By Bruce Stambaugh
Humility, service, love, family and faith are vital pillars of any stable community. My wife and I enthusiastically witnessed these highest of human qualities at a little Baptist church in Plains, Georgia.
We knew we wouldn’t be the only ones who would want to hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school. When the former president is scheduled to teach, the tiny congregation of 30 swells to 10 times that amount, sometimes more.
The good folks at Maranatha Baptist Church know what to do. They are ready for the ensuing onslaught. So are the authorities.
When we arrived at 8:30 a.m. at the modest church that damp, gray Sunday morning, a police dog checked every vehicle entering the property for bombs. Though we were plenty early, a line of people already stretched from the front door, down the cement sidewalk to the parking lot.
By now, former President Carter has developed quite the reputation as a teacher, humanitarian, and world-renowned peacemaker. At age 90, he and his equally gracious wife, Rosalynn, are still putting their faith into action.
My wife and I joined the queue to enter the red brick building. A stern looking woman popped onto the church’s front porch to announce the procedures for entering. She spoke loudly and resolutely so everyone could plainly hear the specific instructions to make everything go as smoothly as possible.
Secret Service agents greeted us inside the door. We emptied our pockets onto a table and removed our coats. Another officer checked everyone with a wand for any suspicious objects.
We sat in a pew about two-thirds of the way back from the pulpit. Promptly at 9 a.m., the same drill sergeant like lady walked to the front of the church and introduced herself as “Miss Jan.”
Miss Jan spent the next 45 minutes kindly but firmly going over all the rules of conduct. Included were not standing or clapping for the president and no photography during the class or worship. We could take pictures during Jimmy’s brief introduction.
Miss Jan continued, “If you want your picture taken with the President and First Lady you must stay for both the Sunday school and the worship.”
After a brief break, Miss Jan, who had taught the Carter’s daughter, Amy, in elementary school, had us all bow our heads for a prayer. When she said, “Amen,” Jimmy Carter surprised the congregation when he rose and began addressing the crowd. He and his Secret Service guards had quietly sneaked in during the prayer. We hung on his every word.
Miss Jan kept watch over the assembled. She occasionally hugged or bent down to shake the hand of a Secret Service agent, as if she were welcoming them back to a family gathering. The affection they shared was for more than themselves. Their common assignment of protecting the president they loved and admired expressed their uniform devotion.
The topic was loving God and your neighbor. Jimmy humbly shared how organizations he supports, like the Lions Club, Habitat for Humanity, and The Carter Center in Atlanta, help him put this charitable concept into global deeds for peace and human rights.
Jimmy used the word “humble” several times, pronouncing it the old-fashioned way, without the beginning “H” sound. It modeled his southern, gentlemanly hospitable manner.
After the service, Miss Jan resumed command, dismissing us by rows to have our pictures taken with Jimmy and Rosalynn. When she came to our row, I told her she must have been an excellent teacher. Miss Jan winked, smiled, and quietly thanked me.
Miss Jan had instructed us not to either shake hands with the Carters or to talk to them so that everyone could get through the process as quickly and efficiently as possible. When the lady taking the photo with my camera clicked the shutter, Rosalynn whispered to Neva that the flash hadn’t gone off.
That was so thoughtful of her. The picture was fine, just like Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and Miss Jan, too.
The communion cup of love, faith, family, humility, and service generously overflowed in Plains, Georgia. We were grateful to have been partaken.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2015