An emotional high kept me awake as I left Plains, Ga., and drove back home to Southwest Florida. Earlier that day, I attended Sunday School with former President Jimmy Carter. The best way I can describe my experience is it was a spiritual awakening. The lesson and following church service weren’t just about being a better Christian. They were about being a better American and importantly, being a better human.
I was one of 400-some people who made a pilgrimage to attend Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains with the 39th president. The church’s congregation is about 30 members. When I last attended in 2004 or so, the congregation was larger with about 135 people.
For some, attending Sunday School with Jimmy Carter was fulfilling a bucket-list dream. Others wanted to hear from a world leader strong in his faith. Not just on Sundays, but every single day he is living and practicing a Christian life.
And then there were those seeking a message of hope. No one came out and said this is why they attended. However, it was clear many sought refuge from a chaotic world. They were seeking reassurance the United States is still capable of leading the global community by example. Sunday School students wanted to feed off the fire fueling the 94-year-old former U. S. president who is still making a positive difference in the world.
Did we find what we were seeking?
Yes. Well, I know at least I did.
This was my second time attending Sunday School with former President Jimmy Carter. The first was about 15 years ago. My friend and I arrived at 8 a.m. and the church doors opened at 8:30 a.m. for 10 a.m. Sunday School.
Car Camping Before Sunday School
This time (June 23, 2019), I arrived around 1 a.m. while the first car had arrived at 8 p.m. Saturday. I was number 31. Dressed in my Sunday attire, I set an alarm on my phone, shielded my car windows to keep the light out and prevent people from looking in, and took a nap in the front seat.
When I woke at 6:45 a.m., more than a hundred cars arrived during the morning darkness. More than 350 people (and more were sure to arrive) wanted to attend Sunday School with the former president. The church’s sanctuary accommodates about 300 people while the overflow area accommodates about another 100. I’m guessing, people would be turned away.
Sorry, No Nail Clippers, Grenades, or Jimmy Carter Books
After standing in line for about 20 minutes to use one of two porta-potties, it was time for a meeting to hear the instructions on how to enter the church. No fingernail clippers, no metal fingernail files, no lighters, no firearms, no grenades, no bombs (yes, we were instructed this) and no Jimmy Carter books are permitted in the church. While these and other instructions were called out, a bomb sniffing K-9 German Shepherd and his handler entered the church.
“His heart is big, but his pen does not work at church,” Mrs. Jan Williams, one of the Maranatha Baptist Church volunteers, stated. At his request, President Carter does not autograph books, or anything else, before, during or after Sunday School or the church service. Mrs. Williams, by the way, was Amy Carter’s fourth-grade teacher, did her correspondences, traveled with the First Family during Carter’s presidency and spent time in the White House.
Once clearing security and finding a seat on a red pew cushion, a buzz from the chattering of attendees filled the mint-green sanctuary. Then, various members of Maranatha Baptist Church discussed more expectations about the morning. Jana Carter, Billy Carter’s daughter, addressed the group, followed by Ms. Jill Stuckey.
The two hours from when the church doors opened to when Carter entered at 10 a.m. passed quickly.
“Good morning everybody!” the Solar Present gleefully exclaimed. “In 3 months, I’ll be 95 so the church decided to give me a little better seat,” he said while adjusting his seat so he could look over the eager Sunday School students.
Carter’s lesson and the church service, led by Rev. Tony Lowden, were refreshing and inspiring. I don’t attend church and I don’t have a consistent message of positivity and hope in my life. Maybe that’s why the day moved me.
Some Nuggets I Took Away from Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School
The former president stated they recently had a lesson on peace.
“We’ve been a nation now for approximately 242 years,” he stated and then asked, “You know how many years we’ve been at peace?”
There was a pause and silence in the sanctuary.
“Sixteen. That means 226 years that the united states has been at war.”
Let that sink in.
He asked what characteristics the United States should have in order to be known as a superpower and role model for other nations.
- “Human rights,” someone shouted out and Carter agreed by saying, “We have been in the past, a champion of human rights, but we’re not a champion of human rights now. We’re certainly not known as a champion.”
- “Education,” someone else said and Carter replied, “treating our people as though the next generation after us should be better educated…This is the first generation, I think in history, where our children don’t feel that they’re going to be better off or happier than we were.”
- Medical care, “treating everybody as an equal and fulfilling the need.”
- “How about peace? Don’t you think the number one superpower in the world, should be the world’s champion of peace?” he asked the flock. The students affirmed.
- “What about the environment?” he asked, stating the U.S. should be “custodians of God’s creations.”
- Equality, treating everybody the same, was another characteristic someone contributed.
Building a Better Country One Kindness Act at a Time
“What do you think we ought to do about it? Who would like our country to be the superpower we just described? What should we do?” he questioned.
He challenged everyone to be kind to one person. That person could be a neighbor, friend, or someone in the family.
“I don’t have any doubts that you all did that, our country will be better off,” former President Carter assured.
Want a Picture Made with President Carter? Stay Through Church
After the church service, ushers indicated who was up next for photographers with President and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter, and lickety-split, the experience was over. If you attend and want a photo with the couple, you need to stay through church. I recommend you stay for church not necessarily for the service but to be a better person. Shortly after 1 p.m., the parking lot cleared and the town of Plains, Ga., population of 730, went back to normal until President Carter’s next Sunday School class.
Plan Your Visit
Check out my post on 24 Hours in Plains, Ga.
Maranatha Baptist Church
148 Georgia Hwy. 45 North
Plains, Ga. 31780
Tel: (229) 824-7896
Former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school twice a month. Find his teaching calendar on the church’s website.
The church does not accept reservations but RSVP so they have an idea on how many people to expect. Plus, they can send updates should things change.
Although the church’s website recommends arriving by 5:30 a.m. for a seat in the sanctuary, at publication time (July 7, 2019), arrive around midnight and prepare to car-camp.
Restroom facilities are two porta-potties outside the church. Danfair Express (a gas station) is within walking distance and opens at 6:30 a.m.
Two restrooms are inside the church and doors open at 8 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Sunday school.
On the Sundays President Carter is not teaching and he is in town, he typically attends church and will pose for photos with anyone wanting one after the service.
Again, RSVP so they know you’re planning to visit but remember than an RSVP DOES NOT save you a seat.
Where to Eat, Where to Stay in Plains
Food service is limited in Plains. Locals recommend visiting Americus, about 15 minutes from Plains, for dining.
Lodging options are limited in Plains. Include is the Plains Inn and private room and home rentals which can be found through sites like Airbnb.com. Americus offers the closest lodging. Consider grabbing a nap and hot shower in nearby accommodations before napping in your car.
City of Plains
Visit Americus & Sumter County
Additional Photos on Flickr