Happens Here Every Sunday
Happens Here Every Sunday
This story appeared in the December 2012 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith.
Sitting in Jimmy Carter's Sunday School Class in Plains, Ga., felt like entering Judge Parker's Courtroom at the Fort Smith National Historic Site and hearing Isaac Parker himself lecture on the finer points of frontier law.
Though he has his critics, I have long admired former President Carter's Christian convictions, honesty and efforts at facilitating peace and justice around the world. One of Carter's enduring legacies is his leadership through Habitat for Humanity in building shelter for thousands of families across the nation.
Carter teaches a regular Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church whenever he is home in Plains. The schedule of his class dates is published on the church's website. When I was in Atlanta in October, I traveled into south Georgia on a photographic trip and would be near Plains as I finished my work on Saturday evening. This might be my only chance to hear President Carter teach Sunday school.
Since there are no motels in Plains (population around 700), I stayed Saturday night in Americus, Ga., 12 miles from Carter's hometown. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early Sunday morning for the 10 a.m. class. At 9:15, there were already 40 cars parked beside the small country church.
A government screener greeted me when I drove onto the church parking lot. His German shepherd dog sniffed my rental car for explosives. I was glad the renters before me had not been on a Georgia quail hunt with the residue of shotguns and shells left in the trunk.
I noticed four men in suits and ties, perhaps deacons or greeters. In retrospect, they may have been Secret Service. I parked and gathered my sport coat, iPad and small digital camera.
At the church entrance, I laid my belongings on an old folding table. Two men in blue blazers wearing wraparound sunglasses checked them and seemed to know that iPads could be used to carry e-books and a copy of the Bible. These guys were definitely Secret Service. They were friendly, not intimidating, just serious. Another man in a blue blazer passed a metal detection wand over me before I entered the building.
"It's not every day you get to hear a former president teach Sunday school," I said, hoping to bring a bit of levity into the process. Without missing a beat, the agent replied, "Happens here every Sunday."
An usher took me to a seat. There were already around 100 people in the auditorium listening to church member Jan Williams. "Miss Jan," as she calls herself, told the group, most of whom were visitors, what to expect. Her monologue was funny. She reminded me of a late-night talk show host prepping an audience before the live broadcast began.
"Do not clap when he comes in and don't all stand up," Williams said. "He doesn't like that. You don't address him as Mr. President. There's only one Mr. President at a given time. You can call him Mr. Carter. I call him Mr. Jimmy, but then I've known him for a long time and he's older than me so I call him Mister," she said.
Williams proceeded with a list of proper behaviors. "Don't shake hands unless he offers you his hand first," she said. "After all, he is 88 and you know about germs and things like that." She had the visitors laughing much of the time as she went through this well-rehearsed talk about how to behave in Sunday school with a former president. I think she understands her role as part of the ministry that she, the Carters and their church share in as they give the Gospel message to visitors from all over the world.
When 10 o'clock rolled around, former First Lady Rosalyn Carter and several friends came in from the left and sat down in a pew. Then the right door of the church opened and in walked Jimmy Carter.
The former president flashed that smile for which he is known. He has been known to give his welcome and ask if there are any visitors. He then bursts into an even bigger smile when 100 people raise their hands. He did not ask for that show of hands this day, but asked which states were represented in the group and also wanted to know if any retired pastors or missionaries were present. Only one gentleman raised his hand, a retired pastor. Carter asked him to lead in an opening prayer.
Carter told the group about his agenda for the next couple of weeks. He planned to travel to Jerusalem to continue work on peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He then launched into his Bible lesson taken straight from the regular Sunday school quarterly study guide of the church. He had a broad range of anecdotes to amplify the lesson.
I remembered when Carter was president he would often widen his eyes to add emphasis to a phrase. I noticed that facial expression several times during his lesson on fairness.
Most of the 150 people in the crowd stayed for the following worship service. Of that number, there were probably 25 church members. The rest were visitors, most from the United States, but some from foreign countries. I met an author from Canada who is working on a biography of Jimmy Carter's mother, Lillian.
The Carters sat near the front and to my right. During the pastor's sermon, I would glance up toward them and find myself sometimes startled to see such familiar figures from the past just a few rows in front of me.
After church, both of the Carters graciously posed with those who wanted their photograph made with them. Church members had a system in place to help their famous congregant get through the pictures. You prepared your camera settings and when your time came, you handed the camera to a woman who snapped the shutter as you stood next to the Carters. After the shutter snapped, you walked on and another person returned your camera.
After getting my picture made, I walked down the single row of storefront buildings that makes up downtown Plains, finding a shop that sold peanut ice cream. The small town was filling quickly with weekend visitors. I wondered if they realized they could have gone to church that morning with the former president who put this tiny Georgia town on the map 35 years ago.
Plains occupies a unique position in the National Park System. Where else can you meet the person who made his hometown into a National Historic Site by becoming president? That man returned home after his tenure in Washington and still teaches a Sunday school class that is open to all. You get to hear the 39th President of the United States give a Bible study.
The agent's words still echo in my ears, "Happens here every Sunday."