The Pied Piper of Plains still packs the pews

September 23, 2019

Visitors begin lining up in the early morning fog at Maranatha Baptist Church near Plains for a chance to hear President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School. Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The morning is hot, even by 8 o’clock, and the air is drenched with thick, warm fog found only in the southern reaches of Georgia. As it burns off, the sky becomes brindled with high clouds striated with the red and gold of sunrise. At that early hour, the orchestra of cicadas that usually serenades the countryside has yet to produce even a single note. But no matter. The raucous echoes of a couple of blue jays scrapping in a nearby pecan tree punctuate the quietness of the morning.

Threaded through the parking lot of Maranatha Baptist Church, a small, simple church of red brick cocooned by the pecan orchard from where the blue jays clash, are those hoping to snag a seat to hear former President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School. The throng, hundreds strong, are wearing everything from rumpled shorts and jeans to their Sunday finest suits and dresses, all complemented with footwear from tennis shoes to high heels to flip-flops.

The curious and the faithful and the flip-flopped congregate in Plains, Carter’s hometown in Georgia’s Sumter County, in the southwest quadrant of the Peach State, to hear the former leader of the free world and Nobel Peace Prize laureate teach Sunday School. It’s something Carter does frequently, and the pews always runneth over with visitors.

“People flock here from all over the world,” says a Secret Service agent whose name shall remain, um, secret. “Record numbers came after he was diagnosed with cancer.”

While Carter’s diagnosis of metastatic melanoma was in 2015, almost three years later he announced that he is cancer-free. While those “record numbers” may have waned a bit, the crowds still come, some as early as Saturday afternoon, to ensure a spot in the church.

“People even tailgate,” said Jill Stuckey, superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site who also helps out at the church. “They began lining up at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon. They spend the night in the parking lot to get a number to get in line.”

Carter’s church is small, with only 24 members. As we wait for the service to begin, I read the church bulletin. The previous Sunday, Carter didn’t teach and the total number of visitors was 14. Today, that number blossomed to more than 500. Jan Williams, a friend of the Carters and longtime church member, tells me later that 75 to 100 were turned away.

Williams, Stuckey and Jana Carter, daughter of the late first brother Billy Carter and his wife, Sybil, are the gatekeepers of the church, so to speak. As we wait for the former president to come into the sanctuary, they tell us he handcrafted the offering plates and the massive wooden cross perched over the congregation.

Miss Jan and Miss Jana, as the ladies are called, give the crowd instructions as to what to say and do and how to get your photo made with the Carters after the service. That takes a few minutes, as there are a lot of rules. Oh. Secret Service agents are everywhere, but really, if you misbehave in any fashion, if Miss Jan, Miss Jana, Miss Jill or one of the other highly protective church members doesn’t get you, they surely will.

Tony Lowden stands to speak. He’s Maranatha’s preacher. Originally from North Philadelphia but in Plains by way of Macon and Warner Robins, the charismatic pastor is not yet used to the South Georgia air force: gnats.

“Gnats are so numerous they pay tithes and offerings at this church,” he jokes before introducing Carter, whom he calls “a servant leader with a servant heart.”

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THE PIED PIPER OF PLAINS

Right on time, Carter bounds from a side door, fairly fast for a man who recently had hip surgery. After greeting everyone and asking the usual “Where y’all from” question, he gets answers as varied as right here in Georgia to Alabama and Louisiana and to others as far away as California and Arizona. International travelers call out their countries, Malaysia, Ireland and Ghana among them.

While I had come to Plains for Sunday School, the day before, I had ridden the SAM Shortline Railroad, a Cordele-to-Plains shortline train, by car maybe a 40-minute drive, for “Southern Ways and Means,” a special murder mystery event written by Carter’s niece, Kim Carter Fuller, another daughter of Billy and Sybil. Billy Carter passed away in 1988, but Miss Sybil was aboard the train dressed in costume for the period play. So were Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

On the train, I note, and in the church, every eye is always on Carter and everyone watches his next move, just a miasma of admirers all around him. People follow him wherever he goes, just spellbound by his natural friendliness.

He’s sort of the Pied Piper of Plains, if you will.

As sunlight streams in through the stained-glass windows, the president then jumps right into the lesson from the book of Matthew, adeptly mixing current events with Scripture so it all fits together neatly. He speaks for about half an hour, reminding the crowd before he ends the class, “Everyone of us has direct access to our Creator, all of the time” and that God’s help is there for the asking.

Soon the lesson is over, the offering plate passed, the singing of “To God Be the Glory” and “I Love to Tell the Story” and Lowden’s preaching done, and then, finally, the invitation concluded.

The former president, with his gentle voice and kind eyes, could have easily been a preacher if he had chosen not to farm peanuts or run for president. The entire Sunday School experience is sweet and moving and made even sweeter by a tremendous sense of love that won’t soon leave your soul.

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WHAT TO DO BESIDES SUNDAY SCHOOL AND CHURCH

You should seize the opportunity to see this patch of Georgia farmland that offers so much more than cotton and peanuts. Everything in Plains, Andersonville and Georgia Veterans State Park in Cordele, from where the Historic SAM Shortline Railroad departs, is within a short drive of Americus, the county seat and heartbeat of Sumter County.

In the heyday of train travel, the SAM Shortline chugged from Savannah to Americus and then to Montgomery, Ala. Now it’s a rolling state park that hosts special events such as Kim Carter Fuller’s murder mystery as well as themed rides such as the Peanut Express and Presidential Flyer.

Several places focus on Carter’s life and legacy. Of course, there’s the very walkable Plains with its fewer than 800 residents but full of small-town charm. The train depot, part of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, once served as Carter’s presidential campaign headquarters, and Billy Carter’s Service Station and Museum is across the road, a tribute to the first brother. Scant few shops are left in Plains but you might snag a couple of great antiques and a sampling of peanut butter ice cream as you walk the whole of the one-block downtown.

Plains High School, from where young Jimmy and Rosalynn graduated, is also a segment of Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and is filled with Carter memorabilia, as is the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm in the nearby community of Archer.

Also here is Andersonville National Historic Site. As notorious as Rock Island was for Confederate prisoners of war, the thoughts of being imprisoned at Andersonville struck fear in the hearts of Union soldiers. That’s where Camp Sumter stood as one of the largest Civil War military prisons. More than 45,000 Union soldiers were held there during the 14 months the prison existed, with some 13,000 dying there from extreme heat, cold, starvation and disease. Today, the site is comprised of Andersonville National Cemetery, Camp Sumter Civil War Military Prison and the National Prisoner of War Museum.

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WHERE TO EAT

Alas, the only restaurant left in Plains is the Buffalo Café, but it’s not open on Sundays for the after-church crowd. Any other day of the week, it’s open for hamburgers, sandwiches and salads.

In Americus, try the Rosemary & Thyme Restaurant in the historic Best Western Plus Windsor Hotel for entrees such as Grouper Imperial, blackened grouper topped with lump crab meat and finished with lemon beurre blanc, or seared angus ribeye topped with rosemary, thyme and garlic butter.

On the more casual side, look for local favorites of Monroe’s Hot Dogs and Billiards or the Fish House Restaurant for Southern delicacies of catfish, mullet and shrimp or for the braver palate, frog legs or ’gator nuggets. Sweet Georgia Baking Co. offers sandwiches and steaming cups of Café Campesino, Georgia’s first and only 100% fair-trade organic coffee from places such as Mexico, Ethiopia, Peru, Sumatra and Bolivia.

For good-for-the-soul food, Gladys Kitchen is the go-to for the meat-and-three experience. The menu changes depending on what’s available from the garden, but expect fried chicken, pork chops, collards and field peas with peach or blackberry cobbler for dessert.

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WHERE TO SLEEP

A few chain hotels dot Sumter County, but if you want to stay in Plains proper, make your reservations, like, well, now, if you want to pair your stay with attending Sunday School with the Carters. There’s only one place to stay, and that’s the Plains Historic Inn and Antiques with seven period suites authentically furnished from the 1920s to the 1980s.

With its turrets and towers and balconies, the Historic Best Western Plus Windsor Hotel, dating to 1892, is the centerpiece of downtown Americus. The staff is super-friendly. The Carters have stayed here, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt and couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. The Americus Garden Inn was built in 1847 as a private residence but is now one of those sumptuous inns that offers a homemade hot breakfast and Southern-themed rooms such as the Magnolia Suite, the Scarlett Suite and the Veranda Suite.

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THE LAST WORD

Jimmy Carter is now 94, and on Oct. 1 he’ll turn 95. Rosalynn, to whom he’s been married some 73 years, is 92. They’re not spring chickens anymore, and their health setbacks have slowed their pace a bit but they bounce back and keep going. If seeing Carter in his role as Sunday School teacher is on your bucket list, then flip-flops or not, it may be best to make plans now or you could miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

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IF YOU GO

For more information, visit the Americus-Sumter County Tourism Council at www.visitamericusga.com or call 229-928-6059. The site is comprehensive and lists contact information for all local hotels, restaurants and attractions as well as area events, fairs and festivals. The Americus-Sumter County Visitors Center is located at 101 W. Lamar Street in Americus.

For a complete schedule of dates when Jimmy Carter is teaching Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church, visit www.mbcplains.org or call 229-824-7896. The church is located at 148 Georgia 45 North in Plains.

Regional air service via Delta Airlines is available at Albany Southwest Georgia Regional Airport (ABY), about 40 miles from Americus. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) is 130 miles from Americus.

 





 


Associated Press