By Mary Ann Ellis
If Carl Rowell had waited until November to resign as pastor of Surrency Community Bible Church, he would have been there for forty-nine years. However, he resigned the last Sunday night in July. He was born in Hortense, in Brantley County, but roamed around as he was growing up as the son of a sharecropper. The family lived mostly in Pierce and Ware County, and it seemed to young Carlton that they moved constantly. Now, Surrency is home and has been for quite some time.
As a child he attended Mary Street School. He cannot remember when he was not a church attendee, but he officially gave his heart to Jesus when he was 10 years old.
“Even then, I felt the call to preach,” Carlton said, “but of course I was too young. I drifted here and there. I’ve worked all my life. At 13, I was opening and closing a grocery store in Waycross. At 17, I went to work at Rubin Shoe Company in Waycross. At 16, I preached my first sermon. That milestone event took place at Emerson Park Baptist Church in Waycross.”
Carlton went next to Homestead Evangelistic Church in Pierce County and filled in there because it had no pastor, and then on to Axson to fill in there. The church in Axson called the Surrency Church and arranged to coordinate with it so he could preach on alternate Sundays at each church. He was living in Surrency at the time, so his trips to Axson were lengthy - 120 miles round trip. In 1964, he was officially ordained. He finally tired of traveling and asked the Axson members if they’d like to go full time. They said no, but Surrency said yes. He pastored there for three years, then went to Odum and pastored the two Wesleyan churches there - Bethlehem Wesleyan and Liberty Wesleyan. They were part-time, too, so he served them both for two years before going back to Homestead. In June of 1975, he returned to Surrency and has been there since then.
“Either I got my toes dug in the mud here,” he laughed, “or I got to liking that Altamaha River and the fishing. I sure have learned a lot during my time here about different phases of people’s faith and what they believed and didn’t believe.”
He has enjoyed living the pastor’s life but having visiting evangelists coming in for revivals was always special for him. Another highlight was seeing young people who grew up in the church leave and then come back with their families.
The old adage says that behind every good man is a good woman, and the woman behind Carlton is Cathy Rowell. She is a retired teacher, having taught first grade under Roy Simmons in Hazlehurst for six years and then finishing the rest of her career in kindergarten at Fourth District Elementary School in Appling County.
“I remember that Robert Bryant met me on a dark stormy night at the old Taste Freez to do my interview,” Cathy said. “You know, things have changed in the past years--family values, health care, the desire or need to go to church. People don’t feel the need to go to church anymore and by not going, they have no respect for themselves or anyone else. When I was growing up, if I were sitting in a chair when an adult walked in, I got up and gave him my chair. I was born in Americus, but raised on a farm in Arabi, a tiny place no one has ever heard of.”
When Cathy was working on her master’s degree, she and Carl would drive to her family home in Arabi after he preached on Sunday night. They’d spend the night, eat breakfast the next morning, and he’d drive them to Americus to Georgia Southwestern College. While she was in class, he’d go to the library and pull whatever books she needed. She’d come between classes, make copies, and give him a new list to work on during her next class. Their lives revolved around his preaching and her education. Both had to fit in.
“Carl and I earned that degree together,” Cathy said. “I missed my graduation because we were in Athens, Greece. Jean and Lindsay Flowers took us to Israel in 1979. Now that was a highlight of our lives.”
Somehow the airline managed to lose their tickets and their luggage in Athens, and they had to wait for the next available plane with enough room for them. When they finally got to Jerusalem, they were exhausted and there were people everywhere. Saturday morning, Cathy woke up in the King David Hotel to complete silence. She ran to the window and saw no one. The streets were empty.
“I panicked,” she said. “I ran and told Carlton that the rapture had happened, and we’d been left behind. It’s funny now. Back then, I was terrified.”
Both Cathy and Carlton agreed that it was hard to take in all the places they had studied about once they were there in the Holy Land. It was like a dream, standing there looking at places from the bible. Cathy said you expected to see Jesus and the disciples walk down the street at any minute. They saw the garden tomb and were baptized in the Jordan River.
Twenty people from Appling County traveled together. Smoky, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, organized the trip. They all stayed together and were supposed to meet another group from Florida, but the other group never showed up. The trip lasted eight days. Dr. Kanavage was with them, and the Rowells were happy he was. When the group started in to see Lazarus’ tomb, a sign warned them to step down and duck. Apparently, Cathy didn’t duck low enough and hit her head hard on the door frame. She says she saw little canaries circling her head for a while there, but the good doctor took care of it. She and Carlton did miss the tomb though.
While Carlton was pastoring, he was also singing with a gospel group called The Southerners. They sang every weekend. The first group was made up of James Carter (tenor), Warren Olds (bass), L.Q. Sellers (pianist), Tony Haynes (baritone) and Carlton. The group changed over the years, but he sang in it until last October when his voice started going bad; he also had trouble standing up that long.
Carlton says he just retired; he hasn’t quit preaching. He’s open for whoever calls him first.
The Rowells have three sons: Tony (Selena), Andy, and Paul (Dana). They also have seven grandchildren and ten great grandchildren.