Odds are, you haven’t been to Plains, GA on a Sunday morning when Jimmy Carter is teaching Sunday school. Maybe you’ve considered it but have always had something better to do on a Saturday night / Sunday morning.
The trek has gnawed at me for much of the last twenty years. I’d see the 39th president on TV, or see his grandson at the Capitol, and the prospect of a Sunday school visit would briefly flash in my mind, then recede. We finally did it this weekend.
The impetus came from Mrs. LAF, who encountered Bill Clinton at a book signing this month and kinda dug it. “We can go see Jimmy Carter pretty much any Sunday,” I told her. I went to the Carter NPS site, which linked to his church’s site. The Maranatha Baptist Church faithfully posts Carter’s Sunday school teaching schedule, often weeks in advance.
My mom was in town for Thanksgiving. Mom loves Jesus and voted for Carter. The plans were laid.
I’m often struck by longtime Georgians — and by people in the news biz — who overlook the amazing things about Georgia. Odds are, you’ve never been to the Okefenokee Swamp. Most people I ask haven’t. It’s a uniquely breathtaking locale. But it’s in the middle of nowhere, and the whole alligator thing freaks people out.
Likewise, it’s easy to underappreciate Georgia fixtures like Carter. Some Georgians loathe him, still. I’ve chatted with him on-camera several times. He’s easy to take for granted. Why make the trip to watch the guy teach Sunday school? Like the Okefenokee, Plains is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and the whole Baptist Church thing freaks some people out.
We stayed at the Windsor Hotel. The Windsor is remarkable, a fully restored antiquity that dominates downtown Americus. I don’t know of another hotel in the state — including Savannah — that’s like it. The lobby is ancient and breathtaking. Our rooms had twelve-foot ceilings, walk-in closets and cost a hundred bucks each.
We showed up at church at about 8:45 am, fifteen minutes after the doors opened. A dog sniffed our car upon entering the parking lot. Secret Service agents casually wanded us at the front door. We took seats in the fourth row. Another row filled behind us by the time Sunday school started.
At 9:45, a woman entered the sanctuary and gave an amusing take on the ground rules. Photos were allowed at certain times. He is “Mr. Carter” or “President Carter” but not “Mr. President.” Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter would take photos afterward, but you had to stick around for the hour-long church service that followed Sunday school.
Mrs. LAF insisted on watching from an overflow room with a TV so that she could also watch our one-year-old. While backstage, Clint kept toddling into the Carters and their security detail. Mr. Carter made eyes at the boy and cooed at him several times.
Wearing a bolo tie and sport coat, Carter began by referring to the book of Hebrews. He talked about a little-known bit of Jesus lore rooted in Hebrews 1:2– that Christ was present at the Creation.
His lesson veered between the teachings of Jesus and the work of the Carter Center, and a story or two from his presidency. He knew his audience — much of which was very versed in the New Testament, but were also politically-minded.
The closest he came to talking about politics was when he referred to 1 Corinthians 1:10, where Paul beseeches Christians that “there be no divisions among you.”
“I may disagree with some of you about homosexuality or abortion” Carter said, while saying that followers of Christ could stay united in their faith. Carter did not elaborate on his positions on those secular topics.
It was an entirely nonpartisan lesson, with matter-of-fact references to Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and the upcoming elections in Egypt and the Congo. It sounded like he referred to his wife as “Rosa,” though here may have been a silent “n” at the end, kinda like military folks call sergeants “sarn’t.”
My wife and mother sat through the church service afterward while I played with Clint in the nursery and on the swing set behind the church.
The 11am service ended promptly at noon. The Carters took a side exit and stood within a rope line outside. As the parishoners and tourists exited the front door, the woman who laid out the ground rules hurried them toward the rope line. There, the Carters posed for photos with everybody who wanted one. The ground rules included no handshakes and no autographs. A volunteer used our camera, and shot a much-too-wide photo of our group. The above photo is cropped.
Neither Carter appeared to recognize yours truly as part of the Atlanta local news rabble. Our only conversation during the photo op was about Clint’s age. I thanked him for the Sunday school lesson.
It was a life experience. I recommend it. Do it while the Carters are still young.
It’s also a a pretty brilliant way to spread the Word. Carter is an unabashed evangelical. How many of us actually remember the Biblical chapters and verses cited during Sunday school lessons?
Or write about them in secular blogs?