Pastor John Marlow, 82, leads Bradenton church that changed his life when he was 12

BRADENTON -- John Marlow, pastor of the Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle Church, has been serving the church that changed his entire life for almost 55 years.

Marlow, now 81, said he was from a broken home, growing up in unstable environments and serving time in jail when he was just 12 years old. Something took him to a small mission church on Manatee Avenue East that would eventually become Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle Church.

A minister there offered him kindness.

"My whole life changed in one night," Marlow said. "He was like a father to me."

Before then, Marlow was part of a juvenile gang in Bradenton. He spent nights in jail, was sent north, hitchhiked back to Bradenton and spent nights out on the street, sometimes sleeping in cars or under the Green Bridge. He was separated from his four siblings and had seen domestic violence and was abused in the homes he grew up in.

When he was 12, one night changed him permanently into a man who has now made faith a major part of his life for 70 years.

"An inward voice kept saying to me, go down Manatee Avenue East, because I had no place to sleep that night, and I stopped at the mission church," Marlow recalled. "I found a new home and a new beginning."

Marlow grew up in the church from that point on, and came back from the U.S. Army when he was 27 feeling inspired to pastor the church that meant so much to him. He became the second pastor of the small church and continues to lead it to this day, hitting 55 years in December, without letting age slow him down.

He travels often, speaking to groups and helping ministers in other churches to build up their communities. He has traveled throughout the United States and to Chile, South Africa, Guatemala and Costa Rica. He said he stresses addressing people's feelings, helping others build a strong sense of community within a church and eliminating bigotry, prejudice and problems that can eat away at that feeling.

"One day I'll surrender to time. But what keeps me going is I'm unorthodox at life," he said, chuckling. "I have an incessant desire in me to uplift the faith of others so they can get past their troubles and their hurts and their pain."

Marlow said his wife is his life partner and helps him through life. They have one daughter, two grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Marlow also embodies the same kindness as the minister who took him in all those years ago, according to Lonnie Rhodes, an associate minister at the church. Rhodes, now 61, was a runaway as well, and came to the church when he was 15.

"He provided not only a place to stay, but a place to find a new life," Rhodes said. "He encouraged me to finish my education, and then I went into the ministry myself."

Rhodes said Marlow leaves his fingerprints on everyone at the church, welcoming them in with kindness and making the church a welcoming, strong community. He said he thinks of him as a father.

Marlow also helped start the Tabernacle Christian School 40 years ago, which is a K-12 school with about 1,340 students. The church also takes in the homeless who can't afford low-rent facilities in the city and feeds the homeless from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday.

"I believe in helping the needy any way we can," Marlow said.

Rhodes said he shows that in his actions every day, taking in the most needy and helping them find God.

"There are critics in the world that say men don't hear from the Lord because they aren't on the right channels," Rhodes said. "But this is a man who hears from God."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby.