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Carters visit Ebenezer for final Sunday worship service of the year

Former President Jimmy Carter was praised as “a living example” of living the good life during morning worship services at Ebenezer Baptist Church Sunday morning, for continuing to give back well after he left the Oval Office nearly 40 years ago.

Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and 43 members of their family joined the congregation at the historic Atlanta church for the last Sunday service of the year.

“I’m glad to be back in Ebenezer,” he said to a nearly packed house, lamenting his most recent visits to the storied church were for funerals. “I feel at home when Rev. Warnock preaches and not having to sit at a funeral at the same time.”

There was no particular reason for the visit, other than to worship ahead of the new year. The Carters are typically on vacation or mission trips during the holiday, but chose to stay in Georgia this year.

Also in attendance for Sunday morning’s service were members of the Harvard men’s basketball team and former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson.

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“I want to bring you greetings from Plains, Georgia,” the 94-year-old former president said from his second-row seat near the center of the church sanctuary.

He noted that in his small hometown: “We’ve got 700 people … and 11 churches.”

Carter’s faith has been a big part of his persona since he was first welcomed on the national stage. After leaving the White House, he continued teaching Sunday school. His home church in Plains, Maranatha Baptist Church, usually sees between 20 and 25 people during church services. On Sundays when Carter is scheduled to teach Sunday school, that number can reach above 500.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, speaks during the last Sunday church service of the year on December 30, 2018. Former President Jimmy Carter, wife Rosalynn and more than 40 members of their family attended the service. The former president is a member of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, where he still teaches Sunday school to crowds that can top 500. (Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM}

At one point, Carter acknowledged the large contingent of family members accompanying him to the famous Atlanta church on Sunday morning. Grandson Jason Carter and his family are members at Ebenezer.

“I can’t say they’re all Baptists, but we’re working on them,” he said to laughs from the congregation.

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, Ebenezer’s pastor, said he was honored that the Carters chose to worship at the Atlanta church during the holiday season.

“We are blessed today, in so many ways,” Warnock began his sermon. “We are deeply honored to have in our presence a man and a woman who continue to inspire us in so many ways. Inspired by his leadership in the Oval Office, and after the Oval Office.”

Christine King Farris, sister of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is escorted to her seat during the morning service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday, December 30, 2018. Her brother and their father served as pastors at Ebenezer. (Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

As is the case many weekends, Warnock’s words were peppered with subtle political jabs, reading from the Gospel of Luke and relaying the story more as a battle cry for people understanding their place in life’s metaphorical food chain, with less focus on materialism.

“What does it mean to live the good life, and how do you see it?” he said. “We need to look at life differently. I don’t know about you, but I need more than things going into the new year. I need somebody. I don’t need something. Thank God we’ve got a living example of the Gospel in Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. They could have traded all their time in the White House to enrich themselves. Everybody else does.

“Instead, they chose to build homes for the poor all across the country.”

Warnock was referencing how the Carters have long been advocates for Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes using volunteer labor and assists people who are in need of affordable housing. Before the Carters got involved, the organization had built fewer than 1,000 homes. In the decades since, millions have been built.

Former President Jimmy Carter talks to the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, during the Sunday morning service on December 30, 2018. The Carter family attended its final Sunday church service of 2018 at the historic Atlanta church. (Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

Next week, Carter, also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is scheduled to worship at his home church in Plains.

Not surprisingly, the man whom many, including Warnock, call “the most famous Sunday school teacher in the world,” is on the schedule to teach at 10 a.m. next Sunday.

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