"The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in His way;" Psalm 37:23

When Anthony was eight years old, his mom put him on a train in New York City bound for Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to visit his grandmother whom he called “Nanny.” Once in Mississippi, Anthony shared with her some of the illegal activities he was being exposed to by family members back in New York. Nanny decided it was in the boy’s best interest for her to raise him, and his mother agreed. So, Nanny raised Anthony, and she took him with her to True Light Missionary Baptist Church every time the doors were open.

Just around the corner from Nanny’s house lived another woman about the same age as his grandmother. That woman’s grown son lived with her, and he was Anthony’s biological father. Though he knew his son was now living just around the block, Anthony’s father showed little interest in getting to know him. Each day, Anthony would see his dad walk by his grandmother’s house, usually drunk.

The whole family always believed young Anthony would someday grow up to be successful.

On one occasion, Anthony’s dad promised to come and spend some time with him. With the sun beating down, Anthony waited in the yard, long past when his dad was supposed to arrive. Nanny was watching from the front porch. Her heart was breaking as she realized her grandson was about to suffer another disappointment from his dad. Finally, she said, “Your dad isn’t going to show up, Anthony. You need to come back up here on the porch out of that hot sun.”

For Anthony, this incident was the breaking point, and he began to shut down emotionally. The void in his heart led Anthony to again become involved with illegal activities, including theft. In his late teens, he was charged with grand larceny. A few months into his three-year sentence, he escaped the juvenile facility.

On the Path to Destruction

A fugitive on the move, Anthony started trafficking drugs from city to city. He also became addicted to drugs himself during this time. He would get paid for the drugs he was trafficking and then use the money to support his own addiction.

His mother and stepfather became aware of Anthony’s problems, and his grandmother and aunts were seriously concerned. Anthony had been the one grandson the whole family always believed could make it. They knew he was a boy with exceptional intelligence.

He dropped to his knees and cried out, “If there's a God, please take this pain away from me. I'll do whatever you want.”

One evening, Anthony hit rock bottom. He was tired and wanted to die, so he prepared to end his life with one last overdose. Just as he injected a needle into his arm, he realized he had made another bad choice in life. He dropped to his knees and cried out, “If there’s a God, please take this pain away from me. I’ll do whatever you want.”

Anthony heard no response – only silence.

Anthony made it back to his mom’s house later that evening and she rushed him to a treatment center. Lying in a patient room, Anthony began to experience the darkest hours of his life. He started hearing voices. It struck Anthony he was about to lose the one thing he had been able to count on his entire life—his mind. “Please, God, don’t take away my mind,” he pleaded, though not even knowing the God to whom he prayed.

Anthony’s mother came to visit him at the treatment center. She told him she was going to see his grandmother in Mississippi, who was ill with late stage Parkinson’s Disease. Anthony wanted to go and apologize to Nanny in person for the heartbreak he had put her through over the years. The walls he had built up inside his heart were slowly starting to come down.

returning home to see nanny

Anthony and his mother left for Mississippi. During that drive, Anthony had time to think about all Nanny had done for him. He had time to consider how over the past few years he had become so consumed in darkness, he had missed many opportunities in life, including the chance to care for his grandmother as she had grown ill.

In Hattiesburg, when Anthony entered Nanny’s room, he saw his grandmother in a chair by her bed. The strong, godly woman he knew was now feeble with illness.

Anthony knelt by her. “Nanny, I have changed.”

Then, as if nudged by the Lord, Nanny became alert. She looked at Anthony and spoke two words: “I’m glad.”

That tender moment lifted a huge weight from Anthony. However, the fact remained he was still a fugitive, as well as a sinner who had yet to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior. After being in Mississippi a few weeks, the authorities spotted him and he was apprehended. This time, the charges against him were far more serious.

As a wanted fugitive, Anthony was now looking at a possible sentence of eight years in prison. He awaited his sentencing in the local jail.

A Gideon Walked In

Buck Mann served as a Gideon in Hattiesburg. His wife, Peggy, was active as an Auxiliary. Along with other Gideons and Auxiliary, the couple held regular Bible studies for the inmates in the Forrest County Jail, where Anthony was being held.

Anthony began attending the Gideon-led Bible study. Week after week of hearing God’s Word started to have an impact on him. After one of the meetings, Anthony waited until the rest of the crowd had left and he approached Buck.

“Buck, I hear you talking about being born again. Is that talking about me?”

Buck replied, “Do you know God?”

“Well I’ve had experiences,” Anthony said, referring to moments of crying out to God, such as the night he had tried to end his life.

When Anthony returned to his jail cell that evening, he pulled out his personal journal and wrote, “This is as free as I’ve felt my entire life.”

Buck then pulled out a New Testament and pointed to the series of passages in Romans that explain God’s plan of salvation. Anthony followed along with Buck, reading, and letting God’s Word speak truth into his soul. There in that jailhouse on April 19, 1983, Anthony prayed to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior. It was the day before his birthday.

When Anthony returned to his jail cell that evening, he pulled out his personal journal and wrote, “This is as free as I’ve felt my entire life.”

Buck and Anthony’s friendship continued to grow during those jailhouse Bible studies. Finally, Buck asked, “Anthony, why are you locked up?”

Anthony could not provide a simple answer, so he handed Buck his journal, in which he had been writing his life’s story. Buck was so moved after reading the experiences of Anthony’s life, he asked Anthony if he could share the journal with his daughter, who was an English teacher. Buck suggested she could edit Anthony’s story, and they could share it with other people in the community.

Anthony wasn’t sure where this would lead, but he trusted Buck. “Sure,” he replied.

It just so happened Buck was also discipling another young man in town who worked as an attorney. He shared Anthony’s story with the attorney and returned to the jail a few days later with a plan. The attorney drew up a petition to release Anthony from his sentence, based on his change of heart and profession of faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. However, he would still need enough signatures from people testifying on Anthony’s behalf that he was a changed man.

Buck circulated the petition. Anthony’s mom, his two aunts, and Nanny all signed. But it wasn’t enough. Thankfully, Buck had several more people in mind—the Gideons and their wives leading the jail Bible studies, who had also come to know Anthony and had seen the change in him since accepting Jesus. They also signed the petition, for a total of 18 signatures, in addition to the signatures from Anthony’s family.

The day of sentencing came. The attorney approached the judge, handed him the petition, and requested Anthony be released into the custody of Buck. The judge saw the list of names, all testifying they believed Anthony was a changed man. The judge looked up at Anthony and the others in the courtroom. “I don’t have a problem with letting this man go. Case dismissed.”

When Anthony stepped outside of the jailhouse that evening, Buck and Peggy were there to greet him. Now freed from jail and freed from sin by Jesus, a new life was beginning for Anthony far from anything he could have imagined only weeks earlier.

For Anthony, Buck was the first steady Christian role model in his life. Buck modeled what Jesus taught—love for God and love for neighbors. He modeled values of honesty and reliability.

For the next three years, Anthony stayed in Hattiesburg and cared for Nanny until her passing. Buck continued to disciple Anthony and helped him pick up various jobs to earn money.

For Anthony, Buck was the first steady Christian role model in his life. Buck modeled what Jesus taught—love for God and love for neighbors. He modeled values of honesty and reliability.

Anthony continued to grow in his faith, and he eventually felt the Lord calling him to go back to school and enter into full-time ministry. He learned there was a Bible college in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he needed to go to study. He shared the news with Buck, who was proud to see Anthony take such a huge step of faith. Buck wrote a check for Anthony’s bus ticket and gave him some pocket money as well.

anthony pursues the ministry

In Fort Wayne, Anthony stayed in the basement of his mom and stepdad’s house as he began Bible college. He also got a job at a factory. Buck continued to check on Anthony, calling him regularly to see how things were going. He even provided funds to cover the down-payment on a car to help Anthony get to work and school.

 Reverend Payton with his wife, Sandy

During this time, Anthony began attending a Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Wayne. While serving in their bus ministry, he met a young Christian lady named Sandy. The two fell in love and eventually married.

After college, Anthony started working as a machine operator in an engineering company, while still planning on entering the ministry full-time. Each day, the company’s owner, a Christian man named Jack, would walk by and watch Anthony work. One day, Anthony was called to Jack’s office. Anthony thought Jack was perhaps going to fire him.

Instead, Jack said, “I like you, Anthony. You seem to be committed to what you believe. I need someone who has ethics and believes in doing what’s right. I’d like to make you my plant manager.” Anthony was surprised since his formal education was centered around preaching God’s Word, not running a business. However, with a wife and now a child, Anthony realized the offer was a blessing that would help provide for his family, and he accepted the position.

Jack helped Anthony progress at the factory, and under Anthony’s leadership, the company experienced great growth. It was a job Anthony really enjoyed and for which he was well compensated. However, Anthony began to feel like he was off-purpose from his calling to serve as a full-time pastor, so he gave Jack his resignation. Impressed with Anthony’s giant step of faith, Jack let him keep his company car. He also gave him a very generous severance package, which would allow Anthony time to pursue his calling in terms of finding a full-time pastor position.

Anthony received a call from a mental health hospital that wanted to interview him for a counseling position. He hadn’t studied psychology, so he was reluctant to interview. However, the recruiter was aware of Anthony’s background and pleaded for him to come interview. Anthony interviewed and was immediately offered the job. He accepted.

Anthony loved the opportunity to help people overcome the same addictions that nearly killed him. Such a role was preparing Anthony for the next step in his spiritual journey.

During that time, gangs were growing in the area. Kids were dying senselessly. A new pastor came to town, and he wanted to bring Anthony on staff to serve. Anthony accepted as the church teaching pastor, and the Lord blessed his faithfulness. The church grew from 20 people to about 1,500 people in just three years. Their outreach to the street gangs in the community was having a great impact.

Reverend Payton with his youth group during a missions trip in Brazil.

One Step of Faith Too Many?

In 1995, Anthony was invited to be a guest speaker at a very small church across town. As soon as he walked into the church building, he felt the Lord saying it would be his first church to serve as senior pastor. The congregation only had 12 members. Though he had not been offered a position, Anthony felt convinced the Lord had plans for him to begin serving there immediately. He took a huge step of faith and resigned from his counseling position at the mental health facility.

His supervisor was shocked and tried to persuade him to stay. Anthony resisted, saying he needed to go away for a few days with his family for a vacation. He was certain by the time he returned to town, he would be coming back to serve full-time at the small congregation.

Reverend Payton’s book reveals how God uses challenges to develop great leaders.

Sandy never questioned Anthony’s decision, as he had always been right about hearing the Lord’s call. They packed up the car and headed north for a few days of vacation. The days passed by, and no job offer had been made. There was one day left before they had to drive back to Fort Wayne. Had Anthony finally taken one step of faith too many? Memories of growing up and his own dad not supporting the family began to haunt him.

The last day of the vacation, he received a call from the church. “Anthony, we would like you to come serve full-time as our pastor.” He said, “Yes.”

As they all sat down to discuss the church’s financial situation, Anthony found out what the church planned to pay him—$25 a week. How was he going to provide for his family? This would take a toll on his life savings.

In the middle of these challenges, Anthony was scheduled to speak at a major Christian event in front of thousands of men. Anthony stood on the stage and launched into his story of Buck Mann. He told how Buck had been instrumental in leading him to the Lord, mentoring him, and even providing for him financially.

After his presentation, Anthony arrived at the merchandise table, and he was speechless. All the merchandise was sold out. Suddenly, he had invitations to speak all over the country. Those opportunities provided financially for his family in ways far beyond what he ever imagined. “God opened up doors for us that were incredible,” says Anthony, who for over twenty years has been the lead pastor at that same church, known today as Come As You Are Community Church.

“If you are faithful toward what God has called you to do, he will provide for you. In the words of David in Psalm 37:25, 'I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.'”

A pair of shoes launches a dream

When Anthony first arrived in Fort Wayne, he had one pair of shoes. It was the pair of black dress shoes he’d been given years earlier by his mom and Nanny as a ninth-grade graduation gift. Through all Anthony has gained and lost, that pair of shoes is the one possession Anthony has held on to over all the years.

The shoes represented Anthony’s childhood dream to own his own shoe company. A friend of Anthony’s in Brazil, whom he met on a mission trip, was aware of Anthony’s dream. The friend asked a man there who owned a product design company if he could design a shoe prototype. He explained it was for a friend back in the USA named Anthony Payton.

“Anthony Payton!” the man replied. “Is he a pastor?”

The friend said, “Yes. Do you know him?”

The Anthony Payton Signature Shoes brand offers creative kids in the inner city a chance to achieve dreams the Lord has placed in their hearts.

The man said, “No, I’ve never met him, but I watch his sermons online.” The man was more than happy to create a prototype for the shoe, and the design was well-received.

In 2016, the Anthony Payton Signature Shoes brand was launched. The shoes are handmade and hand-painted. Anthony says the brand is all about continuing to touch lives for Christ.

The goal is to offer creative kids in the inner city a chance to achieve dreams the Lord has placed in their hearts.

Young people from Fort Wayne are selected for a competition in which they travel to Brazil to work with artisans to design a shoe. The students come back to the USA and present the design and marketing plans to a team to select the shoe design and marketing plan they believe is best. The winning shoe goes into production and 50% of the proceeds goes toward that young person’s college education, 25% goes to a local charity, and 25% goes toward the continuation of the program.

a call to stay on mission

Anthony stays focused largely by staying on task with his own mission statement: “I exist to recognize, inspire, and promote the purpose of God in an individual and collective life.”

“That is what Buck did with me,” says Anthony. “It’s all about building the relationship. That’s what changes people.”

“Christians have to get back to accountability, in terms of who we are and what our mission is. We've allowed ourselves to get so divided on other things and we've missed the main thing—making disciples.”

Speaking in front of thousands of guests at the Pastors Banquet during the International Convention this summer in Kansas City, Anthony shared how that relationship with Buck resulted in the Gospel touching lives even beyond his own. “Buck was the first person in my life who held me accountable as a saved man,” said Anthony. “He passed the baton on to Jack.”

“Christians have to get back to accountability, in terms of who we are and what our mission is. We've allowed ourselves to get so divided on other things and we've missed the main thing—making disciples.”

Buck and Peggy Mann have gone on to be with the Lord. The last time Anthony saw them was in their nursing home.

Anthony and the congregation at Come As You Are Community Church still welcome Gideons to make a presentation each year. Anthony has a message for Gideons and Auxiliary serving today. “You may not think you’re making a difference, but you are. There’s an Anthony out there waiting for you.”

“There are people in Brazil who have received the Gospel because Gideons went to a jail in Hattiesburg. There are professional athletes with whom I have been able to share the Gospel, because Gideons went to a jail in Hattiesburg. No opportunity I get is a result of Anthony. It’s a result of those Gideons being faithful to what God called them to do.”

Reverend Payton ministers as he prays with a stranger in the park.
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