seeing us out walking our dogs.”
Originally from Dublin, the Towsons are not new to Macon. Both went to the University of Georgia in Athens, then the couple came to Macon when Jimmy Towson attended law school at Mercer University. After graduation, Jimmy Towson practiced law in Macon for 20 years — first as a partner with Jones, Cork & Miller, then his own firm, Miller & Towson. In 2001, he began seminary and entered full-time ministry.
As far as his call to ministry, he said, being a lawyer, he asked God for proof before taking the big step.
“I did insurance defense work and I loved it, loved it, loved it,” Jimmy Towson said. “Debbie was at First National Bank, now SunTrust. We were attending Vineville Methodist at the time and spending more and more time in leadership and lay ministry. I started feeling God wanted me in full-time ministry. We talked more and more with others about it but I told God I wanted evidence — good evidence. Debbie and I did a devotion each morning. The day after I prayed for evidence, our reading in The Upper Room devotional was titled something like ‘How May God Be Calling You into Ministry?’ It was a pretty big confirmation. I entered Emory’s Candler School of Theology for my master of divinity degree, which I got in 2001. And yes, I’d do it again.”
While in school and through intervening years, Jimmy Towson served at Vineville UMC as college minister, at Mulberry as associate pastor and youth minister, and as pastor at Metter UMC in Metter. After returning to Macon, he served as senior pastor at Forest Hills UMC, then executive pastor at Harvest Church in Warner Robins, and in 2015 he came to Mulberry Street as senior pastor.
Having worked with Macon Outreach in previous stays in Macon, Debbie Towson is now director of the ministry Mulberry Street started 48 years ago. She said other churches, organizations, businesses and individuals are partners and volunteers alongside them.
Macon Outreach serves a hot lunch at 11 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and breakfast at 7 a.m. Tuesday. There’s also a grocery pantry that gives out groceries on Tuesday and Wednesday and a free clothing ministry that operates Tuesday as well.
She said Macon Outreach is the largest weekday meals program south of Atlanta.
“In fact, it was someone who came for a meal who told me it was such a blessing seeing us walk our dogs day-by-day,” Debbie Towson said. “Like I tell people, you get more hugs, ‘thank yous’ and smiles from people who are out on the streets than almost anyone else you’ll ever meet. The outreach is just part of how we serve others in Christ’s love. It’s comes out of seeking opportunities to serve others locally just as we as a church seek ways to serve others beyond our community and through world missions.”
Debbie Towson said there’s a community garden ministry connected to the church that, among other things, helps provide fresh vegetables and other produce to Macon Outreach meals.
Jimmy Towson said in terms of missions, examples include the sixth team Mulberry will send to Guatemala in several weeks and their G2G (Generation to Generation) outreach that pairs old and young to perform service projects near and far.
He said another hallmark ministry is the Children’s Center at Mulberry. He said it offers a year-round, faith-based learning environment for children ages 6 weeks to 4 years old.
Believing the congregation was put where it is for a purpose, Jimmy Towson contends that Macon and Mulberry Street’s histories and futures are intertwined. That’s part of the reason a recent sermon series drew from Macon’s popular music heritage to point to biblical truths. He used songs like Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.”
“I had Jessica Walden, who does Rock Candy Tours and is the daughter of Alan Walden and Phil Walden’s niece, as my fact checker — she’s a member here,” Jimmy Towson said. “The Otis Redding song is about his relationship with Zelma, his wife. It’s like, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and it’s the only time they could shut out the world and sit down and talk — be together. We all need that kind of time and we need it with God, too. Time for relationship building.
“ ‘Midnight Rider’ has that ‘one more silver dollar’ line in it. As long as we have that, we think we can keep running, but we don’t find satisfaction. It’s a very prodigal-like song. Like I said, we want people to connect to God. In such an uncertain world, we all long for something solid and stable. I think year after year, decade after decade, the congregations at Mulberry have shown it represents something that’s going to be here no matter what. God and the faithfulness of his people show that.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mulberry Street United Methodist Church
Address: 719 Mulberry St., Macon
Leadership: Jimmy Towson, senior pastor
Worship: Sunday First Street Chapel service at 9 a.m., Sunday School at 9:45 a.m., NewRoom contemporary worship at 10 a.m. in the Library Ballroom on Mulberry Street, and traditional sanctuary worship at 11 a.m.; Wednesday meal and programs at 5:30 p.m.