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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
PIPER OF PLAINS
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
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.
of the Pied Piper of Plains, if you will.
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.
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.
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
WHAT TO DO
BESIDES SUNDAY SCHOOL AND CHURCH
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
IF YOU GO
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
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.
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.