Pilgrimage to Plains: The faithful come from around the world to hear Jimmy Carter preach

Jimmy Carter delivered his first Sunday school lesson when he was 18. More than 70 years later, the former president is still at it, and the crowds at Maranatha Baptist Church have never been bigger.
Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
Photograph by Audra Melton

Beth Feeback will tell you she voted for Jimmy Carter—twice—before she turned 18. “My daddy brought me in the voting booth and let me pull the lever,” she says. On this chilly March morning, the sky streaked rose and gold, Beth and her father, Ralph McLaughlin, wait outside Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Beth and Ralph share a birth month—she’s 49 and he’s 84—and gave each other a shared gift: checking off a bucket list item by attending Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class. “My daddy bonded with my brothers over sports,” she says. “For the two of us, it’s always been politics.”

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
Beth Feeback and Ralph McLaughlin

Photograph by Audra Melton

At just past seven, father and daughter stand near the end of a line stretching from the front of the church to the parking lot. Within 15 minutes a hundred more people fall in behind them. Treatment for her rheumatoid arthritis is going well, but Beth is glad she brought her cane, given the long wait. She and Ralph take turns holding their spot and stretching their legs. Beth finds some pecans under the nearby trees and shows them to a couple who have traveled from Australia.

An added urgency prompted Beth and Ralph’s trip: Last August, Carter announced he was being treated for melanoma that had spread to his liver and his brain.

Carter occupied the White House for just one term, but in the almost four decades since, he’s remained a fixture on the global stage, a presence so ubiquitous he seemed a constant. Just as the sun would rise over the flat peanut fields of Plains and the tides would tug at the Georgia coastline, Jimmy Carter would pop up at contested elections, discuss the gruesome details of Guinea worm disease, denounce the carnival atmosphere of modern politics, and weigh in on the Middle East troubles. Even after calmly placing his medical prognosis “in the hands of the God I worship,” Carter seemed unstoppable. He underwent experimental immunotherapy and then, in December, declared he was cancer-free.

Alan and Sue Capelle made the two-and-a-half-day drive from a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, on impulse after catching a Sunday morning talk show segment on Carter. “When you get to a certain age bracket, everyone has some experience with cancer,” says Sue. “He has been so direct and seems at peace.”

Ed Bullington and his wife, Karen, left nothing to chance and staked the first spot in line at 4:45 a.m.—more than five hours before Carter’s Sunday school class will start. “I go way back in terms of political support,” Ed says. “I voted for him and was very excited to have the chance to do so after Nixon. But I admire him even more now. He has had a life of giving and empowerment of others. Not to be morbid, but the brain cancer made us realize we needed to come sooner rather than later.”

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
Carter-related tourism is good for business in downtown Plains

Photograph by Audra Melton

The highway through Plains might be wider since James Earl Carter Jr. was born here in 1924, but the town’s economy sputters as it did back then. Today the Old Carter Peanut Warehouse on Main Street houses a gift shop, and the high school, shuttered in 1979, serves as a National Parks Service visitors center. The sign on the Church Street service station might read “Billy Carter,” but its pumps have been dry for decades. The industry that now fuels Plains is Carter nostalgia, from the $3.30 sacks of peanut brittle and 50-cent reproduction postcards sold at the Parks Service gift shop to the thousands of pieces of political flotsam for sale at the Plains Trading Post. “We’re the biggest political memorabilia store in the South,” claims owner Philip Kurland. “And the largest for Secret Service collectibles.”

To be crass, Carter’s cancer scare has been good for business in his hometown, population 758. The weekend after his diagnosis announcement, 1,300 people arrived for Sunday school. “It was a shock,” says Kurland. “It was busier than the Plains Peanut Festival, which normally is the most busy weekend in Plains. We have had no slow season this year.”

The pilgrims place particular strain on Maranatha, which on a typical Sunday sees 30 active members in its pews. When Carter is in town, the 300-seat sanctuary and 100-seat Fellowship Hall overflow. Jan Williams, who manages the Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall, oversees crowd control at the church, a task she took on in the mid-1990s when Carter began publishing books about his faith and attendance at his Sunday school lessons began to tick upward. Williams, who’s in her 60s, has known Carter for more than 40 years. For her, welcoming guests to his classes is a mission that goes beyond protecting “Mr. Jimmy.”

“We are open, and everyone is welcome—of any faith or any denomination. They come for Sunday school and worship; that’s two hours we can minister to them,” says Williams. “We don’t have to leave the church property to be missionaries.”

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
People travel from all over to hear Jimmy Carter’s lessons.
Top Row (L-R): Mama Tapo, Mali (with Lions Club); Jiaxin Zhang, China, Enguerrand de San Nicolas, France (exchange students); Karla and Clarence Harris, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Middle row (L-R) Chadwick Queen and Keith Hood, Atlanta; Ed and Karen Bullington, Little Rock, Arkansas; Dr. Toshiko Yamada and Dr. Jitsuhiro Yamada, Minokamo, Gifu, Japan (with Lions Club)
Bottom row (L-R) Alan and Sue Capelle with Alan’s sister, Eileen (left), Madison, Wisconsin; Patricia Blue, Fayetteville, and Bettie Vogler, Khadijah Williams, and Erica Wright, Miami; Dr. Tebebe Yemane-Berhan, Ethiopia (with Lions Club)

Photographs by Audra Melton

By 8:30 almost every spot in the Maranatha parking lot is taken, and two SUVs trap a tour bus that carried international representatives of the Lions Club. An officer leads a dog between the vehicles as Williams shouts up at the bus driver. “Stay here, and then you can park. Do you want to hear Mr. Jimmy teach? I’ll make sure you can.”

Traffic unsnarled, Williams strides from the parking lot to the front door of the church and surveys the hundreds of people in the line that stretches the equivalent of several city blocks. “Are you number one?” she asks the Bullingtons. “Okay, you stand here. Everyone else, get in line behind them.”

She herds the faithful into single file, like a sheep dog in a cable-knit sweater and sensible walking shoes. “Can you tell what I used to be before I retired?” she asks. “A prison guard?” someone guesses. Williams laughs. At Westside Elementary in Plains, Williams was Amy Carter’s fourth-grade teacher and attended the president’s inauguration in 1977. Today Williams directs visitors into the sanctuary as she might corral unruly grade schoolers into the cafeteria. At a folding table outside the church, security officers check bags and phones. “No! Put that back in your car,” Williams scolds a man clutching a hardback copy of Carter’s 29th and latest book, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. “The president will not sign autographs. You’re number nine. I’ll hold your place, but put that away.”

After 45 minutes Williams calls, “That’s all! The rest of you, come to the back, and we’ll get as many in as we can.” Beth Feeback and her father slowly follow Williams across the lawn, as do the Capelles, who also just missed the cutoff for the sanctuary. They hope at least to be among the hundred in the overflow Fellowship Hall. This is a large crowd. For the first time in years, Williams will have to turn people away; a hundred will leave Maranatha after hours of waiting.

Back in the sanctuary, Williams barks orders. Say good morning cheerfully—and loudly. The president will want to know where you are from. Give your state or country. If someone has already said your state, don’t say it again. Speak up. “He’s 91,” she reminds everyone. She leads a practice run. India. Georgia. Washington. “State or D.C.?” Williams asks. “Be specific.”

South Dakota. Australia. The Democratic Republic of Congo. “Just say Congo,” Williams advises. Mali. Ethiopia. Pennsylvania. Niger. “Nigeria?” asks Williams. No, Niger. “Nigeria?” she asks again.

The president and first lady will pose for pictures—after church. Have your camera ready. Stand to the side. Don’t try to shake hands. Don’t dodge the Secret Service agents. Did you know Mr. Jimmy carved these collection plates? He also made that wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary. Why don’t you all stand up and take pictures of the cross now? It’s made from persimmon wood hundreds of years old.

Williams urges people to squeeze close so she can make room for a few more folks. Beth Feeback and her father are ushered in from the Fellowship Hall. Sue and Alan Capelle follow shortly, along with a Sunday school group from Macon and a young man from Ireland.

Don’t clap for the president, Williams says. Just listen to the lesson. He doesn’t want applause.

After immunotherapy and the removal of 10 percent of his liver, Jimmy Carter is thin and pale, his skin as silvery as his hair. He looks like a smaller, glowing replica of himself. He wears a suit and a giant turquoise bolo tie. He brings his own Bible to the podium.

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
Photograph by Audra Melton

“Good morning!” he says.

“Good morning,” everyone replies.

Carter starts each lesson with an update on his life. He and his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, just got back from Argentina. “We were fishing for dorado, enormous bass. Some are 20 pounds,” he says. This prompts a knowing “aahh” from half the gathering and blank looks from the rest. Carter mentions that he has other news. He is done with treatment for his cancer. He will not be going back for more.

Everyone claps and then looks at Jan Williams, who does not seem angry that they have broken her rule about applause. Carter explains he has been taking an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab, which he repeats a few times. “I’m kind of an experiment,” says Carter, adding that he will go back for MRI scans to make sure the cancer remains undetectable. At the side of the sanctuary, video cameras roll. NBC sends a cameraman and producer to capture each lesson in case Carter’s remarks are newsworthy. Within 48 hours this health update will appear everywhere from Fox News to the Daily Beast.

Carter moves on to roll call. California. Washington state. “That’s where the USS Jimmy Carter is stationed. It’s the best ship in the Navy.” Lithuania. Louisiana. Niger. “Oh, Nee-zher,” Carter nods. India. Alabama. Washington—D.C. “I used to live there.”

As the church leads into the weeks before Easter, Carter says he wants to focus on forgiveness of sin and betrayal. The reading is from Luke’s chronicle of the Last Supper. Carter asks what detail is missing from this account that is found in other gospels. That’s right: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

“Christ showed humility,” he says. “He was a servant.” Carter, who’s been teaching Sunday school since he was 18, sounds like the faithful Southern Christian he is, backtracking for emphasis, pausing from time to time to gather his thoughts as he elaborates on the symbolism of the Last Supper—the blood and body of Christ sacrificed for the sake of sinners. He sprinkles the lesson with references to his former occupation—the disciples squabbling for position in Jesus’s kingdom are like supporters who want places in a cabinet. He frames the doctrine with diplomacy, noting that Communion is also called the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist and celebrated in Catholic Mass just as in Baptist worship services.

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
The Reverend Jeremy Shoulta serves a congregation that swells from dozens to hundreds when Carter is in town.

Photograph by Audra Melton

At the conclusion of his lesson, Carter leads a prayer and then greets people in the front row, shaking hands with the Bullingtons—the early birds. Carter and Rosalynn settle into a pew a few rows from the pulpit. Rosalynn has the same beatific expression, immaculate auburn coif, and ramrod posture she had in the 1970s. The only person sitting more erect is the Secret Service agent stationed behind the Carters—or possibly the one up front, across from the organist. When the congregation bow their heads in prayer, the agents bolt upright, eyes wide open, and scan the pews.

Carter’s lesson lasted 50 minutes, with a full 30 devoted to the biblical explication. When pastor Jeremy Shoulta comes to the pulpit, his sermon is a compact quarter hour, focused on a line from the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses. The Reverend Shoulta is energetic and baby-faced; he bears more than a passing resemblance to Carter’s grandson Jason. Shoulta was born well after the end of the Carter administration. His parents and grandparents once traveled to hear Carter’s Sunday school lesson. “You can’t grow up in Baptist circles and not know about Jimmy Carter,” he says.

After the final hymn, Shoulta returns to the pulpit with a surprise announcement: Nancy Reagan has died. There are gasps from the pews and heads swivel toward Carter, who remains focused on the front of the sanctuary. Shoulta remembers the Reagan family in his final prayer. The organ plays; everyone stands and stretches, then gets back into line—this time to have a picture taken with President and Mrs. Carter.

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
Sharon and Emma Graybill, from Mt. Pleasant Mills, Pennsylvania

Sharon Graybill and her sister-in-law, Emma, hit their places and smile as the camera clicks. Coming to hear Carter was something Sharon and her husband, Carl, always wanted to do but never did. Carl died six years ago. After Sharon heard about Carter’s cancer, she and Emma, Carl’s sister, decided to make the journey from Pennsylvania to Plains before it was too late again. Sharon, somber, says it’s a bittersweet trip, but she is glad she made it. The Graybills are Anabaptist Mennonites, and both women wear long, modest skirts and small lace caps. The service wasn’t too different from their own, says Emma, “but we don’t sing as many of the older hymns.” Michael Bach Henriksen, culture editor for the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, watches as the Reverend Shoulta shakes hands with the visitors. What surprised him about the visit was the simplicity and smallness of Plains, underscoring the American myth that anyone—from anywhere—can grow up to become president. He says that when he told people he would be traveling here, those of his parents’ generation expressed a “nostalgia for politics like in the era of Jimmy Carter.” More than 80 percent of Danes are Lutheran, and Christianity in his country does not take the varied forms it does in the U.S., he says. “Many Danes wish there was more of the Christianity of Jimmy Carter in U.S. politics, not the kind discussed by Ted Cruz.”

Carter’s motorcade leaves, headed for his ranch house on Woodland Drive. The pilgrims linger outside the church. Even though they have been here for hours—and most have skipped breakfast, lunch, and their morning coffee—they seem reluctant to leave. After they thank the Reverend Shoulta, they talk with each other, looking at each other’s pictures.

The chill has yielded to radiant Georgia spring. Sue and Alan Capelle stand in the sun, facing the church. “I’m so inspired,” says Sue. “I’m so glad I finally saw him.”

Jimmy Carter Sunday School Plains Georgia
The first couple pose for photos after the services.

Photograph by Audra Melton

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.