My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.
Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).
The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.
The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.
Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.
On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.
On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.
President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.
Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.