Jennifer and I left our hotel room at 5:20am on Sunday morning, June 10. We were heading to Sunday School, of course. No kidding. We wanted to make sure we could get a seat. I’m not kidding about that either. We had read that on many Sundays Maranatha Baptist Church has to turn people away.
Imagine heading out for Sunday School while it was still pitch black outside. We drove 10 miles from our hotel in Americus, Georgia. Following a windy road in rural, southern Georgia, we headed to Plains, Georgia, population 735. At the only stop sign in Plains, we turned right and drove 1/2 mile north. Just past the The Big Peanut convenience store, we pulled into the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot. It was 5:40am and still dark. Suddenly, I found myself pulling up behind a string of cars in front of me all with their lights still on.
After waiting our turn, a man near the entrance of the parking lot gave us a yellow note card with #110 written in black marker. At 5:40am we were the 110th car in the parking lot. Imagine that? There were 109 cars in front of us and, we soon discovered, about 350 people in those 109 cars.
The Sunday School room (the church auditorium and the overflow) holds 500 people. The man who handed me the number #110 wore a white beard and a hat that said, “I dig peanuts.” He said, “Looks like we are going to turn people away this morning. We hate to do that. Hope we can fit them all in.”
Okay, here’s why we were in Plains, Georgia, at Maranatha Baptist… Maybe you’ve already got me figure out, especially if you know a little history about the country.
Jennifer and I had come to hear President Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, teach Sunday School in his hometown of Plains, where he has lived since 1981, after spending 4 years in the White House.
Rumor is that Carter will teach just a few more months and many people want to hear him teach before he lays down his Sunday School book. People are arriving from all over the country, particularly the southeast, to see President and Mrs. Carter and to hear the President teach Sunday School.
(Although, we were told in fairly uncertain terms by church members who attend church regularly at Maranatha Baptist that in fact Carter has not announced his retirement from teaching. It’s just a crazy rumor running around on the Internet, they said. Well, I guess we’ll see. Carter is 93 years old and indefatigable. Gosh, maybe he can go a few more years. Talk about the little engine that could. The guy is amazing. Can you imagine teaching a Sunday School class with 500 people in attendance at age 93? President Carter stands and lectures for 45 minutes. He doesn’t have a cane or a walker, and he doesn’t lean on anything. He just stands straight and lectures. His voice is strong. He is well prepared, his mind is sharp and his biblical knowledge is impressive. That is just all pretty doggone impressive to me.)
After you get your number and park your car, you can sleep, walk around and talk to people wandering around the church grounds or walk 200 yards down to the The Big Peanut convenient store and get a cup of coffee. You can’t enter the church until you go through security at 8:30am. There are 2 port-a-potties outside you can use while you wait for, in our case, almost 3 hours before entering the church building. Once we were seated in the building, we sat for another hour before President Carter arrived.
President Carter’s Sunday School class doesn’t start until 10am and the church doesn’t open until 8:30am. That’s when all 500 of us lined up according to our number and waited to go through security handled by the Secret Service.
Jennifer and I didn’t make it into the main auditorium. We were in the overflow, where we watched Carter teach via video feed. It actually was just fine. To make it into the church sanctuary where President Carter teaches, we would have had to be at the church before 5am. No way was that going to happen.
Carter came back into the overflow at 9:45am before class started and interacted with the 150 or so of us in the overflow. He greeted us and mostly wanted to know where people were from. He thanked us for coming.
The President is teaching a series on how God speaks through the minor and little-known prophets of the Old Testament. He talked a lot about how God can use us, if we make ourselves available to him. “Isn’t that great?” he asked.
In the first 5-10 minutes he made some comments about the world news of the day and then went into his 40 minute lesson. I am still amazed that a 93-year-old man can stand before 500 people and lecture. He interacted with the class, asking questions and soliciting comments as he went along.
Church followed Sunday School and pictures with President and Mrs. Carter followed church. The church has a new young pastor just out of seminary. He’s in a mid-20s and looks like he’s about 15. Imagine being 25 years old and getting to preach each week to the President. Pretty heady, I’d say. President Carter is almost 70 years older than his pastor!
As you can see here, Jennifer and I enjoyed getting our picture taken with the Carters following church.