“You’re not going to believe this,” my travel companion said, and I could tell by her tone that whatever she had just discovered was something big.
We were on a seven hour road trip, a long anticipated bucket list adventure that I had decided to take on my 54th birthday weekend, and after a little coaxing, she had agreed to join me. Funny though, once the idea grew on her, she had become as excited about it as I was.
Plains, Georgia – that’s where we were headed. My dream was to visit now 91-year-old President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class – the class he amazingly still teaches - at Maranatha Baptist Church. So on this beautiful sunny 60 degree Saturday in December, driving from central NC to Southwestern GA, we were admiring the cotton fields, singing Christmas songs with the radio, and she was passing the time on-line. (Don’t worry – I was driving!)
“Tonight at 6:00,” she continued, bursting with excitement, “ downtown Plains is having its annual Christmas lighting, and President Carter and Rosalynn will be there to do the honors! We can see them twice!”
Wow! Neither of us could believe our luck! As we had planned the trip, we knew at any point that we might end up not even seeing President Carter, as he was recently diagnosed with cancer of the liver and brain and could easily wake up not feeling well enough to teach Sunday School, but not only were we going to see him in church on Sunday morning, but now also downtown on Saturday night!
Christmas Lighting in Plains
Plains, GA is an adorable little town, 512 acres in size, with a population of 755 (in 2013). Not knowing exactly where we were going, or about the crowds or the parking, we arrived at the single little strip of businesses before 5:30, and we were among the first to arrive. Others were either working to get everything set up, or browsing the quaint shops of the strip, all open for the occasion.
Then we heard a train whistle, and something funny happened. A passenger train stopped at the adjacent depot (the one that had served as then Governor Carter’s Presidential Campaign Headquarters), and suddenly, from the train, the whole square was filled with happy holiday revelers, and the little town came alive!
Just after 6:00, President and Rosalynn Carter stepped out onto the second floor balcony of the Plains Historic Inn. They waved at the crowd, on cue President Carter proclaimed “Let there be light,” Christmas lights lit up the square, and the Carters watched the little parade before disappearing from the balcony.
We shopped, took hundreds of photos, relaxed in rocking chairs on the same balcony from which the Carters had greeted us, and roasted marshmallows over a fire pit, while carolers filled the air with Christmas. Then as suddenly as all the revelry had begun, the train pulled out of the station, the carolers stopped their singing, and the lights were turned off. We shopped a little longer and walked back to the car as alone as we had arrived, and still in awe.
Maranatha Baptist Church
Having been warned of the unpredictability of how many guests might show up for Sunday School on any given Sunday, we arose early and arrived at Maranatha Baptist Church about 6:35 for the 10:00 Sunday School class. We took our place in line in the cool darkness and chatted with others like us, awaiting 7:30 when the doors were set to open. We met visitors from Wisconsin, Florida, Washington DC, California . . ., and others would later introduce themselves as Korean, Jamaican, and Canadian.
The time passed quickly. We watched the sunrise, we watched the Secret Service who were everywhere, even a dog that sniffed the cars, and we were watched and advised by a church lady working as security, whom we would later know as "Mrs. Jan." At 7:30 the Secret Service checked our bags, ran a metal detector up and down our clothing, and led us to our seats.
Maranatha Baptist Church is a small rural church, which broke off of Plains Baptist Church in 1977 to embrace racial inclusiveness. On any given Sunday now, Maranatha has about 30-40 members present and maybe 200-300 guests. The auditorium seats about 300, with the guests in the middle section and the outside sections reserved for members. When there are more guests than seats, the later guests are invited to an overflow room where they can watch the class on screen. The church welcomes its guests and views its unique situation as a ministry, knowing that some who come have rarely or never been inside any church.
From 7:30 until 9:00 we continued to be supervised by Mrs. Jan, who by the way was Amy Carter’s fourth grade teacher, and the Secret Service, who were also thick as wallpaper aligning the hallways to the bathroom. Mrs. Jan, snapping without warning back and forth between her roles of stand-up comedian, caring Christian church lady, and this-is-not-funny military sergeant, entertained and put the fear of God in us. She let us pass around the offering plates that President Carter had made (I think of Philippine oak) and donated to the church, and she pointed out the cross over the sanctuary that he had also made.
Then at 9:00 she began a formal hour-long debriefing, during which time we were instructed on how to behave when President Carter arrived. Do not stand when he enters. Do not applaud at any time. Do not take any photos except during the time he is asking where everyone is from . . . We practiced twice how to respond to that question without repeating states that have already been mentioned. Everything was planned and organized to a science.
At 10:00 President Carter came in. He immediately began asking where everyone was from, and that was our cue to snap our photos! Then he began to talk to us, and, as we had been so well instructed, we put away the cameras and gave him our full attention. He made a first-time announcement to us that at his doctor visit this week, there had been no signs of cancer. Despite our training, we broke into applause, and that moment, that announcement, would quickly become national news: President Carter announces to Sunday School class that he is cancer-free.
He talked a few minutes about some of the projects the Carter Center was currently working on, and then he started with the Sunday School lesson from the Baptist Formations series. This week’s Bible reading was from Luke 1 about Mary’s song during her visit with Elizabeth before Jesus’ birth.
The message he presented was an inspiring and simple challenge to allow God to use each of us. Mary was a young unmarried peasant woman, an unlikely servant of God, but God chooses ordinary everyday people who are willing to offer themselves for God’s use. We grow up asking the wrong question, he said. It’s not “what do you want to be when you grow up?” that’s important, but rather “what kind of person do you want to be?,” and we must continue, he said, to ask ourselves that every day of our lives as long as we live.
Throughout the Sunday School hour, President Carter was personable and engaged with his listeners. He walked back and forth at audience level, sometimes asking questions about the Bible passage, always talking knowledgeably, skillfully, and from his heart. As he finished and left, we respected our training and did not applaud, and we broke for 15 minutes before the worship service began at 11:00. Everyone stayed for worship, because once we were inside, no one was allowed to leave and re-enter, and the Carters posed for individual photos with every guest after the worship service!
Just before 11:00 the Carters entered together (with their Secret Service friends) and sat in the third pew on the right side. (Rosalynn had also been escorted into the Sunday School class just before it began, and then out again at the end.) Mrs. Jan sang in the choir, possibly as much to keep an eye on us as to sing.
I loved singing the Christmas hymns, and my soul delighted in all that I will forever love about the Baptists.
The pastor’s message was entitled “Journey to Christ: Joseph and Mary,” based on Luke 2:1-7, with the challenge of how each of us can make room for the Christ Child.
After the service, a church member moved into place to snap one (and only one) photo of each guest with the Carters. One after another we quickly handed her our own cameras, and we had been well instructed not to attempt to chat or shake hands with the Carters but to move on quickly. The whole photo session for all guests took only about 15 minutes. What a generous and matchless gift, what a humble and Christ-like couple, and what an incredible honor to have intersected their lives for a few hours.