Visiting Jimmy Carter's Sunday School Class Has Become an American Pilgrimage

PLAINS, Ga. — At the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., faithful and faithless gather in the parking lot at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, population roughly 800 if you count the dogs and cats. The Sunday school class begins at 10 a.m. Church service starts an hour later. But most of the sleepy-eyed visitors aren't here before dawn just for church.The main attraction is 94-year-old native son Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. president. Twice a month, Carter, who still lives in Plains with former first lady Rosalynn, his wife of 72 years, delivers a Sunday school lesson at Maranatha. Shortly after he lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he began teaching at the church and attending Sunday service here.Carter is renowned for his humanitarian and charitable efforts after his presidency. Most notably, he helps build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and his Carter Center has helped monitor elections in Africa, Asia and Latin America.Before dawn, lifelong Plains resident George Williams, wearing a red Coke cap and windbreaker, greets visitors at Maranatha's parking lot entrance, a short distance from an oversize peanut with a toothy grin. "Where y'all from?" he asks as he hands a visitor a small slip of crinkled brown paper with a number scrawled in marker. "Park right up there by Jill. God bless y'all." The lower your number, the better your chances of getting a seat for Carter's lesson. Sometimes as many as 500 people attend. But there's a little more than 350 Sunday. Only a handful will be assigned to watch the former president on a monitor in the overflow room instead of in person in the sanctuary.Williams arrived at 2 a.m. The first visitor pulled in five minutes later. Some take their numbers and doze in their cars. Others spring to life gulping coffee. A small group engages in small talk near a grove of leafless trees behind Maranatha, a modest, red-brick building topped with a white steeple.To some in Plains, Carter is Mr. Jimmy. To others, he's a hunting buddy. Most of all, they say, "He's one of us."  Continue reading...

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