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 of people, 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.
“People flock here from all over the world,” said 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 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.
Secret Service agents are everywhere; if you misbehave and Miss Jan, Miss Jana, Miss Jill or one of the other highly protective church members doesn’t get to you, one of the agents surely will.
Tony Lowden, Maranatha’s preacher, stands to speak. Originally from north Philadelphia, 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 joked before introducing Carter, whom he calls “a servant leader with a servant heart.”
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, he asks, “Where y’all from?” Answers range from Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana to as far away as California and Arizona. International travelers call out their countries, Malaysia, Ireland and Ghana among them.
I first noticed Carter’s appeal the day before, when I had ridden the area’s SAM Shortline Railroad for “Southern Ways and Means,” a murder mystery event. It was written by Carter’s niece, Kim Carter Fuller, another daughter of Billy and Sybil. Billy Carter died 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 and in the church, every eye is always on Carter. People follow him wherever he goes, just spellbound by his natural friendliness.
He’s sort of the Pied Piper of Plains.
As sunlight streams in through the stained-glass windows, the president 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 that God’s help is there for the asking.
When the lesson is over, the offering plate is passed, we sing “To God Be the Glory” and “I Love to Tell the Story” and Lowden preaches before the service concludes.
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.
Beyond Sunday school
This patch of Georgia farmland offers so much more than cotton and peanuts. At the heart of the region is Americus, the county seat 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 walkable Plains, with fewer than 800 residents and plenty 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 antiques and a sample of peanut butter ice cream as you walk the one-block downtown.
Plains High School, from which 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 nearby Archer.
Also here is Andersonville National Historic Site. As notorious as Rock Island was for Confederate prisoners of war, the thought 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; some 13,000 died there from extreme heat, cold, starvation and disease. Today, the site comprises Andersonville National Cemetery, Camp Sumter Civil War Military Prison and the National Prisoner of War Museum.
Where to eat
Alas, the only restaurant left in Plains is the Buffalo Cafe, and it’s not open on Sundays for the after-church crowd.
In Americus, the Rosemary & Thyme Restaurant, in the Historic Best Western Plus Windsor Hotel, offers entrees such as Grouper Imperial, blackened grouper topped with lump crab meat and finished with lemon beurre blanc, or seared angus rib-eye topped with rosemary, thyme and garlic butter.
Local favorites include Monroe’s Hot Dogs and Billiards and the Fish House Restaurant, which serves Southern delicacies such as catfish, shrimp and frog legs. Sweet Georgia Baking Co. offers sandwiches and cups of Cafe Campesino, Georgia’s first 100% fair-trade organic coffee from places such as Mexico, Ethiopia, Peru, Sumatra and Bolivia.
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 cobbler for dessert.
Where to sleep
A few chain hotels dot Sumter County, but if you want to stay in Plains proper, make your reservations, 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 Windsor Hotel, dating to 1892, is the centerpiece of downtown Americus. 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.
The last word
On Oct. 1, Jimmy Carter will turn 95. Rosalynn, to whom he’s been married some 73 years, is 92. If seeing Carter in his role as Sunday school teacher is on your bucket list, then flip-flops or not, now may be the time to make your plan.