02 Feb

In Plains, Ga., President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school program still draws crowds

President Jimmy Carter greets the congregation ahead of his Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. (Becca Milfeld/For The Washington Post)

While driving through Southwest Georgia last fall, I drove past a cotton field, a crop so loaded with historical significance that I couldn’t help but stop the car and gape at the scraggly plants. Evocative as they were, they weren’t the day’s main agricultural attraction. That honor went to the peanut, a crop that symbolizes a different period in American history — a four-year period, to be exact.

I am, of course, referring to the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the erstwhile peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., who burst onto the national political stage in 1976, wooing the electorate with born-again, can-do spirit.

Perhaps it was because of my grandparents — Texans whose lives hew closely to the edicts of their Baptist faith — that I felt compelled to attend Carter’s Sunday school class last October while in the state for work. (Or because I’m a fan of presidential history who couldn’t imagine passing up the chance to see an ex-president in such close quarters.)

Plains is a paean to the 39th president: Visitors can tour Carter’s childhood farm, see the old train depot that he used as a campaign headquarters and stop by his high school, which is now the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site’s museum and visitor center. In a convenience store parking lot, there’s even a 13-foot grinning peanut that vaguely resembles the president and rivals Carter as Plains’s best prop for group shots and selfies.

[While travel appsters hover over their gadgets, scrolling and squinting at a tiny screen, I hoisted my low-tech guidebooks all over Atlanta.]

I arrived at Carter’s childhood farm in the evening hours after the close of business and before dusk, when a rural stillness permeated every aspect of the place. The farm was not actually in Plains, but in what was once a small and impoverished African American community called Archery, where Carter, who came from a relatively progressive family, formed friendships with black playmates and where abandoned buildings stand empty today.

During the same era, young Carter sold boiled peanuts — soft like chickpeas, with a

salty flavor similar to that of canned green beans — in town for 5 cents a bag. I was reminded of my own grandmother, who grew up working on her family’s peanut and cotton farm. Like Carter, she sold crops in town. The data points that defined her life — Baptist faith, rural Southern upbringing — were part of a shared heritage that came to life among the site’s outbuildings, in better-preserved versions of her own long-deserted farm.

Attendees line up early; at 5:45 a.m. the author was the 13th arrival for the 10 a.m. class. (Becca Milfeld/For The Washington Post)

Journalists covering the Democrat during his candidacy often stayed in nearby Americus, Ga.; I followed their lead. Plains’s only hotel was full, no doubt due to Carter’s class, which is attended largely by outsiders who begin arriving at an uncivilized hour to ensure themselves a seat. I pulled into the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot at 5:45 a.m. and received a scrap of paper indicating that I was the 13th car. We pilgrims were hours out from Carter’s 10 a.m. lecture, and there was little to do except doze and gaze at a sky of brilliant countryside stars. Faint Southern voices murmured in the dark as a member of the Secret Service walked a dog beneath a row of pecan trees. Soon after daybreak, we lined up on the church lawn based on our numbers.

We would all have an opportunity to take a photograph with the former president and first lady after church, and a steward named Jan drilled us on protocol. No touching! No hugging! No talking to the president! We filtered past a Secret Service checkpoint, found our spots in the pews, and after church officials gave an orientation Carter finally emerged, plain as day, with a cheerful “Good morning, everybody.”

Framed against the church’s mint-green walls and treading its moss-colored carpeting, Carter, who wore a sport jacket and bolo tie with a turquoise medallion, began by asking the assembled where we were from.

Minnesota. Peru. Texas. Russia.

“D.C.!” I called out.

“Washington, D.C., I used to live there,” Carter stated matter-of-factly, and the room roared with laughter. We hung on his every word, still amazed at our luck at having an audience with a man of such power and palpable goodwill. The mood was amplified by the fact that it was his 93rd birthday.

Almost as popular as President Jimmy Carter himself, a giant grinning goober greets visitors to Plains, Ga. (Becca Milfeld/For The Washington Post)

While Sunday school lessons generally focus on ancient happenings in the Middle East, Carter’s opened in North Korea — specifically on his hope for peace. His lesson, derived in part from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, centered on free will and God’s unconditional love, regardless of the good or bad decisions people make.

Carter also touched on the parable from Matthew that tells of the crowd of laborers who famously began work at varying hours but all received the same wage. “That parable has a lot of connotations — one connotation in it is that it treats everybody the same. We’re all the same in God’s eye,” Carter said. It was a powerful message coming from a man who has spent his post-presidency carrying out humanitarian work around the globe.

The folks at Maranatha Baptist Church recommended one of the town’s main eateries, the Cafeteria, which has since closed but represents a type of restaurant found throughout small towns in the region. Most of the congregation arrived before me and raided the place of its fried chicken, leaving me with meatloaf. It was snuggled onto my plate next to a great Southern trifecta: black-eyed peas, collards, and macaroni and cheese. This was accompanied by a towering Styrofoam cup of sweet tea, a potion so saccharine I was forced to go back and sheepishly ask for water.

The Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm includes the commissary where the president’s father, Earl Carter, sold coffee, canned goods, kerosene and other items to farmworkers and neighbors. (Becca Milfeld/For The Washington Post)

I was, after all, trying to save a little room for some peanut butter ice cream, which is sold at Carter’s former peanut warehouse. Today, it houses a tourist shop where visitors can buy T-shirts in every color, featuring a goofy-looking goober and the saying: “Went nuts in Plains, Georgia.” I didn’t get one, but I did buy ice cream and, inexplicably, a cup of boiled peanuts ladled from a simmering pot, then left the store double-fisting my snacks.

As Carter had said in Sunday school, we are free to make choices, good and bad. Certainly, my choice to come to Plains had been a good one. That said, the weekend’s gold standard for good seemed to rest with the calm and simple decency of a man who spends his Sunday mornings spreading a message of love and kindness.

Milfeld is a writer based in the District and Atlanta. Find her on Twitter: @GWcallsShotgun.

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