On March 19 the Rev. Tony Lowden was driving when his phone rang with a number he didn’t recognize, so he let it go to voicemail.
After he pulled over and checked the message, Lowden realized one of the most famous men in the world was trying to reach him. The call was from former President Jimmy Carter.
Carter was calling to ask if Lowden would be interested in coming to preach at his church in Plains.
Lowden, who lives in Warner Robins, had been there before to deliver a sermon as a guest pastor and Carter asked if he would come back to be the interim pastor.
“It was the greatest conversation I’ve ever had with a leader,” Lowden said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think God would throw me a curve ball like this.”
Lowden accepted the interim position, then two weeks ago was installed as the permanent pastor of the church, Maranatha Baptist. He has been astounded to see the international interest in Carter’s Sunday school class.
People from around the world start showing up in the parking lot at 1:30 a.m. on Sundays to take a number to get in to the sanctuary to hear Carter speak.
The church seats over 500 people and when it fills up the overflow crowd can watch on monitors outside the sanctuary. Lowden said Carter always comes out to greet those who didn’t get in.
When Carter learned that Lowden’s wife, Pilar, operates Hayiya Dance Theatre in Macon, he asked that they come and perform at the church. On Sunday, to celebrate Carter’s return from hip surgery, the troupe performed for him.
Pilar Lowden said she wasn’t sure if the younger dancers would understand the importance of the performance, but they did. They understood it even more on Monday, she said, when they saw themselves in news stories from around the world about the event.
“It really set in how big it was,” she said. “It wasn’t just a dance. It was for someone who really made a difference in our country.”
Carter, 94, is the longest living president in U.S. history. He broke his hip earlier this year when he was on his way to go turkey hunting. He also beat liver and brain cancer at 90.
“The man has the greatest drive I’ve ever seen in one human being in my entire life,” the Rev. Lowden said. “His drive to serve and enjoy life and be a witness for Christ, I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s an incredible servant leader.”
He also said when Carter teaches his Sunday school class, he knows his stuff.
“He studies like there’s no tomorrow,” Lowden said. “When you talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ with him, you better be right.”
Lowden has preached since he was 13 and has mostly been a youth minister. He had previously served as director of the Stone Academy, an after-school program in Macon. He said he and his wife plan to continue to live in Warner Robins for now and he will commute to Plains.