Teaches Sunday school: Jimmy Carter Teaches Sunday School

Published: August 24, 2015

Teaches Sunday school: Jimmy Carter Teaches Sunday School, There is a tale in these parts of a tourist coming to catch a glimpse of Jimmy Carter, maybe even getting lucky and meeting the former president.

A local told the tourist fellow that such an encounter was unlikely. Even so, the tourist was directed to drop by Maranatha Baptist in a pecan grove at the top end of town and, at very least, snap a picture of Carter’s hometown church.

Later that day, the tourist reported that he hadn’t run into the president but that he did take a photo of the church.

“This old man was there cutting the grass,” the tourist said. “I had him stand out of the way while I took the picture.”

“That,” the tourist was informed, “was Jimmy Carter.”

On Sunday morning, Carter was unmissable.

The town that he almost half a century ago turned into one of America’s most famous hamlets was abuzz with concern.

Carter, 90, was ill.

He had in recent days let it be known that he has cancer.

That revelation promptly transformed the regular Sunday School class that Carter teaches at Maranatha into a destination for well-wishers and admirers alike.

There were visitors from dozens of states, a few from abroad.

Folks, some 500-plus of them, wanted to be there for Carter and be in his midst.

For some, whether they’ve ever been here or not, Plains has a certain countrified cachet.

But with a twist.

It not only has the allure of an idyllic farm town, it also happens to be one with a renowned native son, one whose good and fair and humble deeds are known around the world.

Plains has the charms of another time.

There is a creek named Rabbit Branch.

There is a Cow Pen Road, a Cucumber Road, a Carter Fishpond Road.

It is a place where the natural order often includes going to church and walking the walk. A place where if you don’t, people might talk.

And a place where a former governor and president, a Nobel Prize recipient, still teaches Sunday School.

Some may marvel at how Carter has forever called Plains home and been a fixture here. He didn’t move off to New York or California. He didn’t uproot.

Plains was, and is, in him. As newspapers used to put it when telling of a local’s lineage, he is “of this place.” As in, “Jimmy Carter, of this place, taught Sunday School today.”

Folks who have never moved off or traveled to many of the unpronounceable lands Carter has graced can relate. And they can appreciate Carter’s rural, Sumter County leanings.

Georgia children of the 1970s can recall their parents and grandparents admiring Carter. If for no other reason that he was one of them.

And now, half a lifetime later, they can rest assured that Mr. Jimmy ain’t forgot them or it — or his church.

Carter once told a historian that his faith has been “part of my life like breathing, like being a Georgian or being a human.”

After his unsuccessful run for governor in 1966, reporters wondered if Plains, population 572 at the time, might be too small a realm for someone of Carter’s talents. He was affable, intelligent, surely destined for grander locales.

In 1967, an Atlanta Constitution columnist wrote that Carter “seems too intense a student of government and with too great a desire to improve the state to remain for long in Plains, Ga., as nice and friendly a town as it may be.”

Yet here Carter was on a balmy Sunday morning in 2015 — still in Plains, population 750.

The church he joined in 1981 was packed. The parking lot was jammed. There was a tour bus. Cars filled the paved lot and the grass beneath the pecan trees.

“He always comes back,” said June Ewing, 78, who lives in nearby Americus and is a frequent visitor at the church.

Yes, here Carter was, 39 days shy of his 91st birthday, in a gray suit coat, a blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the neck, the 39th president of the United States, about to teach Sunday School the way he always has.

A woman named Cricket Keating, a childhood friend of Carter’s daughter, Amy, had been one of the first in line to attend Sunday’s class.

Keating, 48, a grade school classmate of Amy’s in Washington, D.C., had been at the church since about midnight.

Keating, who now lives in Ohio, said that as a girl she traveled to Plains with the Carters.

As the sun rose Sunday, she recalled the local muscadines, the red-dirt roads, the gnats.

“Even though I’m not from around here,” she said, “some of my memories are.”

As for Carter, Keating said, “What I love about him is his commitment to here.”

Behind her in line, a man from Tifton had on a blue tie with a golden peanut tacked to it.

Bob Kemerait, 50, a University of Georgia plant pathologist who works with peanuts, said he was especially fond of the Carters.

“After every event in their lives, they come back home,” Kemerait said. “And now that he has cancer, it’s only natural to come back to the place you know.”

On a typical Sunday when Carter isn’t teaching at Maranatha, there might be 30 congregants.

Megan Sloan, of Moultrie, arrived about 6:30 a.m.

She was among the last let inside the sanctuary.

Maranatha, founded in 1977, holds about 300 people. Another 200 or so in the overflow crowd went to a nearby school, where Carter later spoke to them.

“It shows that there’s a tremendous amount of support for him and that people believe what he stands for,” Sloan, 31, said.

Church official Jan Williams, in the hours before Carter arrived, told those waiting that Carter had informed church members of his illness last Sunday night, but had sworn them to secrecy.

Williams, with the feistiness of a schoolmarm, helped herd the flock of worshipers into the 39-pew sanctuary. She said there would be no applause for Carter, no shaking his hand, no standing up when he entered and very limited picture-taking.

And, though she didn’t mention it, the former president would not be mowing the lawn this day.

“We are truly blessed that this man who once served our nation … wants to also be our Sunday School teacher,” Williams said, praying.

“I think one of the greatest things that can be said about Jimmy Carter is that he teaches a Sunday School lesson on Sunday morning, but he and Mrs. Carter live that lesson seven days a week.”

Still in prayer, Williams added, “So many prayers have gone up this week, we know you’re listening.”

As Carter stood and addressed the congregation, he gazed at the full house and joked, “Any visitors this morning?”

A chorus of dozens of state names followed as guests said where they were from: “Alabama … Indiana … Maryland … Iowa … Nebraska … Texas … California.”

Carter said he intends to continue working and teaching Sunday school as long as his health allows.

He devoted all of 40 seconds to his cancer — the four spots on his brain that doctors are already treating, and the cancer in his liver that has been removed.

“That’s enough of that subject,” he said.

The day’s lesson touched on the different kinds of love, including the concept of Eros.

“Anybody know what Eros is?” Carter asked, but no one spoke up. “Nobody in here knows?”

That drew laughter.

A woman piped up, “Between a man and a woman!”

“It’s OK to mention it in church,” Carter said, adding that he and his wife, Rosalynn, “didn’t begin with Eros, I might say.”

The love he was there to discuss, though, was the broader sort. Love for one another. Our enemies, too.

“God’s kingdom can be defined by the word love,” he said.

“You have to love God … and love the person that’s in front of you at any particular time.”

Carter spoke of conflict resolution, from war to family strife, and the importance of communication.

“Just being able to admit that you might be mistaken,” he said, was often a good start.

He also talked a little about what we could all do to make the world a better place, no matter how small we or our contribution might seem.

“Sometimes,” he said, “we have to do our own little part.”

Then, before long, he was off to the other Sunday School class — off to do more teaching from the good book, off to fight the good fight.

The overflow crowd at the schoolhouse nearby was waiting.

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