PLAINS — At about 9:15 a.m., the power went out in Maranatha Baptist Church.
Storms had raged through Sumter County all morning and half of the people crammed into the church were drenched.
It didn’t matter.
Jimmy Carter was back.
Less than a month after falling and breaking his hip, the 39th U.S. president and Plains native was back in church doing what he liked best — teaching Sunday school.
The Rev. Tony Lowden, Maranatha’s new pastor, said the moment originally was planned to happen sooner.
Carter was telling everybody who would listen that he was going to teach Sunday school on May 19, less than a week after having hip surgery. That was the plan.
“They sent me in the hospital room to tell him that he could not teach Sunday school,” Lowden told the parishioners before Carter came out for Sunday’s scheduled 10 a.m. lesson.
Carter surprised Lowden at 9:51 a.m.
“Good morning, everybody,” the 94-year-old former president said.
Using a walker, he strolled over to his chair. A custom-powered chair that rises to his command.
Per the president’s order, no one stands or claps when Carter walks into the sanctuary. He is there to teach.
“He has a very clear message of serving others,” said Ricardo Martinez, who drove down from Cumming with his wife, Mercedes, and their children Richardo and Mercedes. “He is a man of peace. He was the most powerful man in the world and he comes back to Plains to teach Sunday school and to teach others to serve.”
As is his tradition, Carter asked each section to call out where they are from.
Someone said Washington, D.C.
“Oh,” Carter said. “I used to live there.”
He also asked pastors to stand up and give their denominations and where they were from.
Glenda Morris-Robinson, a pediatrician from Atlanta, drove down with her daughter, Gabriella, who flew in from New York City just for the occasion. This was their first visit after hearing about the experience from friends.
“We wanted to pay tribute for all of the work he has done,” said Morris-Robinson, who had planned on bringing her 91-year-old mother until the storms came. “It is so wonderful to see a true servant leader. He was remarkable.”
The mother and daughter were among the visitors who started lining up at midnight to see and hear Carter.
At 8 a.m., in the pouring rain, a line wrapped around Maranatha for the 10 a.m. teaching.
By 8:55 a.m., everyone was somewhere in the church, having endured the downpour and the Secret Service. Everyone who got in line after around 3 a.m. had to sit in a classroom.
A stern usher pointed out the bathrooms.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended, including California’s U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who sat next to U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, who sat next to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson sat in the back.
Georgia Congresswoman Lucy McBath said Carter reminded her of the work still needed to be done in Washington as she heads back.
“This man is a living spiritual legend, who reminds me why I am serving and who I am serving,” said McBath, who represents Georgia’s 6th District and who ran on a platform of gun control after she lost a son to gun violence. “Everything I do is with them in mind.”
Carter broke his hip on May 13 and told the class that “Rosalynn and I have had some back luck lately with our physical health.”
Three weeks before he broke his hip, Carter said that his wife had broken her hip. Then on the day that he was scheduled to leave the hospital after his surgery, he got a call that Rosalynn Carter had had a stroke.
“I liked to have fainted,” Carter said.
Rosalynn actually had a transient ischemic attack (TIA), often called a mini-stroke. Both left the hospital two days later.
Wearing a dark suit and a bolo tie, Carter was jovial and funny, although his voice sounded weak at times.
He taught from the Book of John, chapter 14, verses 15-26: The Promise of the Holy Spirit.
He later talked about how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
“How many of you have ever washed someone’s feet?” Carter asked. “You put yourself physically at their feet, but you acknowledge them as a superior person. We should be looked upon as servant leaders. All of us need to be servant leaders.”
He then asked people to imagine if every aspect of God’s teaching were implemented on Earth.
No hunger. No violence. More love. No fear. Equality.
“It is a little bit hard to conceive it,” Carter said. “But that’s not an impossibility.”
Carter said he got a call a few weeks ago from President Donald Trump, who was responding to a letter he had sent him about the country’s relationship with China,
“I was delighted, and I was surprised,” Carter said. “He was very gracious and expressed his appreciation for my letter. But the main purpose of his call was to say, frankly to me on a private line, that the Chinese were getting way ahead of the United States in many ways.”
Carter reminded Trump about how much money the United States spends on the military and wars.
“China has not been in combat with anybody since 1949 and they spend on things good for the Chinese people,” Carter said.
Discussion of the two influential nations and their differences was mainly the extent of any political talk as he gently shifted back to his lesson.
“We make the decision, every moment of our life: This is the kind of person that I choose to be. All of us would choose to be as near like Jesus as we possibly can,” Carter said. “Jesus was not rich, he didn’t have a place to stay, he didn’t have friends that were loyal to him at his time of crises, lived to 33, but he led a perfect life.”
But the power still wasn’t back on and the tiny church was getting hot. He wanted to get to Lowden’s sermon and he wanted to make sure that everyone got a chance to get their picture taken with him.
But before that, at the end of his 45-minute lesson, like any good teacher, he gave homework.
“If you did one good thing for one other person, would it make America a better country?” he asked.
He then told everyone to “Find one person in your neighborhood who might be lonely and make it a point to visit them,” Carter said.
“You promise to do that? It will make America a better nation,” Carter said. “That is what the Holy Spirit does. It orients your heart and mind toward servant leadership.”