Headlights piercing the black night, cars arrived one by one, at 1:45 a.m., 2 a.m., 2:11, every few minutes until past dawn, just as they always do when former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church.
On Sunday of Presidents Day weekend, we turned into the parking lot at 2:52 a.m., car No. 20, written on a piece of paper handed over by George Williams, who, as always, is there welcoming each car with a hearty, “Good morning. I’m George. Where y’all from?”
He tugged at his orange Ronald McDonald cap and told us the rules: You can take a cellphone OR a camera inside, no big purses, no knives, no nail clippers. “Thank you for coming.”
George, 75, is one of the 20 to 30 members of Maranatha, which split from another Baptist church in town in the 1970s when a black pastor wanted to join the original one, so the story goes.
“I’ve been knowing Mr. Jimmy since I was this high,” George said, bending over to touch his knees. It’s “Mr. Jimmy” to those who know him well, President Carter to most others, he said.
Instead of giving $100,000 speeches as many former politicians do, Carter, 94, in remission from cancer, teaches Sunday school. Everyone is welcome, and those who stay for the regular service after Sunday school can have their pictures taken with the Carters. The oldest living American president, Carter usually teaches about twice a month.
My husband, Keith, and I wanted to make sure we’d sit in the main church sanctuary, not in an overflow room with a TV screen, although Carter stops by those too to say hello. Except for church members, friends, Habitat for Humanity volunteers working nearby or VIPs such as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Rep John Lewis, who attended Jan. 20, where you sit depends on when you arrive.
Mingling with a few other early arrivals, there was an instant camaraderie. “We’re walking around like it’s normal to get to church at 3 a.m.,” said Ellen Sherwood, 64, from Madison, Florida. “This has been on my bucket list.” She smiled and said, “I just love him. He’s amazing.”
Not everyone was a fan when Carter was president from 1977 to 1981, but most agree he’s an exceptional former president and man. His connection with Habitat for Humanity helped make it a household name. Accomplishments of The Carter Center foundation founded by him and Rosalyn in 1982, and partnered with Emory University, are not as well known.
Among them is helping to practically wipe out Guinea worm disease in Africa and Asia, reducing those afflicted by the parasite in stagnant water from 3.5 million in 1968 to 28 in 2018. The foundation established health care systems in Africa and Latin America, worked to improve mental health care, observed elections in 39 countries and more. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
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SOURCE: The Advocate, Millie Ball