Photo: Mike Donovan, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, President Jimmy Carter and Terri Sterling Donovan
I may have had some second or even third thoughts about how great this idea was, to get up early, get ready and drive the 10 miles to Plains, Georgia, to get in line by 6 a.m. Some months ago, when we decided to check this box on my bucket list, picked our weekend and reserved our hotel room, all I could think about was getting to hear President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School. How amazing that might be. And to hurry up already, because he’s 93 years old and recently diagnosed with brain cancer, thankfully now in remission.
Turns out the closest real hotel is in Americus, Georgia. And according to the website at the Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters have been members since 1981, you’d better get there early if you want to claim a space in the 500-seat sanctuary before the class begins at 10 a.m. They even write it in red for emphasis.
The night turned out pretty restless, with the A/C cranked up for the early November heat wave in southwestern Georgia, and the duvet way too heavy and hot. But we got up at 4:45 and were out the door by 5:50. Little did we know that once we entered the church grounds, there wouldn’t be any leaving until afternoon that day. No coffee, no breakfast and two side-by-side porta-potties for relief, each always with a line.
About 7:30 a.m. they called for us to line up. Every car entering the church parking lot had been given a number. Ours was 26--we were the 26th car to arrive at 6:10 that morning. The numbers were hand drawn on wrinkled yellow paper; you could tell they’d been used many times over. The man handing them out, we found out later, was Miss Jan’s husband. He gave us a few pointers, said he was glad we were here, and pointed where to park. It was pitch black dark.
Miss Jan was indisputably in charge. A retired schoolteacher and tour bus director, she commanded our attention and the attention of the nearly 500 people who were in attendance that day. They told us we’d better be glad we weren’t coming the next weekend as it was Veterans Day, a national holiday, and the church would be packed.
We shuffled through the line to be full-body-wanded by the four Secret Service agents staffing security. We also emptied our pockets and hands onto a white laminate table. They checked my iPhone and my pack of Trident Mint Bliss gum, and handed it all back to me. As directed, I’d left my purse in the car, with stuff I really needed, like Kleenex, lipstick and money for the offering plate, but I was trying to follow directions.
The African American woman in front of me had her well-worn Bible with her, and the agent told her he’d need to check through the pages. She was okay with that. Mike had emptied his pockets so thoroughly he left his money clip in the car, so he didn’t have any money either. We truly had nothing to give except our time and attention.
Inside, we were shown to our seats and ended up one row behind the roped-off section we understood was for that portion of the 122 church members who would be there that day.
Miss Jan then took center stage. With a microphone, she proceeded to give us the skinny about what was going to happen that morning, and how we were to behave.
It’s President Carter. Not Mr. President. Not Mr. Former President. Just President Carter.
No standing when he enters the room. Except for the one serviceman there in his uniform. He will stand, Miss Jan said, and President Carter will acknowledge and then dismiss him.
“Just want you all to know that he’s not doing anything wrong when he stands up. But you don’t,” she reminded the rest of us.
“Your applause will be taking anything you hear today that touches you, moves you, back out into the world and sharing it,” she said at least twice that morning. Repetition is the stuff of elementary school classrooms and church sanctuaries filled with people from across the country and several foreign countries, in place to hear a President teach Sunday School.
President Carter likes to know where those congregated are from---the states and the countries. He’ll take it section by section. Now, once a state has been shouted out, don’t say it again, she warned. And then she had us practice it. Twice. Just to be sure we got it. You won’t be surprised that several people didn’t follow those directions once President Carter actually entered the room and started the state and country thing. Miss Jan said there’s always at least one or two people who have to be “cute.”
Miss Jan said that the state and country time was the only time, and she said this several times, in case we didn’t hear it the first time, the only time we could take pictures of the President. Not during the Sunday School class. Not during church.
And Miss Jan was funny. I think she won me over with her humor. She was strict and stern, like many of my schoolteachers growing up, but she also softened from time to time, told a funny story or two about earlier guests on different Sundays there, and won us over. I think most of us ended up wanting to do exactly what Miss Jan told us to do. It seemed very important, suddenly, to do the right thing there, in that little country church in Plains, Georgia, the church that the 39th President of the United States and the First Lady attend most Sundays in the town both of them grew up in.
Then, just before 10 a.m., Miss Jan introduced the 23-year-old minister of the Maranatha Baptist Church, Brandon Patterson. He surely looked like somebody’s youngest son, certainly not the preacher of the President’s church. And he talked with a pronounced lisp.
Surprising at first, but like Miss Jan, Brandon won me over. He won me over with his humility when he answered the first question from the audience, after he prodded us by saying, “Nothing’s off limits, just ask me anything,” and the question was this: “Are you sure you’re old enough to be a preacher?”
His answer was a quick “no.” And then Brandon proceeded to tell us just exactly how and why how he was hired, a seminary student in town for an invited lunch with a church leader and President Jimmy Carter, what turned out to be a very quick and surprising three-week process, he said, in a denomination that usually takes “forever” to make a decision.
And, how he’s prayed since he was a little boy about being a preacher, and getting his first real job, and about finding the right wife, who, it turns out, is Camille, the most “beautiful and wonderful and amazing person ever.”
Brandon and Camille are getting married in two weeks. And next Sunday, Veterans Day Sunday, the entire congregation is giving them a wedding shower, the bulletin announces, and all the ladies are asked to bring finger foods.
Brandon and Camille are registered at Bed, Bath and Beyond and on Amazon, by the way. And no, President Carter isn’t marrying them, though he offered to. Camille’s grandfather was a preacher in North Carolina and even though he’s gone now, she’s always wanted to get married in his church. But the congregation at Maranatha is going to throw the couple the reception when they get back.
Just before 10 a.m. First Lady Rosalynn Carter enters the sanctuary from the front side door, and took a seat toward the front, in about the third row, in our section. In fact, I was directly behind her, about five rows back.
And then President Carter walked in. We didn’t stand and we didn’t clap, although I wanted to. I wanted to do something. The soldier did stand, and President Carter approached him, looked him in the eye and smiled, and shook his hand, and then dismissed him.
The President did the states and countries thing, but he started in the middle section, which we hadn’t practiced. I thought, Oh no, we’re going to mess up. And we did. A couple of people had to be “cute,” as Miss Jan had warned us about, and shouted out their state at least one or two times, almost begging the President to look their way.
I heard several states mentioned more than once. Even though I cringed at these people trying to be “cute,” I thought later maybe they were just excited to be there, to be about to hear the former President of the United States say a few important words to us, and they just couldn’t help themselves. Since someone had already said “Tennessee”, we were off the hook. We stayed silent.
And then President Carter just started talking to us. Miss Jan had given us some homework earlier, to study the lesson for today in the Sunday School books that had been handed out, two or three per pew. I read the lesson about the power-hungry King Herod, the Roman emperor who was the ruler and leader of the Jews, and who consistently made decisions that kept himself in the limelight and others pushed down. Small wonder that Jesus wasn’t popular with him. The lesson question was about power, and how we try to grab and maintain power. And where real power really is.
But President Carter didn’t start out talking about the lesson. He told us he is writing a book on faith right now that will be out later this year. And he said faith is a hard subject to think about and to write on. He asked us what the word “faith” means to us? People shouted out belief, and trust and some other words. President Carter said when he thinks of faith, he thinks of commitment and confidence in something. He talked for a while about how we all have faith in things and people and situations. We have to, because a society doesn’t work without it. A family doesn’t work, a community doesn’t work, a country doesn’t work, and a world doesn’t work without having faith.
He referred to an op-ed piece he wrote several years ago for The New York Times titled “Our Endangered Values.” He also wrote a book on the subject. It was published in 2005. He said that the country’s leaders don’t get to decide what kind of country we’ll be. He reminded us that it’s we, the people, who get to decide.
Then, President Carter talked about his commitment to peace. To truth. To justice. To equality. To love. He equates these values with Jesus Christ, who he believes lived a life committed to demonstrating these values, and is the one being he tries, and we Christians are to try, to emulate.
He said the U.S. has committed itself as a nation to world peace but seems to consistently always be at war. He’s worried about other things today, and without saying it outright and directly, he referred to our current national situation.
“Jesus personified everything that is good, and thus he lived a successful life…kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, generosity, compassion…Not the kind of success that is about money or status or cars or who you know.”
President Carter said every single person has the power to determine what kind of person they want to be, and nothing stands in our way of making this decision every day.
Then, he pointedly asked these questions:
Who decides if you will be kind?
Who decides if you will be gentle?
Who decides if you will be generous?
Who decides if you will be compassionate?
Who decides if you will be loving?
What kind of person do you want to be?
You decide. Nobody else.
It’s clear he will hear no excuses about this. He’s putting it squarely back on each one of us, right in our laps. Then, President Carter got to the lesson, but instead of the November 5 lesson about King Herod, he jumped ahead to the Nov. 12 lesson. Obviously, we jumped right along with him. After all, he is President Carter. That one was about Herod too, so it worked out fine.
Several times, as he talked this morning, I found myself crying (and my Kleenex were in the car). He’s standing there, stooped, clearly very old at age 93, smiling at all of us, calm and measured, talking to us about Jesus. The former President of the United States, a person who has seen it all, who has held the most prestigious and powerful position in the world. And still, he chooses most Sundays to come here, to talk to those gathered about central truths, basic truths, basic values. Truth, love, kindness, gentleness, compassion, justice, equality.
With all he has seen and done in his long and storied life, his grasp of power at the highest possible levels, he comes back to what is core. What is fundamental. What kind of a life do you want to live? What kind of a country do we want to be? Like he said at the very beginning---the people of this great country decide what the country is to be about. Not the leaders. The people.
It seems to me that if we decide first what we are all about as individuals, each one of us, modeled on someone or something greater than ourselves, then collectively, we as a people can make the difference President Carter talked about today.
I believe we can. After hearing his words today, I have more faith in good than when I walked into that church today. And when he asked us all to raise our hands if we believe the United States of America can weather this storm as well, I immediately raised my hand.
I know history hasn’t been so kind to President Carter. Many say he was our weakest President in modern times. Maybe so.
But I know what I heard today in that little country church in Plains, Georgia, was nothing short of inspirational. Nothing short of the truth, as simple and powerful and clear as a ringing bell.
He motivated me, to go and to be better. And if that isn’t leadership, what is?
Terri Sterling Donovan is principal of Sterling Communications, a marketing communications, marketing research, public engagement and public relations firm based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.