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Without Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post, this story is not possible. (In case you’re wondering, yes I did thank her on twitter and yes, she did respond back.) When her podcast, Presidential, reached its episode on Jimmy Carter, Cunningham traveled down to Plains, GA to sit in Carter’s Sunday School class. Listening to his soft, southern drawl greeting his morning class, I was immediately jealous. And immediately assumed that Cunningham had been invited to some special event because of the podcast or due to her connections from the Post. However, I quickly googled ‘Jimmy Carter Sunday School’, just to be sure. One of the first hits is Maranatha Baptist Church with their updated schedule of President Carter’s upcoming Sunday school lessons. And that’s when I started planning our day and a half trip to Plains to shake hands with the former president.
Before we go any further, I feel like you may need some contextual background as to why flying halfway down the coast for less than 36 hours to meet a former president is not necessarily surprising to people who know me. I love presidential history. Probably a little more than would seem normal, even to the most history obsessed. My goal is to visit a historical site associated with each and I’ve currently crossed off 29. In August 2015 I visited Carter’s presidential library in Atlanta and was both astounded and inspired. Although his presidential legacy is debatable, his post-presidential career is nothing short of amazing. The Carter Centers both domestically and internationally to preserve democracy and continue the fight for human rights. Their work has also put eradication of the guinea worm disease within reach. Just a casual global disease eradication, as if the Center doesn’t have enough accomplishments. (But don’t Google guinea worm disease, I promise you’ll regret it…)
Once I found Marantha’s website and the schedule of President Carter’s classes, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I would scroll and wonder what it would be like to sit in that room. I studied the FAQ section and re-listened to the beginning of Cunningham’s podcast. Finally, Alex decided maybe we should stop talking about (i.e. I should talking about it) and we should just go. We bought tickets for early December 2016. That Saturday morning, we woke up to a snowstorm. Having received no notification that our flight was cancelled, we slipped and slid our way slowly to the airport, only to find out that our flight had actually been cancelled the night before. We ran from ticket terminal to ticket terminal, in true Home Alone style, hoping to find a workable alternative. Finally we had to admit defeat in those blue plastic chairs under a huge ‘arrivals’ screen. You wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed I was crying a little bit.
Besides a cold front and snow, that November also brought the election of You-Know-Who. When we were searching through flight options, trying to reschedule, inaugural weekend seemed like a natural choice. If Jimmy Carter’s smiling face couldn’t brighten up that weekend, then nothing could. While the departing weather in Philadelphia was fine, we didn’t realize until our plane began descent into Atlanta that Georgia was set for a weekend of nasty storms. (Some have suggested that our plane was actually struck by lightning at one point, which I can neither confirm nor deny.) While the two hour drive from Atlanta to Plains is mostly highway, a downpour seemed to steadily follow us most of the way.
But, of course, the sun was shining in Plains.
The population of Plains is slightly less than 1,000 and, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect or how we would fill the rest of our Saturday. My current hometown is somewhere around 2,000 and people miss what we consider ‘downtown’ because they blinked too quickly. As both President Carter and his wife Roselyn were born and raised in Plaines, the town does boast all the National Park sites associated with the Carters. If nothing else, I knew we would have those sites to visit.
Heading off the highway and towards Plains led us right to their downtown. Eight storefronts, each looking like a blast from the past and a huge sign plastered on one building that read ‘Plans Georgia, Home of Jimmy Carter, Our 39th President’. Walking down the row of storefront seemed like a good first introduction to the town and we popped into all that were open. The Plains Peanuts Store, a cross between a general store and a Carter memorabilia hub, correctly boasts bout having the best peanut ice cream you’ll ever eat. They may also offer you a sample of boiled peanuts, which seem to be a Southern staple that us Yankees don’t understand.
Besides walking down main street, you can also visit all three National Historic Sites associated with President Carter. Start with the High School, which doubles as the Visitors Center and watch the introductory visit. Then you can either visit the Boyhood Farm and come back downtown to the Campaign Headquarters or vice versa. Due to the stormy weather that weekend, the Boyhood Farm had flooded, so we were only able to drive by. Of the other two sites, the Campaign Headquarters is my favorite. I think it offers a really good idea of what Plains was like when President Carter was elected and how the town has since reacted to becoming a national site.
While all three National Historic Sites are nice, I feel confident saying that the true draw to Plains is the chance to meet President Carter. at Maranatha Baptist Church down the road past the high school. The number of people varies, but some weekends the church sanctuary is full and people have to sit in the overflow room. (Marantha’s website estimates that the sanctuary and the overflow room can accommodate about 475 people.) President and Mrs. Carter also stay behind after the service to take photos (or ‘make photos’ as the people of Plains call it) with any and all visitors.
With not too many hotel options in the area, you may have to stay outside of Plains. The Plains Historic Inn is located right downtown, but only has a few rooms and we were not lucky enough to get one that weekend. However, there are plenty of other towns that have accommodation options. If we were going back, I would probably opt to stay in Americus. Keep in mind that, wherever you stay, you’ll need to account for travel time when planning on arriving for Sunday service.
Our experience was a little unusual because the terrible weather continued all weekend and seemed to deter some of the normal crowd. Because of the lower number of people, everyone was able to sit in the main sanctuary. The Secret Service performs bag checks and metal detector screenings before any tourist is allowed inside. (My advice is to avoid our mistake and bring cash for the collection plate. As people who do not usually attend church, we forgot it in the car and I had to exit and reenter the church. The Secret Service does not appreciate having to rescreen people, no do they appreciate jokes about it…) Once everyone is inside, the rules will be reiterated -mostly about not touching the Carters. After all the rules had been laid out, a church member asked us to bow our heads in prayer and then there was President Carter standing off to the side, smiling around at everyone.
In something of its own miracle, he remained standing throughout the entire 40 minute lesson and the only thing in front of him was a Bible. No notes, no packet, nothing. He was listing societal positions in Biblical times and family trees without any trouble. He asked questions, called on people for answers and had little trouble hearing them, no matter where they were sitting in the chapel. The cutest moment was when he thought Mrs. Carter, who was seated a few rows from the front had said something, and he stopped mid sentence to ask ‘What, Darling?’
As he had returned from the inauguration only two days previously, he also had politics on his mind. A sly comment about crowd size wasn’t lost on anyone and he confirmed that President Obama’s first inauguration was the biggest crowd he’d ever seen. However, his actual Sunday School lesson focused on Paul and how he worked to be a bridge between multiple groups within the community. My favorite line from President Carter’s talk was when he announced that Jesus did not intend for us to only be kind to our white, American neighbors. If only we knew then how salient that lesson would become under the Trump presidency.
While it was amazing to meet President Carter (and trust me, it was), the most amazing thing about Plains was the people. Everyone that we met welcomed us with a kind heart and southern drawl to match. I will admit that when I thought of Plains, GA, as a small town in the deep south, I imagined a group of conservative people who were probably annoyed by tourists, because who isn’t annoyed by tourists? But I found the exact opposite. The locals in the antiques shop became friends as they gave out restaurant recommendations, told jokes, and recounted story after story about ‘Mr. Jimmy’. The time Mr. Jimmy wore his ugly crocs to Sunday dinner. The time their mother-in-law announced that she had dated Mr. Jimmy in high school, but wasn’t too impressed. How Mr. Jimmy could talk for twenty minutes about fishing.
Because it was the weekend of the inauguration, Plains even had a small woman’s march outside their town hall. The folks running it were kind enough to let me hold one of their signs and when I asked about the politics of the town, they said that the town is pretty progressive. We saw this firsthand when a mother brought over her little daughter dressed like Wonder Woman. One of the marchers said that the Carters probably have helped to move the politics of the town towards the liberal side. The people of Plains are almost a living embodiment the Sunday morning sermon. They treated us as neighbors, even though we were actually strangers. I expected Plains to exhibit the history of President and Mrs. Carter, but I never expected them to exhibit the spirit. I learned the most about President Carter not from the sites that tell his story, but the people who are living it with him.