Why Jimmy Carter’s pastor won’t say ‘goodbye’ to the former president

The Rev. Tony Lowden became the pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains in 2019, and he has formed a close relationship with former President Jimmy Carter in that time. “We are preparing ourselves for what’s coming,” Lowden said, referring to Carter's decision to begin home hospice care. “We should be celebrating the life of Jimmy Carter in ways he’s never been celebrated before. He’s given us so much.” PHOTO BY BITA HONARVAR/AJC

The Rev. Tony Lowden became the pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains in 2019, and he has formed a close relationship with former President Jimmy Carter in that time. “We are preparing ourselves for what’s coming,” Lowden said, referring to Carter's decision to begin home hospice care. “We should be celebrating the life of Jimmy Carter in ways he’s never been celebrated before. He’s given us so much.” PHOTO BY BITA HONARVAR/AJC

PLAINS — When Jimmy Carter and his pastor, Tony Lowden, part ways after prayer sessions or private conversations, they have a hard-and-fast rule never to say goodbye.

Instead, Lowden tells the former president three things: I love you, I’ll see you again — and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Lowden paused a moment as he recounted that tradition. He knows his next meeting with Carter may be his last, as the former president has decided to spend his final days at his home in Plains under hospice care.

“We are preparing ourselves for what’s coming,” Lowden said. “We should be celebrating the life of Jimmy Carter in ways he’s never been celebrated before. He’s given us so much.”

In Carter’s vast constellation of confidantes, many who have known him for decades, Lowden stands out as a newer member of his inner orbit.

The Rev. Tony Lowden holds his daughter, Tabitha, as he stands in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains as he and former President Jimmy Carter, seated, wait to greet visitors following a worship service in June 2019. Lowden, who came to the church earlier that year has formed a tight bond with Carter. “People who try to define him by politics miss the boat completely,” Lowden said. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet with presidents and governors and religious leaders across the nation. But I’ve never met anyone like Jimmy Carter.” Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

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The Philadelphia native pastored in Macon and Warner Robins before he was asked to apply in March 2019 for an open pulpit position at Maranatha Baptist Church, the congregation where Carter famously led Sunday school lessons for decades.

With Carter sitting in the front row, Lowden delivered a sermon encouraging tolerance and a welcoming spirit toward women and the LGBTQ community.

Carter was impressed, leaving a 31-second voicemail on Lowden’s phone offering him the job. He later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Lowden has helped his flock “understand how the teachings of the Bible apply to our lives today.”

‘Get our hearts ready’

The hiring made Lowden the first Black pastor in the history of Maranatha, which was founded in 1977 after a split with a nearby Baptist church that had voted against allowing Black residents to join. Carter joined in 1981, shortly after returning to Plains following his defeat to Ronald Reagan.

Carter gave Lowden three pieces of advice on navigating his new role: make regular pilgrimages to both Black and white churches, visit hospitals and be a presence in the community.

As Lowden grew into the job, his relationship with Carter blossomed. He learned more about the former president’s upbringing and faith, and he spent hours with him studying the Bible and discussing issues such as criminal justice and mental health.

“People who try to define him by politics miss the boat completely,” said Lowden, who has since parted ways with the congregation but is still Carter’s personal minister. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet with presidents and governors and religious leaders across the nation. But I’ve never met anyone like Jimmy Carter.”

The Rev. Tony Lowden greets visitors and members in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains following a worship service in June 2019. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

In February 2020, then-President Donald Trump tapped Lowden to helm an agency that helps newly released inmates transition back into society. Lowden saw it as an opportunity to address a growing crisis of mass incarceration in the nation’s justice system.

A few months later, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers led to a sweeping movement for racial justice. As Lowden tried to reckon with the murder, the first person he talked to was Carter.

“He gave me better advice than anyone could have,” Lowden said. “He told me not to hold back with my advice, even if it’s tough. Tell the truth. You’re not trying to win an election — you’re trying to save America.”

As Carter’s health declines, Lowden is mindful that his town and congregation will be flooded with even more attention. He wants the focus to be positive, for Americans to “get our hearts ready to celebrate” Carter’s life and legacy.

The other day, he sat and prayed with the former president. When he got up to leave, he didn’t say goodbye.

He told him he loved him. That he’ll see him again. And that there’s nothing he can do about it.

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