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In Plains, Ga., President Jimmy Carter's Sunday school program still draws crowds

By: Becca Milfield The Washington Post
February 8, 2018 Updated: February 8, 2018 at 7:24 am
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President Jimmy Carter greets the congregation ahead of his Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Becca Milfeld

Driving through Southwest Georgia last fall, I passed a cotton field, a crop so loaded with historical significance that I couldn't help but stop and gape at the scraggly plants. Evocative as they were, they weren't the main agricultural attraction. That honor went to the peanut, which symbolizes a different period in American history - a four-year period, to be exact.

I am, of course, referring to the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the erstwhile peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., who burst onto the national political stage in 1976, wooing the electorate with born-again, can-do spirit.

Perhaps because of my grandparents, Texans whose lives hew closely to the edicts of their Baptist faith, I felt compelled to attend Carter's Sunday school class last October. (Or because I'm a fan of presidential history who couldn't imagine passing up the chance to see an ex-president in such close quarters.)

Plains is a paean to the 39th president: Visitors can tour Carter's childhood farm, see the old train depot he used as a campaign headquarters and stop by his high school, which is now the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site's museum and visitor center. In a convenience store parking lot, a 13-foot grinning peanut vaguely resembles the president and rivals Carter as Plains' best prop for group shots and selfies.

I arrived at his childhood farm in the evening and before dusk, when a rural stillness permeated every aspect. The farm was not in Plains, but in what was once a small, impoverished African-American community called Archery, where Carter, who came from a relatively progressive family, formed friendships with black playmates and where abandoned buildings stand empty today.

During the same era, young Carter sold boiled peanuts in town for 5 cents a bag. They're soft as chickpeas, with a salty flavor like that of canned green beans. My grandmother, who grew up working on her family's peanut and cotton farm, also sold crops in town. The points that defined her life - Baptist faith, rural Southern upbringing - were part of a shared heritage that came to life among the Carter farm's outbuildings, better preserved versions than her long-deserted farm.

I pulled into the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot at 5:45 a.m. and received a scrap of paper indicating that I was the 13th car. We pilgrims were hours out from Carter's 10 a.m. lecture, and we had little but doze and gaze at a sky of brilliant countryside stars. Faint Southern voices murmured in the dark as a Secret Service member walked a dog beneath a row of pecan trees. Soon after daybreak, we lined up on the church lawn based on our numbers.

We all would have an opportunity to take a photograph with the former president and first lady after church, and a steward named Jan drilled us on protocol. No touching. No hugging. No talking to the president. We filtered past a Secret Service checkpoint, found our spots in the pews, and, after church officials gave an orientation, 93-year-old Carter emerged, plain as day, with a cheerful "Good morning, everybody."

While Sunday school lessons generally focus on ancient happenings in the Middle East, Carter's opened in North Korea - specifically on his hope for peace. His lesson, derived in part from Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, centered on free will and God's unconditional love, regardless of the good or bad decisions people make.

Carter also touched on the parable from Matthew that tells of the crowd of laborers who famously began work at varying hours but all received the same wage. "That parable has a lot of connotations. One connotation in it is that it treats everybody the same. We're all the same in God's eye," Carter said. It was a powerful message coming from a man who has spent his post-presidency carrying out humanitarian work around the globe.

As Carter said in Sunday school, we are free to make choices, good and bad. Certainly, my choice to come to Plains had been a good one. That said, the weekend's gold standard for good seemed to rest with the calm, simple decency of a man who spends his Sunday mornings spreading a message of love and kindness.

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