Three hundred people packed the tiny sanctuary. Folding chairs made an extra row across the back of the church and latecomers were seated in the choir loft. (We’d been early, thank goodness.)
“Good Morning. Do we have any visitors here today?” The teacher asked. We all laughed at the preposterous question.
“I’d like to know where you’re from.” The laughter died down as the teacher walked over to face the section to his right. “Would you folks tell me the name of your home state or country?”
“South Carolina.” “Texas.” “Bosnia.” Guests called out their addresses in turn. “California.” “Maryland.”
“Oh, Maryland,” our teacher smiled in recognition, “I used to live in Washington, D.C.” That Jimmy Carter—what a kidder.
The class met in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church (it’s the only room large enough for the crowd) where President Carter teaches Sunday School about 30 Sundays a year. The week following this one he was scheduled to be away—had to monitor the elections in Palestine.
Our family of five and my parents, Harold and Gloria Mitchell, joined hundreds of other travelers early that Sunday morning in the line to enter Maranatha Baptist. We were cleared by federal security and seated. Once the church filled, we were given specific instructions about how to respond to President and Mrs. Carter and to the Secret Service workers. Then, the pastor said a prayer and when we lifted our heads, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States of America, strolled across to the podium.
Can you believe it? There I was, in this tee-tiny itty-bitty church and there was Jimmy Carter: my life-long hero. Right there. Close enough to hug. And guess what? He’s not even close to ten feet tall. Unbelievable.
No kidding, I was really surprised that Jimmy Carter is not in some way larger than life (shucks, even Yao Ming is and he's just a basketball player). But disappointed? No way. Because part of the wonderful thing about meeting Jimmy Carter is finding out that he is not extraordinary. He is an 82 year old man who teaches Sunday School every Sunday unless he is out of town with his wife. He is a dad and a granddad (“eleven grandchildren and one great grandchild,” Mrs. Rosalyn bragged to my mother, like any grandmama would). He loves to fish and hunt and tinker around in his workshop. He’s a church-going country boy from a small church in a small town that he dearly loves. He’s a lot like my Daddy, and my father-in-law. Two of the most extraordinary men I know.
A few months after our visit, Mother asked Daddy what he wanted for his upcoming 70th birthday. He thought for just a moment before he said, “I want our kids and their families to meet us in Plains to hear President Carter teach Sunday School.” Generally speaking, in our family what Daddy wants, Daddy usually gets. (Daddy doesn’t want much.) So, right around November 13, 2006, the sixteen of us descended on Georgia’s tiniest famous town. We went back to Sunday School, we stayed in Plains Inn, and we visited the historic sites around town. Overall, it was a pretty ordinary visit. But in Plains, ordinary is downright spectacular.
Note: We loved our visits to Plains and highly recommend the trip. It sounds unlikely, but you really can make a weekend of it. The museums in Plains are interesting and well-done and in Americus--a short drive from Plains--you'll find the headquarters for Habitat for Humanity with the Global Village. Koinonia Farm, started by Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, is also in Americus. We stayed at the Plains Inn, a bed and breakfast in town. There are also hotels in Americus.