|At Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., Jimmy Carter delivers wisdom during his Sunday |
school lesson while his niece, Jana (far right), daughter of Billy Carter, watches.
(CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
|In the predawn darkness, George Williams greets visitors at Maranatha Baptist Church.|
|A prized slip of numbered paper, a "ticket" |
for admission to Carter's Sunday school lesson.
Carter is renowned for his humanitarian and charitable efforts after his presidency. Most notably, he helps builds houses for Habitat for Humanity, and his Carter Center has helped monitor elections in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In the predawn darkness, lifelong Plains resident George Williams, wearing a red Coke cap and windbreaker, greets visitors in vehicles at Maranatha’s parking lot entrance, a short distance from an oversized peanut with a toothy grin. "Where y'all from?" he asks as he hands a visitor a small slip of crinkled brown paper upon which a number is scrawled in felt-tip marker. "Park right up there by Jill. God bless y'all."
|Before sunrise, Maranatha Baptist in Plains, Ga.,|
is bathed in light.
Williams arrived at 2 a.m. The first visitor pulled in five minutes later. Some take their number and doze in their car. Others spring to life by gulping coffee. A small group engages in small talk near a grove of leafless trees behind Maranatha, a modest, red-brick building topped with a white steeple.
To some in Plains, Carter is "Mr. Jimmy." To others, he has been a hunting buddy. Most of all, locals proudly say, “He’s one of us.”
'He hasn't changed one bit'
|Plains mayor Lynton Earl Godwin III, 75, is a longtime friend of Jimmy Carter. |
"He hasn't changed one bit," he says.
Although the crowd Sunday is “a little light,” Stuckey says, visitation has been “crazy busy” since news of Carter’s cancer diagnosis in 2015. (In summer 2018, Carter said he was cancer-free.) “A lot of people have this on their bucket list,” she says. One Sunday about a decade ago, 48 countries were represented at the church in a single group from the University of Oxford in England. In late January, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, were welcomed.
Some visitors are especially devoted. The night before a Carter event – it’s more a pilgrimage, really -- two women from Missouri pitched a tent in a yard next to the church. They cooked their breakfast with the fire of a propane tank they brought.
Godwin has known Carter most of his life. “He has not forgot where he comes from,” the 75-year-old says. “He hasn’t changed one bit.”
To underscore the mayor’s point, Williams shows off cellphone images of himself hunting with Carter and laughing with the president at a softball game. He’s known Carter most of his life, too.
'A point of light in a veil of darkness'
|David Kendall, 68, feeding his dog Luna, comes from a staunch Republican family. But he says he voted |
for Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, twice for president.
On a six-week journey across the U.S., Kendall is traveling alone with his dog, Luna, a 9 ½-year-old mixed breed. He says he comes from a staunch Republican family, but he voted twice for Carter, a Democrat, for president.
|Stephen Wilson, with his children Drew and Sarah, |
admires Carter for his "moral authority."
Kendall says he admires the former president most of all for his outstanding character, a key reason many of the morning’s visitors traveled to hear the former president. “Carter is a point of light in a veil of darkness,” he says, contrasting him with present-day politicians.
At least a dozen states are represented on license plates on vehicles near Kendall’s VW. Lou Fuller, from Chattanooga, Tenn., arrived with her friend, Addie, at about 5 a.m. She recalls hearing Carter, Georgia governor from 1971-75, speak at a PTA meeting during his successful run for that office.
“Who has this kind of access for a former president?” Fuller says when asked why she’s here.
Stephen Wilson, a 41-year-old lawyer from Carrollton, Ga., drove 2 ½ hours with his wife and three young children to hear Carter. An ardent Democrat, he says he admires the former president for his “moral authority.”
“Building those houses at age 94, working with troubled democracies. He’s a hands-on person,” says Wilson, dressed in a suit and sporting a red, white and blue bowtie. Carter, he adds, is a “supporter of our endangered values.”
|Susan and Mark Tons of St. Louis arrived at about 5 a.m. for Jimmy Carter's lesson.|
A visitor from Florida praises the simplicity of the event: “They could have citified this,” she says, “made it a high-falutin, fancy place. But they haven’t. It’s the same as it always has been. Good people here."
'Miss Jan': Part drill sergeant, part comedian
|Jan Williams, fondly called "Miss Jan," gives detailed instructions to church visitors. If you want a photo|
with President Carter, she tells them, you must stay for the 11 a.m. church service.
|At about 7:45 a.m., visitors form in line for Carter's|
Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church.
As Williams issues commands, a bomb-sniffing dog, part of Carter’s Secret Service escort, ventures around the church’s exterior. “This is the safest place in the world to go to church,” she says emphatically.
At about 7:45, Williams orders visitors into line by their “ticket” numbers. She rejoices that the weather is mild. “Thank God,” Williams tells those in line, “God doesn’t let it rain here very much. One time we had to break out the hair dryers because folks got sloppin’ wet.”
At the church entrance, visitors unload their cellphones and anything else in their pockets or purses at a small table in front of two Secret Service agents. Two other agents wave a metal detecting wand over visitors and members before they are admitted. In the entryway, Mayor Godwin hands out church service bulletins.
In the sanctuary, there are three sections of pews, 13 rows in each section. Folding chairs add to capacity of the church, which only has about 30 active members. The walls and carpet are shades of key-lime green. Light streams through 10 stained-glass windows. Newly installed large-screen monitors flank the altar. With military-like precision, “Miss Jan” helps direct traffic.
|The Secret Service lays down the law|
when Carter attends Maranatha Baptist Church.
Jana goes over ground rules, too. The president will ask the people in each section where they’re from. Tell him in a loud voice, she says, because he’s hard of hearing. Jana practices with each group.
“Poland,” says a man.
“Canada,” says another.
When the president enters the sanctuary, Jana instructs, say “Good Morning” in unison.
Jill Stuckey provides the most important instructions of all: how to get a picture taken with Mr. and Mrs. Carter, 91, after the service concludes. Have your phone ready. Give it to Stuckey, who will quickly take the photo. Don’t dawdle. The aim is to get the photography wrapped up in 15 minutes. Clearly, this isn’t her first photo rodeo.
Carter teaches lessons from the Bible, often sprinkled with thoughts on current events. While not out of bounds, political topics are rarely discussed. Besides the twice-monthly lessons, he has touched the church in other ways. “Mr. Jimmy” made the wooden offering plates – his initials are on the bottom – and the cross behind the altar. He also has made repairs in the church and cut bushes and hedges. “He was our handyman,” Stuckey says. Mrs. Carter has often pitched in for church work, too. She even has cleaned the restrooms.
|Jimmy Carter has touched Maranatha Baptist in many ways. He|
even made the offering plates. His initials "J.C." appear at right.
(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Soon, stern-looking Secret Service agents stir on each side of the sanctuary.
At 9:57 a.m., a man wearing a black suit, light blue shirt and a turquoise and black bolo tie slowly walks into the room.
“Good morning, everybody” President Carter says.
“Good morning!” shout the worshipers.
The lesson begins.
|The former first couple -- Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter -- with blogger John Banks. The Carters|
pose for photos with visitors at Maranatha Baptist after the 11 a.m. service.