Today former President Jimmy Carter celebrates his 96th birthday! I first met the 39th President of the United States many years ago on the way to visit our sister parish in Haiti. Several of us from St. Thomas Aquinas were sitting on the airplane when the pilot announced that the former President was also on the plane. Once we had reached a safe altitude, Carter emerged to shake hands and talk with every single person on the plane. I was very moved by this gesture and my encounter with him, while brief, made a lasting impression.
Four years ago this July, I met President Carter again along with his wife, Rosalynn, this time in their hometown of Plains, Georgia. Jimmy Carter is the only President in modern times to return to live in his former house, a two-bedroom ranch in this sliver of cotton and peanut farmland.
Terry Zobel, our Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization Coordinator, her husband Bob, and I drove to the tiny town of Plains to attend Carter’s Sunday school class. We arrived at the church on the edge of town about 6:30 a.m. and took our place outside in line. After going through a Secret Service security check, we entered the sanctuary shortly before 8:00 a.m. and were treated with all the charm of southern hospitality.
While we waited in anticipation until the 10:00 a.m. start of Sunday school, we were given a few simple but significant ground rules. “When President Carter enters, don’t stand and don’t clap,” we were told. “He is here as a Sunday school teacher, not as a president,” we were reminded. And so when President Carter walked into the sanctuary, we did not stand or clap, but sat on the edges of our seats to glimpse our then 91 year old instructor. Carter wasted no time before he plunged into the Book of Esther, a story about a Jewish heroine who becomes the Queen of Persia and saves the Jewish people from genocide. I marveled watching this global leader on fire with the Word of God. I was particularly struck by his comments indicating that he regretted not doing more good works. Here is a man who has spent his life as a public servant and humanitarian. Yet, despite his initiatives with the Carter Center and his work with Habitat for Humanity, he said he wished he could have done more. His words put things into perspective. They told me that the work of God’s kingdom is never done and that no matter our age or status in this world, we are all, in the end, laborers in God’s vineyard.
After his 45-minute class, we stayed for the 11:00 a.m. worship service. The majority of the congregation were tourists. While there are about 150 members at Maranatha, only about 30-40 of them worship there on a weekly basis. Following the service, we were invited to stay to take a picture with the Carters, who lingered more than an hour so that each visitor could have the opportunity to take a photo with the former President and former First Lady.
Afterwards, we took a trip to Main Street for another taste of this tiny town and to satisfy our sweet tooth with some peanut butter ice cream at the Plain Peanut Store. As we drove home we savored the simplicity of Plains and its cherished son.