Carter attends Sunday school, as usual

Credit: BEN GRAY / AJC

Credit: BEN GRAY / AJC

Plains — When Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church, it’s an event.

As many as 350 visitors have been known to turn up for the 10 a.m. class at the little church located just past the giant grinning peanut, an icon of Carter, on Georgia Highway 45. That’s about half as many people as live in all of Plains, meaning his classes get held in the main sanctuary. The rest of the time, the much smaller fellowship hall works just fine.

With the former president just diagnosed with cancer and not on the schedule to lead the class, this particular Sunday wasn’t supposed to be an event.

But then, Jimmy Carter showed up for Sunday School as a student. What’s more, he made it clear he’s coming back again next week, to teach.

“Hello, nice to see you,” the former president said with a smile as he ambled into the fellowship hall just before 10 a.m. on Sunday, clutching a well-worn Bible in his hand. He exchanged handshakes and hugs with several of the 30 people there, nearly all of them fellow church members. Then he and his wife, Rosalynn, settled into a pair of folding chairs and waited for the lesson to begin like it was the most natural place in the world for them to be at a time like this.

It had been only four days since Carter, 90, told the world about his diagnosis. In a three-sentence statement released by The Carter Center Wednesday, he said recent liver surgery revealed the presence of cancer in “other parts” of his body, adding that a more complete statement would be made “when facts are known.” Almost no one here had spoken directly with the Carters since then.

But this week’s Sunday School teacher was someone close to him: His niece, Kim Fuller, whose father was the late, larger-than-life Billy Carter, brother of the former president.

A retired schoolteacher, Fuller, 59, was by turns funny and deeply thoughtful in the 45-minute lesson entitled “Dealing with Conflict.” At a certain point, it seemed to occur to her that she already had a couple of expert students sitting right there in the second row.

“Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rosalynn have gone into so many difficult situations in their lives where they’ve negotiated peace, and look what’s come out of it,” Fuller said. “Nations have come together, groups of people have come together. And you could just knock me over if Uncle Jimmy ever said, ‘Well, I didn’t pray before I did it.’”

Afterwards, Fuller got a “Hello darlin’” and a kiss on the cheek from her Uncle Jimmy, who added “You did a good job.”

Said Fuller, “Well, I had a good teacher.”

A most dedicated one, too. Before he followed his Secret Service agents into the sanctuary for the 11 a.m. worship service, Carter paused to welcome an AJC reporter to Maranatha and to make one thing perfectly clear:

“I’ll be teaching Sunday School next week,” he said.

They’re already expecting a huge crowd, said Jill Stuckey, a close friend of the Carters who helps with logistics at Maranatha when the former president is teaching. But not everyone could bear to wait that long. The first person to stand up and shake Carter’s hand when he walked into Sunday School was Bill Tipton of Maineville, OH. Tipton’s father was an Indiana state senator and a Carter delegate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention where he secured the presidential nomination. Tipton had made the 10-hour drive to Plains, not even knowing if he’d get to see Carter, but feeling he had to make the effort.

“I really love what he stands for. His whole life is about virtue,” said Tipton, an ex-Naval officer who once got a personal letter from Carter when he was at sea. “He and Mrs. Carter are just very giving people, and the world needs more people like them.”

On this particular Sunday, though, it seemed enough for people to have them at Maranatha. Carter accepted more hugs, a few of them tearful, before and after the worship service which some 45 people attended. During the pastoral prayer, when Maranatha’s pastor, Jeremy Shoulta, asked people to “lift up the names” of “those we’re concerned with and love dearest,” a woman called out softly, “Jimmy Carter.” At one point, an overhead light blew with a sharp “pop!” causing Shoulta, 31, to ad-lib a little later, “I always dreamed my sermons would knock lights out. But I guess it gave the Secret Service a bit of a scare.”

Over in his pew, Jimmy Carter grinned. And looked like this was the most natural place in the world for him to be.