PLAINS, Georgia —When we learned last month that our sister-in-law Kathy and our nephew Steven planned to attend former President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School lesson for President’s Day weekend, we decided to tag along. Since he shares Carter's October 1 birthday, Steven feels a special connection with Georgia’s only native son to occupy the White House, so attending one of Carter’s Sunday School lessons has long been on Steven’s To Do list.
The announcement that the 91-year-old Carter had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer renewed public interest in his Sunday School lessons. For most people, a Sunday morning visit to tiny Maranatha (mair’-en-ath’-eh) Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, is their best opportunity for a personal encounter with a United States President. Suddenly reminded of the aging statesman's mortality, more than 1,000 people showed up in Plains on the Sunday following the cancer revelation, many sleeping in their cars in the church parking lot.
|Steven chilling in Plains|
But the hidden gem in this mine of information was the report that those who are staying in one of the seven guest rooms at the local Plains Historic Inn (www.plainsinn.net) are invited to attend Sunday School as guests of the innkeeper, Jan Williams. Not only is this retired fourth grade teacher, affectionately known as "Ms. Jan," a member of the church, she is also the drill sergeant who commands the weekly Sunday School crowds. Ms. Jan's word is law in this setting, and if you are her guest at Maranatha Baptist, you will enjoy the rare privilege of reserved seats in the sanctuary. Though weekend nights are booked for the next six months, we were able to secure a room for Monday night, which came with the same Sunday School seating—because Ms. Jan decided it would.
|Right in the heart of Main Street, Ms. Jan's inn|
|Windsor Hotel in Americus|
|The old high school which now serves as a museum|
|During the campaign, the depot saw 10,000 daily visitors who wanted to learn more about the peanut farmer running for President.|
|Carter boyhood home|
|Waiting to hear from a Sunday School teacher with a Secret Service detail|
Even though the building opened at 7:30, a line was snaking from the front doors around the corner toward the back of the church when we arrived. With the temperature hovering around the freezing mark, I volunteered to stand in line while the others waited in the warm car. It seemed only fair since I was the only one with a coat and gloves. (Clever planning on their part.) Ms. Jan flitted in and out of the church like a mother hen, making sure all the chicks were in their proper place
|Kathy and Steven all smiles because we had reserved seats|
|Ms. Jan holds forth.|
- Do not stand when he enters.
- Do not applaud.
- You may take photos only when he asks where everyone is from. If you continue after that, I may borrow your camera and give it to the Secret Service.
- You will not have an opportunity to chat with the Carters. You most certainly may not shake their hands because he does not need the germs. Do not tell him your solution for world peace or invite him to lunch.
|Dressed in his familiar bolo tie, President Carter consults only the Bible in his lesson. (photo from The Atlantic)|
Using no notes, Mr. Carter spoke for half an hour on the day's prescribed topic—eschewing empty ritual in favor of spiritual sincerity, compassion and acts of kindness to others. "God gives us life and freedom," said Carter, who has been teaching Sunday School off and on since his days as a midshipman at the Naval Academy. "Freedom to choose what kind of person to be. We need to choose peace, love, justice, humility and service." He emphasized the importance of accepting human diversity, caring for the poor and oppressed, and breaking down barriers between socioeconomic groups. And he encouraged those present to choose a tangible, specific goal to help them reach out to those who need help, remembering to do good for its own sake, not for any fanfare or publicity. Coming from someone who has devoted his post-Presidential years to humanitarian work, his message was compelling.
|Kathy and Steven (and Woodie) posing with the Carters|
|Steven checks out an exhibit at the POW museum.|
|Mr. and Mrs. Carter related stories of their 1976 campaign. (photo from the AJC)|
The obvious humility and civility of both the Carters and those who worked with them on their historic grassroots campaign offered a stark contrast to the current venomous contests where professional political strategists spend hundreds of millions of dollars delivering onslaughts of media attack ads against other candidates. Neither Carter nor his opponent Gerald Ford raised any funds for the 1976 campaign, opting to operate using only the funds donated by taxpayers through the IRS. Mr. Carter decried the 2010 Supreme Court ruling which opened the floodgate for super PACs to raise and spend unlimited funds on political campaigns, lamenting the resulting polarization in the nation and the obligation of successful candidates to the big money donors who put them in office.
Though the aging Carter, who is still receiving immunotherapy treatments for cancer, appeared rather frail at Sunday School, he stood on his feet during the entire lesson. At Monday's event, where he was seated, he seemed to have renewed energy. Both the Carters signed copies of their books after the talk which was followed by a question and answer session. He has written 30; she, 5. After getting our books signed, we parted ways with Kathy and Steven, as they drove toward Tennessee and we headed home.
It was a remarkable weekend. Where else could an average person attend multiple events and have such close encounters with someone who served as President of the United States? And every event, including the historic sites, was free of charge. What a contrast to the Clintons, for example, who have raked in a staggering $150 million in speaker's fees (including $12 million from nonprofit groups) since leaving the White House in 2001. Our weekend in Plains helped restore a little faith that there are still some people of historic importance who are not focused on extracting massive profits from their public service.
More About Carter and Plains
- While he was in Plains for President's Day events, Jimmy Carter was awarded in absentia his second Grammy Award for best spoken word album, this time for the audio version of his recent memoir A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.
- Frustrated with the refusal of Plains Baptist Church to integrate (only the Carter family and a few others voted to support it), a small group of dissenters formed Maranatha Baptist Church in the late 1970s, while the Carters were in the White House. When they returned from Washington to live in Plains, the Carters joined the new congregation. In this town of 755 with eight churches inside the city limits and a dozen more within a few miles, membership at Maranatha hovers around 35 people.
- The Maranatha church bulletin reported the previous week's Sunday School attendance: Members - 33, Visitors - 299.
- Bob Graham, former Governor of Florida and U.S. Senator from that state, attended Sunday School and worship with a large family group. Mr. Carter recognized him and asked him to read the Biblical passage for the lesson.
- The Carters live in a ranch house they built in 1960, the only home they have ever owned. Renovated and enlarged after they returned from the White House, the home will become the property of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site after the Carters' deaths and will be open to visitors.
- Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. President who taught a Sunday School class while in office.
- President Carter spends a week in Atlanta each month, tending to matters at the Carter Center and teaching at Emory University.
- As an example of the Carter Center's impact, they trained 7,000 medical workers and 30,000 health workers (2 per village) in Ethiopia at the request of that nation's government. Subsequently, antibiotic treatments for trachoma, the number one cause of preventable blindness, were distributed to ten million Ethiopians in five days.
- The week before we heard him teach Sunday School, Mr. Carter had spoken to the British House of Lords on the work of the Carter Center in eradicating disease in the developing world.
- For the last 34 years, Mr. and Mrs. Carter have annually spent a week working with Habitat for Humanity building affordable houses for people in need, both in the United States and abroad.
More Photos from Plains
|Steven checks out a replica of the Resolute desk used by every President—except Johnson, Nixon and Ford—since 1880.|
|Kathy and Steven are on board for the campaign.|
|Hanging in Plains|
|The restored commissary operated by Jimmy Carter's father in Archery|
|A little card playing in the evening|
|Signing the guest book after church service|
|The Carter residence (photo by National Park Service)|
|When Carter returned to Plains after his diagnosis, he was greeted by campaign-inspired signs posted by his friends.|
|The cartoon by Mike Luckovich, Atlanta political cartoonist, which inspired the signs in Plains|
|Steven's Sunday sundae|