By Jack Smith
Mayo Sowell heard the call to ministry in the most unlikely place.
The Church of the Highlands associate pastor didn’t find freedom in the small groups that are the backbone of the church, the place where countless members have made peace with their past and developed deeper relationships with God.
He came to know Jesus in jail.
The remarkable story of the former Auburn University linebacker is one of redemption. It is a story about the power of hope and how a few ordinary men of extraordinary faith—in prison and the church—gave a brother in need a chance to turn his life around.
Sowell’s life began to spin out of control not long after he failed to make it in the NFL. He had a job opportunity with a renowned orthopedist after a knee injury sidelined him from football for good, but it wasn’t enough for Sowell. He felt empty inside and didn’t know why.
“All my best friends (from Auburn’s undefeated 2004 team) were high picks in the NFL draft,” Sowell said. “They had millions of dollars at the snap of a finger.”
When his NFL dreams were dashed, Sowell kept chasing a lifestyle he couldn’t afford but didn’t want to give up. That’s when he started selling drugs.
“I had no thought of doing right,” Sowell said. “I didn’t want to go to church. I was consumed with darkness.”
It would soon get even darker. Sowell was with a group of five men caught in a drug sting organized by federal agents in Arizona. All five were charged with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a loaded assault rifle. A judge sentenced Sowell to four years in federal prison.
Prison failed to reform Sowell during the first few years of his sentence. He was still “hustling” on the inside, pedaling contraband for influence while skirting the system with his street smarts and magnetic personality.
He even showed interest in Islam for a brief period at the invitation of another inmate.
Sowell admits his locker was stuffed with cigarettes and adult magazines the day his life, and his heart, changed.
An inmate he didn’t know approached him while the two were on work detail.
“I was just sweeping with another guy, minding my own business,” Sowell said. “He walked up to me and told me how enormous the call was on my life. I didn’t understand what that meant.”
The man put down his broom and asked Sowell if he could pray for him. Sowell looked around to make sure nobody was watching.
“I was out there by myself, and I was like, what’s the worst thing that could happen? So, he did. He prayed over me.”
Everything changed at that moment. Sowell went “cold turkey,” as he calls it.
Sowell doesn’t often share the details of his story. It is unlike the journey to Jesus many experience. He believes his change was instantaneous and overwhelming because his heart was so hungry. He had nothing to lose. No job. No possessions. No plan.
“It changed from that day forward,” Sowell said. “I know it doesn’t happen like that often. I was selling contraband all over the compound until that happened. I had hundreds of magazines and cigarettes. It’s still unbelievable.”
Sowell immediately cleaned out his locker. He began to live by the prison’s rules, not his own. He listened to God every moment he was awake.
“I went all in,” he said. “I went as hard as I could go.”
What’s even more unbelievable, Sowell says, is the chain of relationships that began that day. Sowell believes they were divine appointments, not chance meetings.
On his journey from prison to the ministry, Sowell crossed paths with the man who prayed over him while on work detail more than once. His name is Arthur Smotherman. The two are still close today.
“I talked to him this morning,” Sowell said with a big smile the day of this interview. “He saved my life.”
Smotherman gave him a Bible, and Sowell spent countless hours poring over scripture, “reading it like a book” before he knew how to study it. That was before another mentor who had an equally significant impact on his faith came into Sowell’s life.
Everyone in Maxwell federal prison in Montgomery knew Howard Chewning for his devout faith and rigid routines. Sowell came to know him as a mentor who opened his eyes his heart and his heart in a way he had never experienced.
“Howard was a model,” Sowell said. “He was just focused on his life. He would wake up, pray for two hours, go down and eat a small breakfast, go to work, go back and study for four hours. He did that every single day.”
When Art was released from prison, Chewning stepped in and mentored Sowell.
“He came downstairs where my bed was to see me,” Sowell said.
Sowell desperately wanted to be moved to the unit upstairs where Chewning was quietly serving out his sentence. He wanted to learn how to study the Bible and practice a more devout faith from the man everyone knew as a strong Christian with a singular focus.
Chewning told Sowell he needed to be near him, but there was no bed available at the time.
“Just be obedient and wait,” Chewning said.
Through another unlikely turn of events, a bed close to Howard came open only weeks later.
“He taught me how to study the Bible and a lot more,” Sowell said. “He was my mentor.”
In another remarkable twist, Sowell says Chewning should never have been in prison. He had stopped running with the wrong crowd and started going to church three years before he was caught up in an investigation of his old friends. They were arrested for selling drugs.
All he had to do to avoid prison was testify about what he had seen.
What happened next is the most unbelievable part of the story. It’s hard to believe until you see Sowell lean in, straighten his glasses and pause for a moment.
“God told him to go to prison,” Sowell said. “He told him not to say anything. So he went to prison.”
Chewning spent nearly two decades in prison, including his time toward the end of his sentence when he reached out to Sowell.
“All he had to do was testify that his friends were selling drugs,” Sowell said. “But he wouldn’t do it.”
Sowell believes Chewning was in prison for a purpose. That purpose would reveal itself in the months after Sowell’s release from prison.
After being released on parole, Sowell returned to his parents’ home in Birmingham with an electronic monitor locked around his ankle.
He longed to find a church, but he could only go five miles from home to worship.
Sowell’s parents lived within five miles of The Church of the Highlands’ Grants Mill Campus. His father had heard about numerous baptisms taking place there. He suggested his son give it a try.
Mayo, his father, and mother all began attending. It changed their lives.
Sitting in services wearing his ankle monitor, Sowell found acceptance, not judgment.
“In one of the services, somebody was sitting next to me, and they invited me to a small group,” Sowell said. “I told him I had an ankle monitor and can’t leave home.”
The man sitting next to him didn’t hesitate.
“We can fix that,” he said. “We can bring the small group to your home. So, we had it at my house.”
It wasn’t long before the Sowells were leading small groups. Mayo also found his place on “The Dream Team,” made up of thousands of church members who decided to serve after joining the church.
“Chains started falling off everybody,” Sowell said. “My mom, my dad. We all started serving in the church.”
Sowell was doing well in the church, joyfully serving. Church leaders noticed.
A turning point for Sowell happened when Pastor Chris Hodges, senior pastor of Church of the Highlands and chancellor of Highlands College, invited him to a round-table luncheon.
The college’s mission is to develop future church leaders to fulfill The Great Commission. It had been part of his vision stretching back to the early days when the church was planted in Birmingham.
“Pastor Chris” went around the table and asked each of his special guests to talk about their dreams. Sowell shared his calling.
He saw something in Sowell, and Sowell saw something in the man who would become his spiritual father.
“I saw that Pastor Chris had an uncompromising love for Jesus,” Sowell said. “That’s been the key to the success of the church.”
With the help of Johnny Montgomery, Sowell got a job at Southland Tube after prison. He was doing all the right things when another man came into his life through The Church of the Highlands. Dr. Robert Record took him to lunch and asked about his call to ministry.
Record and Pastor Layne Schranz, who played a critical role in the launch of the internship program that evolved into Highlands College, later told Sowell they were prepared to send him to the college—on scholarship.
Sowell had been searching for a way to get into the ministry, and an opportunity fell into his lap over lunch.
He felt confident in his knowledge of scripture, but he admits he had no idea how to be a pastor or be placed into the field—two of the college’s greatest strengths. Highlands College is unique in the world of biblical higher education with its focus on elite hands-on ministry training, leadership development and placement opportunities other bible colleges can’t match.
It was the ideal fit for Sowell.
“Highlands College gave me a chance to learn the practical side of ministry,” Sowell said. “How does a church work? How does a church move? It taught me how to do a service and understand the flow and intentionality in it.”
It also gave him a new perspective on the purpose of Sunday services.
“For example, I learned we aren’t trying to feed the average believer on Sunday,” Sowell said. “We are trying to get to the person who hasn’t been to church before or may not be a believer and get them to come back. We are trying to get to that person who doesn’t know Jesus to experience Jesus and come back. I would have missed all that if I had not gone to Highlands College.”
Sowell currently serves as an associate pastor at the Grants Mill campus of The Church of the Highlands, the place near his home where he turned the page and found his place serving others.
He serves as the Next Steps director, overseeing The Dream Team and the Growth Track, the four-step process church members experience to learn about the church, discover their gifts and find their place to serve.
“My role gives me an opportunity to help develop people and watch them flourish,” Sowell said. “That’s what I like about it. At Grants Mill, we have over 5,000 Dream Teamers, and I get to be involved with all of them, watching them develop and watching them take the next steps.”
As for his next step, Sowell has big dreams. But he spent too much of his life hustling and hurrying and wanting more. He won’t make the same mistake again.
“I love the place God has me. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here and for Pastor Chris developing me.”
Patience, he has learned, is not just a virtue.
“In the world, you can be patient and feel like you are wasting time,” he said. “In the kingdom, patience is preparation.”
No matter what the future holds, his life will be about freedom. The freedom God has given him, and the freedom he is leading others to experience.
“When the time comes,” Sowell said, “I’ll be ready.”