On several Sundays each month, George Williams arrives at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains well before sunrise and takes up a spot near the entrance to the parking lot.
A member of the Maranatha congregation that also includes Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Williams’s is the first face most visitors see when they arrive for the former president’s Sunday school class.
A lot of visitors these days.
“I got here at 4:20 (a.m.),” Williams chuckled on a recent Sunday, taking a break from greeting new arrivals with a hearty “Where y’all from?” and issuing them numbers to get in line later. “There was already one car waiting.”
» Go with us as we visit Plains for Sunday School with Jimmy Carter in our latest accessAtlanta podcast .
Carter, 93, has begun making good on his pledge to cut back on his Sunday school teaching schedule. Whereas he previously taught the 10 a.m. class nearly every week he was in town, now it’s usually twice per month (Maranatha’s web site regularly updates his schedule.
The crowds at Maranatha, where totally capacity is about 460 people, haven’t grown as massive as those that immediately followed his August 2015 announcement of a brain cancer diganosis. Still, it’s not uncommon now for every seat in the sanctuary and an overflow room — even the two rows behind the pulpit reserved for the choir — to be occupied by visitors determined to hear “Mr. Jimmy” teach the lesson and have a photo taken with him and his wife, Rosalynn, after the 11 a.m. church service.
“This has always been on my bucket list,” said Mary Anne Godwin, who was waiting patiently with her husband, Monroe, to go through a Secret Service checkpoint when the church’s doors opened around 8:30 a.m. The Godwins had driven in the wee hours of the morning from their home in Bainbridge, making it to the church parking lot by 6 a.m.
(A good thing, too. The week before, said church member Jill Stuckey, the first row of people to wind up sitting in the overflow room for the former president’s class [ where they watch on a big screen TV] had arrived at 6:15 a.m.)
Visitors come from all over the world and many make a weekend of it, staying in nearby Americus, where some hotels have pushed the start of their breakfast service back as early as 5 a.m. to accomodate the Sunday school crowd. There’s plenty to see and do, especially in Plains, where the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site includes the farm where he grew up, the train depot that served as his presidential campaign headquarters and the high school that he and Mrs. Carter both attended and which now serves as a visitor center and museum.
President Carter is next scheduled to teach Sunday school on May 6 and May 20. And at 6 p.m. May 5, he’ll sign copies of his new book, “Faith: A Journey for All,” at Plains High School (limit of two books per person). For information or to purchase/reserve books, contact the event’s sponsors, Friends of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site at 229-928-4825 or email@example.com.