PLAINS, Ga. — The cars and SUVs and RVs began lining up outside Maranatha Baptist Church early Saturday evening. Jimmy Carter, a Maranatha parishioner and the 39th president of the United States, was due to teach Sunday school the next morning.
It would be Carter’s second lesson since he announced that he would undergo treatment for brain cancer. His first post-cancer lesson drew nearly 1,000 people to a church built for a few hundred, so the church decided to offer pews on a first-come, first-served basis. Guests arriving by 12:01 a.m. Sunday would be admitted to the church parking lot, where they would have to sleep in their cars.
Cynthia Alfont, a 47-year-old immigrant from the Philippines, flew from California to Knoxville, Tenn., then drove six hours straight to Plains. Georges Kabongo-Mubalamate, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, flew from his job in Maine then drove three hours from Atlanta. Kent Schroeder, 62, packed his sister and mother into his SUV and drove the hard 14 hours from Illinois.
“We’re gung-ho people!” chirped Schroeder’s mother, Pat, who was 93 and could walk only with assistance.
By 9 p.m. Saturday, the line of cars snaked more than half a mile along the two-lane blacktop, and church organizers gave in. Drivers were ushered into the church parking lot by Jill Stuckey, a board member of the Friends of Jimmy Carter National Historical Site, who seemed to have evolved beyond the need for sleep.
“Thank you for coming,” she told the drivers as she passed out seat numbers. “Thank you for putting up with us. We wish we could come up with a better way. Maybe we will by next week.”
The quiet town of Plains has long been defined by its relationship with Carter. The former president has taught all-ages Sunday school here for decades, speaking to maybe a hundred people a week in front of a wooden cross that he built himself. Tourists could go from there to a one-block downtown dominated by the Carter peanut warehouse and his old campaign office. Or they could visit the boyhood farm that still produces fresh food for the former president and his wife, Rosalynn.
It was easy to believe that this version of Plains would last forever. And then Jimmy Carter got cancer.
“I said to my wife, if you want to do it, we need to go,” said Justin Vann, 33, who works for a food packaging company in Lyman, S.C., and drove five hours to get in the pews.
“This was a bucket list goal for me, to meet a president,” said Mark Mask, 50, who drove with his wife from Hickory, N.C. “It was already in the plans, and then, obviously, we had to move it up and do it right away. I drove a NASCAR car, I jumped out of a plane, and I wanted to meet a president.”
Carter, who turned 90 last year, worked hard to regain that kind of admiration. His single term in Washington ended in 1981 in one of the biggest landslide defeats ever handed to an incumbent. He was so politically toxic that by 1992 Bill Clinton felt it necessary during his presidential campaign to persuade reporters that “Jimmy Carter and I are as different as daylight and dark.”
Among Republicans, Carter’s name is still muck-stained. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently invoked Carter to mock President Obama’s “feckless” and “weak” foreign policy, as if discovering a worse president than Carter was like discovering a mineral harder than diamond.
But this time, Cruz and Christie were quickly chastised. Decades of charity and humanitarian work had made Carter a respected political figure. The cancer diagnosis, however, had catapulted him beyond politics.
Many Plains pilgrims said they vote Republican but admire Carter. It would be a different country, they said, if more Democrats were like him.
“Our current president, I don’t believe he’s got a religious belief in his body,” Mask said.
The eldest of four children, Jimmy Carter was also the longest lived. As Carter pointed out last week, the other three died young after battles with cancer. It has been 25 years since Carter buried his sister Gloria, longer still since the death of his evangelist sister Ruth and his occasionally infamous brother, Billy.
On Saturday, at the Billy Carter Museum — located in his old gas station — Billy’s daughter Kim Fuller took orders for political-style yard signs inspired by a cartoon. “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor,” they said.
Fuller and Stuckey had planted the signs all over town, especially on the road near the former president’s Plains home. They were thrilled when Carter took a photo of the signs, and thrilled when some of out-of-town churchgoers absconded with them.
“Years ago, people used to pull peanuts out of the ground on the farm as souvenirs. So, you could say this was in that spirit, but for a better cause,” Fuller said.
On Saturday night, Fuller and Stuckey were out of signs, so Stuckey found herself guiding cars to the church lawn, informing drivers about the on-site port-a-potties, promising coffee and doughnuts in the morning.
By 12:15 a.m., 193 pilgrims had received seat assignments. And by 6 a.m., the coffee was on the porch, as promised.
About 400 people made the trip to Plains, and nearly all got seats in the pews. Only about 60 were directed to overflow rooms, organizers said. After sleeping on half-reclined car seats and changing behind tinted windows, they queued up outside the church without complaint, handing over watches, bags and smartphones to Secret Service agents. And then they found their seats.
Carter would not speak until
10 a.m. It was the job of Jan Williams, 65, to walk the pilgrims through the Sunday school process. There were rules — lots of them.
No one would interrupt the lesson by taking photos.
The president. Did not. Do selfies.
Everyone would get a picture with Rosalynn and Jimmy, but no one would hug or kiss him, because no one wanted him to get sick.
And “Don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about the diagnosis,’ ” Williams said. “You don’t have to tell him. He knows it. Just say, ‘I’m praying for you.’ ”
More rules: There would be no applause for the former president. No one would stand when he entered. As a result, Carter slipped into the room at 10 a.m. sharp, with no fanfare.
He asked where people had come in from, then gave a detailed update on his disease.
“Doctors tell me they’ve made the most progress in the last five years in lung cancer and melanoma,” Carter said, “so, I’m lucky.”
Then it was on to the lesson. Carter’s subject was “forgiveness,” and his Bible passage was Matthew 18:21-22: “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’ ”
This did not mean that the son of God was setting an upper limit on how much to forgive, Carter said. It meant that forgiveness should be boundless.
Over the next 30 minutes, Carter told the audience how he opened up China, how he talked to North Korea when President Clinton asked him not to, how he brokered the Camp David Accords.
“Not a word of that has been breached,” he said, with a pride tempered by fatigue.
“Wars between two countries, civil wars inside a country, disagreements between a husband and wife that lead to divorce, are all caused by the same thing,” he said. “That is an honest and sincere difference of opinion and an unwillingness to communicate.”
When Carter finished — he used no notes — he informed his pilgrims that he was under doctor’s orders to drink 84 ounces of fluid each day. “That’s ten big glasses of water, so I might need to excuse myself.”
The joke landed. He smiled as wide as he had on any campaign poster. And after the service, he and Rosalynn sat down, his hand on her hand, to take a quick photograph with everyone who had made the journey.